If you have ever thumbed your way through a book of “famous last words”, you’ll understand why today’s revelations about the late Richard Holbrooke are quite normal.
“Famous last words” collections have been printed worldwide by various publishers throughout the centuries. These publications claim to have an index of the famous last words of famous dying people individuals whose special status has, unlike most other people, lent their last words to posterity, having led to someone recording the words and somehow officially preserving them so well that they reach us today, unchanged. And contrary to what you might imagine, famous people seem to have quite a bit of energy in their last breaths they seem to say a great deal at the very end. Not a gasp or a meek goodbye, famous people as these fabulous volumes purport have profound and eternal statements bubbling out of them moments before they pass that encompass the whole life that preceded them or the legacy that life would soon leave behind.
Statements like those of French philosopher Voltaire who, when asked to confirm his religious beliefs before passing by repudiating the devil, replied “Now, now, my good man, this is no time for making enemies.”
Or Julius Caesar’s “Et tu, Brute?”
Or statements like those made by the late U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan: Richard C. Holbrooke, who, according to State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley, had this to say as he lay on his deathbed a few days ago: “I can’t relax. I’m worried about Afghanistan and Pakistan.” His medical team attempted to calm his nerves about AfPak policy as they wheeled him into surgery when one doctor, according to Crowley (who himself was not at the scene), stated “Well, tell you what; we’ll try to fix this challenge while you’re undergoing surgery.” Holbrooke responded with “Yeah, see if you can take care of that, including ending the war.”
His Pakistani surgeon (what irony!) Farzad Najam must have been touched. So must have been his Egyptian internist Hillary Clinton’s physician Jehan El-Bayoumi, who, according to the Washington Post was the person to whom Holbrooke made “the comment in painful banter, rather than as a serious exhortation about policy.” Crowley, for his part, has characterized the exchange as “humorous repartee.”
Whether or not Richard Holbrooke was obsessed with his work or simply a macabre jokester, the official State Department line is that his last words were about ending the war in Afghanistan. And as it is with most things surrounding the bigwigs of Washington, this little slip of information is not accidental. So what is the State Department trying to say? That the war in Afghanistan must end that the troop surge that Holbrooke himself supported was a mistake that now needs to rectified? Or perhaps this is a good old fashioned in-house DC move one of those big hints that a minor bicker in town has become a Colin-Powell-esque rift between the State Department and the White House. So then, are Holbrooke’s last words indicating a Hillary versus Barack face-off to come?
Symbolism aside, what is very clear from the public release of information about Holbrooke’s last words whether in jest or in earnest is that this war is weighing down on Washington. Whatever profits were imagined, are becoming less so, and whatever grand chess moves that were planned have been thwarted. Instead, the Afghanistan-Pakistan war as it should rightly be called since that is exactly what it is has become a burden to Washington and a divisive breaking point between various factions in town.
It has outlasted the war in Vietnam and the previous occupation of Afghanistan by the Russians. The public benefits are no longer greater than or even equal to the actual private profits that are being reaped behind the scenes of this sad war which years ago began as an alleged manhunt. Now, the old motives have been forgotten amongst the various other explanations that the US government and its allies have presented to account for their continued presence in the dust that was once Afghanistan.
Richard Holbrooke was the US public face of this war and the face was wrinkled, exhausted and its heart could no longer take the pressures of such perilous responsibility. In light of what we have been told of his last words, Holbrooke wasnt the only one who was tense about AfPak policy ending the war may be a matter of life or death for the Obama administration, as well.
The writer is US-based political analyst and a fomer Producer for BBC and Al-Jazeera. Follow her on Twitter @ShirinSadeghi