Abrasive Balkan peacemaker exits his post

WASHINGTON (AP) — Known for his ego and abrasive style, Richard Holbrooke was the picture of grace Wednesday as he stepped down from government service, his Balkan peacemaker role still unfinished.
He praised President Clinton, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and the many colleagues who helped him in the space of a few months convert the Balkans into a region of hope after years of devastating warfare.
He even had kind words for the press despite its constant references to his fierce ambition and browbeating style. A colleague once likened him “to a bull who takes his own china shop with him.”
The widespread perception, however, is that the very qualities that made Holbrooke so controversial enabled him to deal effectively with the chieftains of the Balkans.
Standing before reporters three months to the day after the Dayton, Ohio, peace agreement was signed, Holbrooke said the prodigious effort to rescue the Balkans from the ravages of war was the result of “a very strong team effort.”
Christopher, he said, gave U.S. negotiators “extraordinary support” in the crucial pre-Dayton period and has been “intimately involved” in operational details since the signing.
The one parting shot he took was reserved for Congress which, he said, has been dragging its feet in appropriating money for non-military aspects of the American involvement in Bosnia. He said he found the parsimonious attitude of the Congress “absolutely extraordinary.”
“Every day we delay we run greater risks,” Holbrooke said.
As to whether he was optimistic about the future of the Balkans, Holbrooke seemed of two minds. He warned darkly of the possibility of Bosnia “fracturing” into Serbian, Muslim and Croatian zones.
But he cited the hopeful signs, such as the televised scenes of Sarajevo Serbs freely walking into Muslim neighborhoods for the first time in four years.
“Whether we have a single country, as called for in the Dayton agreements, with a single, three-person presidency and a national assembly freely elected, whether there’s freedom of movement and the refugees are returned, or whether it’s something more like a Lebanon or an Irish situation, the jury’s out on that,” he said.
“I have never been an optimist. I have just been of the view that we had to succeed.”
Seldom has an assistant secretary of state bowed out with as much fanfare as Holbrooke.
After speaking to a crowded news conference, Christopher presented Holbrooke with the Distinguished Service award at a ceremony that featured laudatory remarks by Defense Secretary William Perry and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, John Shalikashvili.
Holbrooke, 54, begins work on Thursday in New York with a banking firm.
Meanwhile, President Clinton formally asked Congress on Wednesday for $820 million to support U.S. peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia through next September.
Clinton said he would trim the Pentagon budget by an identical amount to offset the new spending and avoid adding to the budget deficit.
The United States began employing the first of some 20,000 U.S. troops to Bosnia in December. The Pentagon has paid for them so far by cutting spending on training and maintenance.