WASHINGTON, Jan. 14, 2011 — The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff remembered veteran diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke today as a man who “understood, better than I, the very wisdom of seeking wisdom.”
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen spoke of his longtime friend and U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at a Kennedy Center tribute for Holbrooke, who died Dec. 13 at age 69.
“He was the quintessential Washington know-it-all,” Mullen joked. “The man was monumentally, if not exasperatingly interested in everything — art, music, culture, religion, politics.
“How he loved to talk politics. I’m happy to say I never challenged him in that theater. I just nodded till he was finished and then slid him the check,” Mullen continued, eliciting laughter from the audience.
The chairman recalled his first trip with Holbrooke.
“It proved to be a wonderful trip and classic Holbrooke,” he said. “He arranged for us to meet with people from across Afghan and Pakistani society — parliamentarians and farmers, students and scholars.” The most intriguing part of the trip was a council of clerics in the Afghan capital of Kabul, Mullen said.
“It came out in the discussion that one of their number had been a Taliban leader in his former life. That was all Richard needed to hear,” he said.
“He latched on to that poor guy like a terrier on a T‑bone, assailing him with questions about Taliban life until the man probably wished he had stayed a part of the insurgency,” the chairman said. “All I could think at the time was ‘Which one of them would I be more afraid of? The Taliban, or Richard?’ ”
Mullen also recalled the serious and wise side of the popular diplomat in that encounter.
“Richard, as always, had it right,” he said. “These were questions that needed answering, and far better for those questions to come from a statesman than from a sailor.” Mullen said he and Holbrooke were seared by their experiences in the Vietnam War.
“We no doubt learned different lessons from that war,” the chairman said, “but the one we most shared was about the need for strong civil-military relations — with the emphasis on civilian leadership.”
Mullen recited a passage by writer and poet Jorge Borges: “Each and every man is a discoverer. He begins by discovering bitterness, saltiness, the seven colors of the rainbow and the 20-some letters of the alphabet. He goes on to visages, maps, animals and stars. He ends with doubt, or with faith, and the almost certainty of his own ignorance.”
“Richard was never afraid of that ignorance, and yet he was never so arrogant as to think he had it mastered,” Mullen said. “He was the ultimate discoverer. It falls now to us to keep asking the questions he posed, to keep discovering the things he wanted to know and to keep making the difference he so clearly made.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)