Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century by George Packer - review by Lawrence Freedman

Lawrence Freedman

The Incompleat Diplomat

Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century


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I met Richard Holbrooke on a few occasions, the last time not long before he embarked on his final posting, as Barack Obama’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. But my first and most memorable encounter did not involve an actual meeting. In the autumn of 1973 I was researching for my PhD thesis in Washington, DC, at which time everyone was preoccupied with Watergate. My base for those weeks was the office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, close to Dupont Circle. This was the home of the Arms Control Association, which was hosting me, and also the journal Foreign Policy, edited by Holbrooke. As Holbrooke was away for the whole period I was there, I was told that I could use his desk.

The journal was the brash competitor to the staid and worthy Foreign Affairs, where articles were chosen as much out of consideration for the importance of the author as for the merit of the content (it has since improved). Foreign Policy was much bolder and more engaging. It had a curious shape, unique and now abandoned. Long and thin, it was, George Packer suggests, ‘designed to slip into a breast pocket’. I assume he never saw a copy, because if this were attempted the most likely result would have been a poke in the eye. Despite its ungainly shape, Holbrooke used the journal imaginatively to open up debate about American foreign policy. At the time, the Vietnam War was coming to an end and relations with both the Soviet Union and China had taken a turn for the better.

I picked up no clues about Holbrooke as I sat at his desk concentrating on my research notes. Yet if I mentioned his name to anyone I met, few held back. Neither his intelligence nor his policy nous was doubted. He was clearly a man to watch. Unfortunately, I was told, his ambition was too transparent, evident in his constant self-promotion, sharp elbows and readiness to abandon a conversation if someone more important came into view. Holbrooke was especially criticised for trading relentlessly on his experience in Vietnam, where he had first arrived as a Foreign Service officer in 1962. Washington, of course, was full of ambitious self-promoters and at least Holbrooke had the saving grace of intellectual curiosity and good judgement: in Vietnam he made the journey from enthusiast to sceptic faster than most, eventually concluding that the USA had lost any sense of legitimate purpose there.

All this left me intrigued. In the years that followed, Holbrooke kept on popping up in interesting roles – as a young assistant secretary of state dealing with the Far East under Carter, playing a crucial role in ending the Bosnian War, as US ambassador to the UN under Clinton and finally embarking on what turned out to be his last mission (never fulfilled), to sort out Afghanistan for Obama. What I read confirmed this early impression of ruthless egotism largely devoted to good causes. Now further confirmation comes from Packer’s biography, which provides an extraordinarily full portrait of an accomplished but flawed individual who never got the top position he wanted so badly. Simply put, he made too many enemies. Even those who admired him and could appreciate his charm never quite trusted him, although they still turned to him when the challenge at hand matched his qualities. He was a most undiplomatic diplomat, a natural when it came to trading threats with warlords and someone able to use American power to bully and cajole.

Packer’s portrait is so full because he has had access to all of Holbrooke’s papers and interviewed those who knew him well. He is also a first-rate reporter and writer who understands the history of the big conflicts at the centre of his story: Vietnam, Bosnia and Afghanistan. Because Holbrooke’s performance was so bound up with his personality, Packer explores all aspects of his life, including his three marriages and many affairs, often in intimate detail (‘Holbrooke drove Kati to the airport with one hand on the wheel and the other feeling the warmth between her legs’). When he suffered a ripped aorta in a meeting with Hillary Clinton at the State Department in 2010, an aide went with him to hospital, and so we have a moving verbatim account of his last moments of consciousness. Throughout, Packer adopts a conversational tone, imploring the reader to stay with him as he explores one aspect or another of this complex personality and explaining why he has devoted so much time to a man whom it is hard to like, even if he’s easy to admire.

Holbrooke’s immense ambition was reflected in desperate calls to presidents and their closest advisers when big appointments were being made, efforts to be on the right aircraft and at the right meeting, the leaking of snippets of information to journalists about key policy developments, and constant attempts to ensure he appeared in a favourable light, no matter if this involved sidelining colleagues. This meant he could not forge effective working relations with colleagues, even when there was agreement on policy. When he visited China in 1978 with Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security adviser, seeking to normalise US relations with the country, he was treated brutally and excluded at every turn. The most poignant account in the book is of his friendship with Tony Lake, who arrived in Vietnam at about the same time as him. The friendship ended when Holbrooke had a brief fling with Lake’s wife, which helped destroy his first marriage, though not Lake’s. Thereafter, their careers ran in parallel, with Lake becoming Clinton’s national security adviser. While their world-views remained similar they could never again form an effective partnership.

Such a vivid biography does not require special justification, but Packer makes the case that it illuminates the rise and fall of American power. The man and his country merge. What is it that brings doom to great powers and great men, he asks in his introduction, ‘simple hubris, or decadence and squander, a kind of inattention, loss of faith, or just the passage of years?’ Yet Holbrooke never had an exaggerated view of American power, even as he yearned to exercise it. He began and ended his career as a moderate liberal internationalist, painfully aware (how could he not have been after Vietnam?) of his country’s ability to screw things up yet still convinced that only the USA had the capacity to keep democratic countries safe and act to protect beleaguered populations. He did his best to understand the local political currents at work in the conflicts with which he was engaged; when Packer quotes his assessments they are usually sharp, unsentimental and analytical. Holbrooke looked for the points where direct action as well as diplomacy might make a difference.

In the end, deals had to be done if conflicts were to be resolved, or at least their effects mitigated. In addition, without diplomacy, any use of force would just be punitive and devoid of purpose. Holbrooke took it for granted that his job required conversations with unsavoury characters (some of whom turned out to be better company than those on his own side), and that on occasion it was necessary to rely on a sense of political theatre – to bully and bluff, to go for dramatic announcements and settings laced with symbolism. Holbrooke’s tragedy was that although he well understood that successful great powers need not only to be tough but also to practise the virtues of restraint, compromise and alliance, he was unable to follow this precept himself.

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