Mullen: Holbrooke Understood Wisdom of Seeking Wisdom

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)

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