The State Department appears to be in a white-hot panic over the possible consequences of Richard Holbrooke final words before surgery yesterday:
The Washington Post first reported that Richard Holbrooke’s last words, according to his family, were to his Pakistani surgeon, asking him to “stop this war.”
State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley clarified today:
I should note that a lot of media coverage this morning about the interaction between Ambassador Holbrooke and his medical team as he was preparing for surgery for Friday — I’ve consulted with a number of folks who were in the room.
There was a, you know, lengthy exchange with Ambassador Holbrooke and the medical team, probably reflecting Richard’s relentless pursuit of the policy that he had — he had helped to craft and was charged by the president and the secretary with carrying out.
At one point, the medical team said, “You’ve got to relax.”
And Richard said, “I can’t relax. I’m worried about Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
And then after some additional exchanges, you know, the medical team finally — finally said, “Well, tell you what; we’ll try to fix this challenge while you’re undergoing surgery.”
And he said, “Yeah, see if you can take care of that, including ending the war.”
But certainly it — it says two things about Richard Holbrooke in my mind. No. 1, he always wanted to make sure he got the last word. And — and secondly, it just showed how he was singularly focused on pursuing and advancing the — the process and the policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan to bring them to a successful conclusion.
It was just a joke! He didn’t mean it!
Amanda Terkel has a more detailed quote:
The Obama administration said Tuesday that the reported last words of veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke, its point person on Afghanistan and Pakistan who passed away this week, were meant as humor.Administration officials sought to clarify that, according to people who were present, Holbrooke’s final words, “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan,” were part of a jovial back-and-forth with the medical staff.
“At one point, the medical team said, You’ve got to relax,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters on Tuesday, relaying what he said he had heard from people who were in the room with Holbrooke at George Washington University Hospital. “And Richard said, I can’t relax, I’m worried about Afghanistan and Pakistan. After some additional exchanges, the medical team finally said, Tell you what, we’ll try to fix this challenge while you’re undergoing surgery. And [Holbrooke] said, Yeah, see if you can take care of that, including ending the war.”
The Washington Post staffers who reported Holbrooke’s comments yesterday — Karen DeYoung and Rajiv Chandrasekaran — hastened to do damage control in a blog post today — no doubt at the behest of P.J. Crowley or some other administration flack:
Following Holbrooke’s death, The Washington Post, citing his family members, reported that the veteran diplomat had told his physician just before surgery on Friday to “stop this war.”
But on Tuesday a fuller account of the tone and contents of his remarks emerged.
And blah blah blah.
Robert Mackey, writing at the New York Times blog The Lede, is happy to give the Obama administration’s version of Holbrooke’s words more credence than his own family members, who after all were there and heard what Holbrooke said whereas Crowley was just repeating what he had been told after “consult[ing] with a number of folks who were in the room.” Interesting word choice, there, “consulting.” Here is Mackey:
It used to takes decades for legends about the supposed last words of famous people to seep into the culture and morph through constant repetition, until some enterprising scholar would look for hard evidence and soberly conclude that the well-known observation was most likely a myth or misunderstanding.
In the case of Richard C. Holbrooke, the hard-charging diplomat who died on Monday, in the Internet age, that process took less than 24 hours. …
Mr. Holbrooke, who was best-known for his role in helping end the war in Bosnia in 1995, and who spent the last two years trying to emulate that success in Afghanistan, was initially reported to have made what sounded like a heartfelt plea for peace moments before surgeons tried to save his life. Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s obituary for the diplomat in Tuesday’s Washington Post ended this way:
As Mr. Holbrooke was sedated for surgery, family members said, his final words were to his Pakistani surgeon: “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.”
Within hours, those words were repeated and parsed thousands of times across the Web. “What did Holbrooke mean? Did he oppose the war?” Blake Hounshell asked on Foreign Policy’s Passport blog. “Holbrooke was the author of one of the volumes of the Pentagon Papers — which revealed that government officials knew of the futility of the Vietnam War at the same time they were falsely assuring the public they could win — and Afghanistan seems to be no different,” Glenn Greenwald reflected in a post for Salon. “As official Washington rushes forward to lavish praise on Holbrooke’s wisdom and service,” he added, “undoubtedly they will studiously avoid acknowledging his final insight.”
Then Mackey quotes from the WaPo‘s “clarification,” and Crowley’s “clarification,” and then adds this little gem:
The debate about the war in Afghanistan, and Mr. Holbrooke’s attempts to end it, will, of course, continue long after this mistaken anecdote is forgotten. In particular, questions will be asked about his relatively swift success in ending Bosnia’s war and the long slog that still seems to lie ahead before any peace arrives in Afghanistan.
In a reflection for the BBC, Alan Little, a correspondent with a deep knowledge of both Bosnia and Afghanistan, wrote that Mr. Holbrooke’s approach to ending the war in the Balkans was not as dovish as some might think. Mr. Little recalled:
European governments, fearing for the safety of their troops on the ground, seemed reluctant to blame anyone until all sides could be blamed equally. As the war went on and on, American officials came to condemn what they saw as the timidity and ineffectiveness of European policy.
Richard Holbrooke believed that the European approach demonstrated that humanitarian aid alone could prolong a war without changing its outcome. He argued for something more robust.
Two things changed fundamentally when Holbrooke took the leadership of the peace process. First, he was ready to apportion blame to one side more than the others. Second, his was a policy predicated on a readiness to use military force.
As Mr. Little explained, what really tilted the balance of power in the Bosnian war, and made peace possible, was the eventual military intervention of American-led forces[.] …
Looking back at that Glenn Greenwald quote above — “As official Washington rushes forward to lavish praise on Holbrooke’s wisdom and service,” he added, “undoubtedly they will studiously avoid acknowledging his final insight” — which, of course, he wrote before the administration spinmeisters got to work — it looks like a rare example of Glenn missing the mark. He gave the Obama administration too much credit.