Richard Holbrooke, who died this week at age 69, loved epigraphs. They are strewn all over his writings—poems and passages from Euripides, W.H. Auden, Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot, the diplomatist and historian Harold Nicolson.
An epigraph from Herman Melville turns up early in Holbrooke's remarkable chronicle of his experience in the Balkans, "To End a War" (1998). "With other men, perhaps, such things would not have been inducements; but as for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts."
Holbrooke lived the life of his choice, driven by that itch. The Holbrooke story could have ended in the Mekong Delta, where as a young man he served as "pacification adviser." He could have perished, as three of his colleagues traveling with him did, in the summer of 1995, on the treacherous Mount Igman road to Sarajevo.
Holbrooke apprenticed, and quarreled, with the giants. He kept the company of such great American statesmen and presidential advisers as Averell Harriman, Clark Clifford and Cyrus Vance. He was introduced to diplomacy when he was an impressionable boy by Dean Rusk, who would serve John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson as secretary of state.
He came into his own amid the stirrings of the New Frontier, when American power sat astride the world. In the preface of his Bosnian chronicles, he would recall that time: "Today, public service has lost much of the aura it had when John F. Kennedy asked what we could do for our country. To hear that phrase before it became a cliché was electrifying, and it led many in my generation to enter public service. For me, it was the Foreign Service which I joined right after graduating from college. Less than a year later I found myself in Saigon."
American patriotism and American liberalism were still tethered together as Holbrooke made his way. There may have been hubris in that outlook. Our country would be bloodied in distant places, it would learn that the world wouldn't always bend to our will. But the lodestar remained that essential belief that American power could be a force for the good in the world beyond our shores.
It was in the Balkans, in the 1990s, where the truths he had taken in as a young man would be redeemed. Two administrations—that of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton—had been keen to avert their gaze from the unraveling of Yugoslavia and the Bosnian slaughter that followed. "Tell me again what this is all about," President Bush would ask his secretary of state on a weekly basis. "We have no dog in this fight," James A. Baker famously put it.
For 30 long, cruel months, Mr. Clinton's Bosnia policy fared no better. The cavalry was always on the way; it would be there after the next massacre. There was Secretary of State Warren Christopher, eager to "shut down" the Bosnia policy, to "get it off the front pages," all the while covering this retreat with talk of "atrocities on all sides."
Holbrooke was the principal agitator for the change that pulled the U.S. into the fight in 1995. He had convinced a "pragmatic" Bill Clinton that American power could secure a reasonable peace at tolerable costs. The peace of Dayton that rescued the Bosnians bore Holbrooke's signature. He didn't deliver a perfect peace—such a peace cannot be had in such places. But he rescued it from a campaign of great evil. In a just world, I always told him, and not in jest, there would be a monument for him in Sarajevo. He had called the bluff of the Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, and American power would provide sustenance, first to the Bosnians, then to the Kosovars. This was Europe's backyard, but it had been the United States that had done the work of rescue and mercy.
In the aftermath of Holbrooke's death, untold dozens will claim friendship and intimacy with him, and untold dozens will be right. It was his way, his physicality, the way he took in, and charmed, and worked over, people he met. He was eager to be loved, eager to share what he knew, and who he was. He was drawn to power, to be sure. But he was ready, at the drop of a hat, to journey into lands of grief and slaughter, to refugee camps the world over. His sympathy for people in desperate places suffused his life.
Mr. Ajami is a professor at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.