The Cable

Richard C. Holbrooke, 1941-2010

Special Representative Richard Holbrooke passed away on Monday night after two surgeries failed to stem the damage caused by a tear in his aorta suffered on Friday.

"Tonight America has lost one of its fiercest champions and most dedicated public servants," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday evening in a statement. "Richard Holbrooke served the country he loved for nearly half a century, representing the United States in far-flung war-zones and high-level peace talks, always with distinctive brilliance and unmatched determination. He was one of a kind -- a true statesman -- and that makes his passing all the more painful."

"I had the privilege to know Richard for many years and to call him a friend, colleague and confidante. As Secretary of State, I have counted on his advice and relied on his leadership. This is a sad day for me, for the State Department and for the United States of America," Clinton said. "Tonight my thoughts and prayers are with Richard's beloved wife Kati, his sons David and Anthony, his step-children Elizabeth and Chris Jennings, his daughter-in-law Sarah, and all of his countless friends and colleagues."

There had been hope around Washington Monday that Holbrooke would pull through after he collapsed in Clinton's 7th floor office Friday afternoon, then picked himself up and walked himself out of the State Department on his way to the hospital.

On Monday, President Obama called Holbrooke a "tough son of a gun" and said that he is "going to be putting up a tremendous fight." After his passing, Obama issued a statement praising Holbrooke as "a true giant of American foreign policy who has made America stronger, safer, and more respected."

"The progress that we have made in Afghanistan and Pakistan is due in no small measure to Richard's relentless focus on America's national interest, and pursuit of peace and security," said Obama. "One of his friends and admirers once said that, ‘If you're not on the team and you're in his way, God help you.'  Like so many Presidents before me, I am grateful that Richard Holbrooke was on my team, as are the American people."

Earlier Monday, Clinton had said that Holbrooke was in "stable but still in very critical condition" after undergoing his second surgical procedure in as many days, an operation to improve circulation. He endured 21 hours of surgery on Saturday to repair the tear in his aorta that caused his collapse.

As news of his death was reported Monday evening, messages of condolence and fond memories were pouring in from foreign leaders and diplomats around the world.

"In Richard Holbrooke's passing the world has lost a great diplomat while I have lost a personal friend and professional role model," said Pakistan's ambassador in Washington, Husain Haqqani. "His greatest asset was his ability to be a personal friend and diplomatic interlocutor at the same time."

At a breakfast meeting the day before his collapse, Haqqani asked Holbrooke how long he planned to keep working. "As long as I can make a difference," Holbrooke responded.

Holbrooke's legendary multi-decade career as a public servant began as a USAID representative in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam and ended with his stint as the Obama administration's top civilian official dealing with the war in Afghanistan in Pakistan.

In that latest role, he was furiously active and hugely controversial, as he took on at different times the military, the Afghan government, the U.S. development community, Congress, and any others he felt stood in the way of progress.

At times, he was the Obama administration's unofficial spokesman on the mission in Afghanistan. Yet he had a strained relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, then U.S. military commander Stanley McChrystal, and top members of the National Security Council. Former National Security Advisor Jim Jones reportedly wanted to fire Holbrooke, but Clinton stepped in to protect her long time friend and advisor.

He famously coined the term "Af-Pak" and advocated for it right up until the time it was scuttled. He traveled to dozens of countries, organizing a worldwide network of Special Representatives. He sometimes bragged that he was an author of the Pentagon Papers.

In April, Holbrooke had angioplasty due to possible clogged heart valves, but traveled to Afghanistan only one week later. In a June trip to Afghanistan, his plane came under fire and he brushed it off, saying, "I've been shot at in other countries, a lot of other countries."

Inside the State Department, Holbrooke assembled the most comprehensive interagency team in government, with top experts from over a dozen agencies. He was so proud of his team that he would often spend time praising them one by one during his public speaking events. One of his deputies, Frank Ruggiero, is acting head of that team for the time being, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Monday.

Throughout his tenure in the Obama administration, there was constant speculation about exactly how powerful Holbrooke actually was, whether he was up or down in the eyes of President Obama, and whether his varying levels of public exposure were indications of his relative policy influence.

In one of your humble Cable guy's first ever posts for Foreign Policy, Holbrooke sat down for an interview to diffuse rumors that his lack of recent public appearances was an indication he had been sidelined by the White House.

"I didn't know I was missing in action because I was kind of busy all day," said Holbrooke at the time, denying that the White House had given him any instructions to lay low or stay out of the public eye, as had been alleged.

What wasn't written in that post was that your humble Cable guy had spent the two hours prior to the interview following Holbrooke around a book party for his wife, author Kati Marton, in an attempt to get a comment from him.

After successfully avoiding contact for the entire party, eventually Holbrooke agreed to talk. He began by putting his hand on my shoulder, looking me straight in the eye, and saying, "Josh, I want you to know I believe that government officials have a responsibility to talk to the press... even annoying reporters who follow them around parties when they are just trying to have a good time with their friends."

And that was Holbrooke; diplomatic and sarcastic, charming and brusque, always entertaining, and always larger than life. He will be missed.

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The Cable

Gration: No vote in Abyei, possible delay in Southern Sudan referendum

A whole host of U.S. officials are on the ground in Sudan, working tirelessly to encourage that two votes scheduled for early January are conducted on time and fairly. But the top U.S. official in Sudan said on Monday that at least one of the two votes will not happen as scheduled, and that the other could now be delayed as well.

In the main referendum scheduled for Jan. 9, the citizens of oil-rich Southern Sudan are due to decide whether to remain united to the Northern Khartoum-based government or separate to form their own country. In the second poll, the citizens of the resource-wealthy province of Abyei are supposed to decide whether they want to be part of the North or the South -- if the South does vote to secede.

U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration said on Monday on a conference call from Khartoum that due to problems setting up the vote in Abyei, that vote will not happen on Jan. 9 as had been hoped.

"We've passed the opportunity for there to be a poll," Gration said, citing disagreements over voter eligibility that led to delays in setting up the logistics of holding a referendum in Abyei. He said the issue was in the hands of the two parties, but that the United States was "encouraging them to do what it takes to get a solution before the end of the 9th of January."

The revised goal appears to be somewhat less ambitious, but no less critical: if the outstanding issues in dispute in Abyei are unresolved before the South votes on Jan. 9 -- and if the expected outcome of secession hold -- both sides could claim ownership of the province and violence could erupt.

"We are working with both sides to calm the rhetoric and put a plan in place that will give both sides reassurances," Gration said. "This is probably not a situation where either side will be happy. We're looking for a solution that leaves both sides angry but neither side mad."

A senior U.S. official, speaking on background, said that the Abyei situation was extremely tense and represented the greatest risk of violence in the near term. If Abyei breaks out in violence, it could threaten the overall Southern Sudan referendum, the official said.

"In terms of violence that would upset the (Jan. 9) referendum, Abyei could be a flashpoint that would be disturbing enough that there would be cause for a delay," the officials said. "It's important that the (Sudanese) presidency come out with some roadmap, some solution, that the people in that area know what their future is going to be."

Of course, even without a breakout of violence in Abyei, the referendum in Southern Sudan might be delayed anyway. Gration said that although the technical preparations in Southern Sudan were going well, legal challenges to the referendum could result in a delay.

Southern Sudanese leaders have been flooded in recent days by complaints and legal challenges intended to derail the referendum, a campaign they claim is an organized effort supported by the government in the North. One of the complaints, for example, is that time periods for various stages of voting were not strictly adhered to.

Gration admitted that the voter registration period and the time between registration and voting had been compressed.

"Therefore the Southern Sudan Referendum Act was not totally complied with in order to reach the date of Jan. 9... We think it's a good trade off," Gration said. "It really didn't change the outcome and it hasn't changed the transparency."

Another senior U.S. official said that there are no "technical" barriers to holding the referendum on Jan. 9, but acknowledged the political problems. He estimated the odds of holding the vote on time at "greater than 50 percent."

But the official admitted that even a short delay in the overall referendum could cause huge problems in Sudan.

"That would be a serious political crisis if there were any serious steps to delay the referendum," the official said.

John Prendergast, the CEO of the Enough Project, said that the key to peace is to fold the sensitive Abyei negotiations back into the larger deal that is being pursued between the North and South on a host of issues, including borders, citizenship, and wealth sharing. 

"Tradeoffs and compromises are critical at this juncture," he said. "For the overall deal to work, Abyei is going to have to be transferred to the South, using the borders outlined by the Permanent Court of Arbitration. But the Arab Misseriya population is going to have to have a minority role in governing arrangements in Abyei, along with guaranteed grazing rights along traditional migratory routes.  Both sides are going to have to give in order to avert war, a war in which everyone would lose badly."

Gration also announced that Ambassador Dane Smith will join the U.S. delegation in Sudan to be the point man for the Darfur issue, which some analysts are concerned is worsening as attention focuses on other parts of the country. Gration will travel this week to Doha for a multilateral meeting on Darfur.