WASHINGTON -- One joke about U.S. envoy and Balkan man-of-the-hour Richard C. Holbrooke testifies to his seemingly inexhaustible drive for self-promotion:
What's the most dangerous place to be in Bosnia?
Answer: Between Richard Holbrooke and a TV camera.
A large and hungry ego is a useful ingredient in diplomacy, which only showers publicity on people who get results. And with the four agreements he has brokered between Bosnians, Serbs and Croats -- capped by President Clinton's announcement yesterday of a planned cease-fire and talks leading to a peace conference -- Mr. Holbrooke has proved he can deliver the goods in a region that has defied peace efforts for three years.
He brings a powerful mind and fatigue-defying energy. Plus, he has the ability to hold his nose and negotiate with -- even bully -- the sponsors of the most vicious fighting Europe has witnessed since World War II.
He has spent hours huddled with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, men who have used and discarded Western envoys like disposable razors.
'Unusual combination of skills'
"There are very few people who could have done it," says Leslie Gelb, president of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, a former policy-maker and journalist who has known Mr. Holbrooke since 1966. "He has the unusual combination of skills and guts that are necessary to do it."
Mr. Holbrooke is, says Mr. Gelb, "very clear-eyed about his strategy," knowing when to make compromises and when not. He also knows "how to be as tough as a lot of the gangsters you're dealing with."
Since he began his shuttle diplomacy in August, Mr. Holbrooke has moved between Sarajevo, Bosnia, Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and Zagreb, Croatia, at times during periods of acute danger. He persuaded the parties to agree to overall principles for peace; to withdrawal of Serbian heavy weapons from Sarajevo; to constitutional arrangements for a postwar Bosnia. And, yesterday, to a cease-fire.
Early in the negotiations, three of his State Department and Pentagon colleagues were killed when their car veered off a mountain road outside Sarajevo. Mr. Holbrooke was in the vehicle just behind them.
Mr. Holbrooke didn't hammer out the cease-fire alone. Out of the limelight, European Union negotiator Carl Bildt worked on Mr. Milosevic. United Nations envoy Thorvald Stoltenberg helped broker an accord between Serbs and Croats over Eastern Slavonia, the Serbian-controlled region of Croatia that is now seen as one of the most volatile areas.
But the most important ingredient in the latest, successful round of Balkan diplomacy was Mr. Clinton, who this summer launched a sustained, U.S.-led effort to end the Bosnian conflict after three years of taking a back seat to European negotiators.
Mr. Holbrooke had been waiting almost a year for the moment when the United States would take the lead, ever since he was appointed assistant secretary of state for European affairs after a 2 1/2 -year tour as ambassador to Bonn.
He had let it be known that he was frustrated by the unwillingness of top White House and State Department officials to carve out a forceful U.S. role.
He found it hard to restrain himself even in public, calling Bosnia "the greatest collective failure of the West since the 1930s," and complaining in a New York Times interview about the administration's "stalemate machine" -- language seen by some officials as disloyal enough to get him fired.
By the time Mr. Clinton ordered a policy review, Mr. Holbrooke had been cut out of the loop. The new approach was put together by the National Security Council staff with help from Madeleine K. Albright, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, and Peter Tarnoff and James Steinberg of the State Department.
One official familiar with the process and who admires Mr. Holbrooke suggested that had Mr. Holbrooke been involved, the new policy might not have taken shape, simply because "he's so abrasive."
Rather than being fired, he was assigned to pursue the diplomatic side of the new strategy. On the military side, the United States for the first time persuaded NATO allies to punish the Bosnian Serbs with airstrikes.
If the world weren't so weary of the Bosnian conflict, parts of the strategy might have been greeted with outrage. They included having the West wink at Croatia's offensive into Eastern Slavonia, which uprooted longtime Serbian residents in some of the worst "ethnic cleansing" of the war.
The strategy also included making major compromises to win the cooperation of Mr. Milosevic, widely viewed by experts and U.S. officials as the politician who inspired the Bosnian Serbs' ethnic rampage.
Mr. Holbrooke became the new strategy's advocate. Months earlier, he had identified the Serbian president as crucial to any successful peace strategy.
Mr. Holbrooke used tools honed in a Foreign Service career that began in 1962: hardball tactics and a flair for publicity.
Shouting and bluffing
His negotiations with Balkan leaders have involved shouting matches and, according to some accounts, sheer bluff: In trying to get Bosnia's Muslim-led government to cooperate at one point, he threatened that NATO airstrikes against the Serbs would be suspended, even though this was not U.S. policy.
In his dealings with the press, he has become a rare successful spokesman for the administration. He does not try to sugar-coat events. He is also a master at keeping public expectations low, so that when he nails down an agreement, it's seen as a breakthrough.
In the latest round of negotiations, the attention he generated served to keep the Balkan players in the spotlight and thus under pressure.
Born in New York City, Mr. Holbrooke entered the Foreign Service after graduating from Brown University in 1962; after language training, he was sent to Vietnam, a post that proved a stepping-stone for him and other ambitious young diplomats.
From early on, he managed to serve and impress powerful figures: Ambassadors Maxwell Taylor and Henry Cabot Lodge, Undersecretary of State Eliot Richardson, and Vietnam peace envoy Averell Harriman.
After rising to become assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific during the Carter administration, he left government when the Reagan administration took over in 1981 and built a lucrative second career as a consultant and, later, as a managing director at Lehman Bros., the New York investment firm.
While out of government, Mr. Holbrooke became a fixture among the foreign policy intellectuals of the exiled Democratic Party establishment. An October 1994 Vanity Fair profile portrayed him as a political and social climber always on the lookout for the most important person at any gathering.
He actively sought an important diplomatic post after Mr. Clinton was elected in 1992.
Where does he go from here?
Anyone with his ambition and talent wants to be secretary of state, says Mr. Gelb. If Mr. Clinton wins re-election, it's a safe bet Mr. Holbrooke will try.