Richard Holbrooke, R.I.P.
13 December 2010
Richard Holbrooke, one of the great diplomatic arm-twisters of our time, has passed away at the age of 69. The world will quite literally not be the same without him.
It is often said that the graveyards of the world are filled with irreplaceable men, and it is easy to ridicule the “Great Man” theory of history, and these considerations may lead us to assume that individuals are always both dispensable and fungible. But this is not the case. If a pivotal man goes missing at a pivotal moment, certainly history will continue without missing a beat, but the outcome may be less than optimal. Of course, history almost never produces optimal outcomes, so perhaps we should say that when there is no man to be matched to the hour, the outcome can be worse than we expected, and much worse than we had hoped.
Perhaps Holbrooke would have been the man to force a politically sustainable settlement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, except for the intervention of a weak aorta, in consequence of which (as Pascal observed concerning Cleopatra’s nose), “the whole face of the world would have been changed.”
We can never know what would have been; proof of what would have involved a counter-factual conditional, which is one of the more problematic instruments in the philosopher’s toolkit.
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