World leaders mourn veteran diplomat Holbrooke

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari flew to Washington to pay respects.

Updated: Jan 15, 2011, 09:13 AM IST

Washington: US President Barack Obama called for a new generation to take up the mantle of public service as he joined world leaders on Friday in mourning Richard Holbrooke, the larger-than-life peacebroker who died last month.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, whose country was part of Holbrooke`s last mission, flew to Washington to pay respects, along with senior figures from Bosnia where the 69-year-old negotiated an end to bloodshed in 1995.

Portraits of Holbrooke were projected on a stage at the John F Kennedy Centre, the glittering arts centre on the banks of the Potomac River named for the president who first inspired the diplomat to seek public service.

Obama, sombre in a dark suit, recalled how Holbrooke broke down in tears as he spoke of "restoring America`s place in the world" during their first meeting shortly after the President was elected in 2008.

Holbrooke had already earned his place in history and had ample opportunities in the private sector but "it was clear that Richard was not comfortable on the sidelines. He belonged in the arena”, Obama said.

Obama appealed to Holbrooke`s staff to "stay in public service" and announced a new award in honour of Holbrooke to recognise excellence in diplomacy.

"Richard would want us to lift up the next generation of public servants, particularly our diplomats, who so rarely receive credit," Obama said.

"Over the last five decades, there have been countless times when people made the mistake of counting on America`s decline or disengagement. Time and again those voices have been proven wrong, but only because of the service and sacrifice of exceptional men and women, those who answered the call of history and made America`s cause their own," Obama said.

Holbrooke was remembered as a gregarious and ambitious diplomat, who travelled itinerantly and mingled eagerly with presidents and journalists but was consumed by a deep sense that he needed to help ordinary people.

At age 34, Holbrooke became the youngest-ever US assistant secretary of state as he was put in charge of Asia policy -- including the normalisation of ties with China -- under president Jimmy Carter.

He journeyed to Bosnia when it was in the throes of war, seeking out first-hand accounts from victims and eventually cajoling Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic into a peace accord signed at the Dayton Air Base.

"I loved the guy, because he could do. Doing in diplomacy saves lives," former US president Bill Clinton told the ceremony.

Mourners did not ignore the abrasive side of Holbrooke, with Clinton remembering that he would "scream and claw and scratch and make you feel like you had a double-digit IQ if you didn`t agree with him”.

"In the end, what matters is there are a lot of people walking around on the face of the earth today, or their children or their grandchildren, because of the way he lived his life," Clinton said.

Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan said it was "perhaps difficult for many of his fellow Americans to appreciate just how much Richard meant to people beyond these shores."

Holbrooke -- whose positions included US ambassador to the UN -- recognised the "equal moral urgency" of civilian suffering wherever in the world he saw it from Bosnia to East Timor to Afghanistan to central Africa, Annan said.

"I never knew another diplomat or a statesman that I could say this about," Annan said.

Annan called Holbrooke "the American who came in peace, however well-disguised that sometimes seemed, to heal and restore, to reunite and rebuild, and still the sounds of war”.

Holbrooke died on December 14, three days after suddenly falling ill during a meeting at the State Department.

"I have no doubt that Dick is sitting by God`s side, saying, `I can negotiate up here even better than down there if you gave me certain powers,`" said the financier David Rubenstein.

"And no doubt God is saying, `Yes, Dick, I don`t need to hear anymore, I agree with you. You`ve got what you want."

Bureau Report