Richard Holbrooke is the only American diplomat since the Vietnam War to have become a full-throttle celebrity, as likely to appear in the tabloids clutching a woman as putting forward a policy proposal in Foreign Affairs. In his thirst for publicity and enthusiasm for the pantomime of statesmanship, only Holbrooke’s nemesis, Henry Kissinger, compares. Since his death at the age of 69 in 2010, Holbrooke has become the totem of an American foreign policy establishment now fallen into disarray, less for any genuine achievement than for the ideals he represented – above all the notion that American power could be made indistinguishable from the exercise of American virtue.
Holbrooke’s admirers see him as the figure who helped America recover from the Vietnam War and embrace its mission as the ‘indispensable nation’ of the post-Cold War global order. He was, in this limited sense, the anti-Kissinger. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, when some State Department officials were urging that the US scale down its international involvement, Holbrooke led the charge for doubling down on US hegemony. The centrepiece of his career was the war in Bosnia in the early 1990s. The Western press, following Holbrooke’s own script, anointed him peacemaker of the Balkans, the man who granted Nato a second life and managed to strongarm the warring parties to come to terms without the sacrifice of a single American soldier.
‘Richard Holbrooke will not go away,’ Samantha Power, his protégée and Barack Obama’s human rights tsar, said a year after Holbrooke’s death. And indeed he hasn’t. In the wake of Donald Trump’s ascendancy, praise of Holbrooke reached fever pitch among members of the ‘resistance’. Yet this desperation to keep his reputation warm may indicate the American liberal elite’s waning capacity for mythmaking rather than the resuscitation of the ‘liberal international order’.
George Packer, arguably the most renowned American journalist of his generation, is more aware of the dangers of hagiography than most members of Holbrooke’s mourning party. He wrote a profile of him for the New Yorker in 2009, during Holbrooke’s ‘last mission’ to save Afghanistan from becoming yet another imperial graveyard. Our Man takes the measure of America’s lost illusions, even though Packer’s sympathies tend to lie with those who long indulged them. In The Unwinding (2013) he examined the US’s internal travails, from the bursting of the housing bubble to the opioid crisis; Our Man is the outward-looking flipside to that story. In The Unwinding Packer singled out a nebulous lack of faith in institutions as the main culprit for the US’s plight, while in Our Man the problem is close to the opposite: American liberals’ all too strenuous belief in their capacity to do good for humanity while shaping the world in their own image. Holbrooke features in this tale as the last knight errant of an ideology that failed. Somewhat reluctantly, Packer suggests that Holbrooke himself was never quite a true believer.
Holbrooke was born in 1941, a child of Jewish refugees who largely succeeded in ushering their two sons into the Wasp elite. From the beginning, he had a knack for seeking out the powerful. As a teenager he fell in with the son of Dean Rusk, who would become secretary of state during the Vietnam War. In Holbrooke’s last year at Brown University, before becoming a foreign service officer in Rusk’s department, he compared Rusk to Woodrow Wilson in a term paper. Wilson ‘had a beautiful dream’ of global freedom and peace on the American model, Holbrooke wrote, and ‘it shone in the skies for all the world to see and – for a while – believe.’
Holbrooke was posted to Vietnam in 1962, thrilled at the chance to make his mark. By the time he landed in Saigon, the Kennedy administration was busy propping up Ngo Dinh Diem, its ‘miracle man’ in South Vietnam, only to topple him a year later. Brutal and unpopular, Diem’s regime hadn’t made it any easier to curb the growth of sympathy for the communists, and his persecution of Buddhists and favouritism towards his fellow Catholics provoked rage. As a young officer assigned to the lower Mekong Delta, Holbrooke seemed to have more than a little in common with Alden Pyle, the ruthless, idealistic protagonist of The Quiet American. Holbrooke himself would later wonder ‘what possible qualifications’ such ‘young men from New York City’, though ‘educated at Ivy League colleges’, possessed to work on the ‘pacification’ of a foreign country, and acknowledged that the answer was ‘none’. But Packer is probably right that Holbrooke’s ignorance was part of what makes him an avatar of mainstream American foreign policy. ‘Other countries’, Packer writes, have always constituted ‘the weak spot of our Foreign Service … It’s hard to get Americans interested in them, and the more interested you get, the worse your career prospects.’
Like his more impressive companion and tennis partner Anthony Lake, who at least learned Vietnamese, Holbrooke struggled with what he saw there: burned monks, raided pagodas and the displacement of genuine pacification by what he came to call ‘mil-think’. Packer credits Holbrooke, with his exposure to peasant politics in the countryside, for grasping more quickly than his superiors that the American strategy was, if not a failed crusade, at any rate losing more hearts and minds than it was winning. He wrote memos about this to his superiors, but after the Tonkin Gulf incident in summer 1964, the maelstrom of American escalation made the doubts of minor men in the field irrelevant. It would take nearly nine more years of mass killing in Vietnam for the Americans in charge to recognise that the war had been a losing proposition from the start.
‘Counterinsurgency isn’t for everyone,’ Packer writes. ‘It’s a sophisticated taste.’ Holbrooke believed that the mindless application of force by the US would damage its larger goal of converting the populace. In this he followed such practitioners of the dark arts as Edward Lansdale, a former advertising man in California who urged a reorientation in strategy away from military aggression towards protecting villagers and selling the regime’s virtues. (It is an approach that has often been revived in the wars of failing great powers.) But Holbrooke’s real significance is that his doubts about American beneficence led him to recognise the limitations of using military force to pound foreign lands into submission; he knew that if American power was to justify its continuing reach, an updated idiom would be needed.
Holbrooke’s progress was checked in the 1970s and 1980s by a series of Republican administrations that had no place for him. His only government job between Vietnam and the end of the Cold War came during Jimmy Carter’s Democratic presidency, and he spent the rest of the period as a hanger-on with a punishing schedule on the DC society circuit. As assistant secretary of state for Asian affairs under Carter, who came to power in 1977, he wanted to redeem the ‘loss of faith’ after Vietnam. He thought the US should move away from a ‘demicolonial’ relation to Asia and aimed to restore America’s ‘position without resorting to B-52s’. Under the Republicans, he was an early editor of the upstart magazine Foreign Policy, ghost-wrote the memoirs of the FDR and JFK confidant Clark Clifford, and then took a job at Lehman Brothers, where he parlayed his experience into providing ‘strategic advice’ to investors on the make in Asia. While his ‘door-opening and opinion-peddling’ came with a hefty price tag, ‘the intricacies of finance bored him’: Packer implies he was kept around mainly because he was ‘polychromatic’ among ‘narrow and grey’ bankers – clubbable and gregarious, if not very useful in closing deals.
Despite Packer’s impatience, these were important years for Holbrooke, who used them to formulate a new foreign policy approach for future Democratic administrations. ‘America has done some evil things,’ he wrote in 1976, but it didn’t follow that ‘America itself is an evil force in the world.’ His new idea was ‘smart power’ – the phrase was coined by his disciple Suzanne Nossel. For Holbrooke, the political challenge of the post-Vietnam moment was to find a middle way between the hard militarism of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, both of whom believed they could bomb their way to victory, and the peace agenda of the Democrat George McGovern, whose dramatic failure in the 1972 presidential election convinced Holbrooke – and his future patrons the Clintons and Obama – that ‘a soft Democrat was politically doomed.’
To this end, Holbrooke tried to tack a ‘humanitarian’ element onto the architecture that American planners after the Second World War had built primarily around military alliances and free trade. Unlike Carter’s more realist national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Holbrooke wanted, for instance, to denounce the genocide in Cambodia publicly. (Was it really ‘a higher form of political morality’, Packer wonders, ‘to point out an ongoing crime and do nothing to stop it than to stay silent?’) The new liberal internationalism focused on humanitarian catastrophes. Yet for Holbrooke human rights were always negotiable. He wasn’t above lounging with Ferdinand Marcos on his yacht, or acquiescing to Pol Pot’s insistence that the Khmer Rouge fill Cambodia’s seat at the UN. ‘He called for human rights in foreign policy,’ Packer writes, ‘but not too much.’
When Bill Clinton became president in 1992, Holbrooke glowered as his onetime best friend Anthony Lake became national security adviser, a position he coveted but was never given. Instead, the Bosnian war became Holbrooke’s long-sought tryst with destiny. It had broken out after four of Yugoslavia's republics, including Bosnia-and-Herzegovina, announced their departure from the Yugoslav federation the previous year, leaving Croatia and then Bosnia to descend into ethnic strife and open confrontation with Serbia. By 1995, on Hillary’s advice, Clinton had sent Holbrooke to negotiate a belated settlement. At first Clinton had been reluctant to use the threat of force as a negotiating tool, but Holbrooke persuaded him to get over what he called ‘Viet-malia’ syndrome, after Clinton’s disastrous Somalia intervention of 1993. It seemed as if the president had become committed to inaction just as atrocities such as the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995 were starting to be reported. In the eyes of Holbrooke (and Packer), the threat of force was essential, especially when it came to the surly Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević. But whereas Vietnam had been lost because of ‘mil-think’, Holbrooke’s notion was that the judicious application of force should work in tandem with diplomacy to bring recalcitrant opponents to the negotiating table. This, of course, required Americans to adopt a generous interpretation of their own national interest, according to which keeping Europe peaceful and preventing mass atrocities justified their arms and attention.
Holbrooke gave his own account of the negotiations in To End a War (1998), and Packer draws heavily on it. He keeps his cynicism at bay, and suspends hindsight, as he grants Holbrooke his glorious moment. As Packer has it, Holbrooke was needed ‘to cajole and bully and outlast the Balkan warlords’, and maybe that’s true, but he exaggerates his subject’s importance when he conflates Holbrooke’s few weeks of manoeuvring with the entire character and morality of the US state, which during the same decade was – with its bypassing of the UN, especially in Kosovo, and its use of humanitarian pretexts for imperialist endeavours – paving the way for its direct military interventions after 9/11, as well as imposing market reforms that caused much pain and led eventually to our recent ‘populist’ upheavals. Whatever credit is due to Holbrooke as a broker among regional potentates, Packer’s book, in its Balkan chapters, becomes a handmaiden of the humanitarian ideology it purports to be dissecting when he intones that Holbrooke ‘actually gave a shit about the dark places of the earth’ and allowed America to stand for ‘something more than just its own power’.
The Dayton Accords – named for the remote Ohio airbase where Holbrooke chose to hold negotiations, at least in part in order to prevent too many accounts of proceedings appearing in the press – ‘solved a nasty problem’, Packer writes, but ‘didn’t create something new and big’. This evasive rhetoric is a way of romancing the past while pretending it had nothing to do with the mistakes that followed. Packer knows not only that smart power failed in Afghanistan, but that Holbrooke’s rehabilitation of the ideology of a beneficent America has wreaked havoc in Iraq since 2003, Libya since 2011, and elsewhere. These were also the years when the groundwork was being laid for America’s bout of overt white nationalism under Trump. ‘We don’t understand other people’s nationalism,’ Packer writes, luxuriating in the 1990s sentiment that the American empire was exceptional ‘because we made our republic out of a universal and very optimistic idea’. Yet in the same sentence, he is forced to add that ‘we have our own racial kind’ of nationalism, and ‘some of us sound more and more like Serbs.’ Showing a surpassing talent for understatement, Packer acknowledges that Dayton – and the idea that American power serves humanity – ‘looks more complicated now’.
Holbrooke was an exceptional shit of a human being, even aside from the defects born of extreme ambition. None of his cult followers has ever squarely denied it, and his enemies never fail to mention it. (Kissinger on Holbrooke: ‘the most viperous character I know around this town’.) His treatment of his early partners shows how deeply this self- involvement bled into his private affairs. He was married first in 1964 to Larrine Sullivan, a college flame. Packer praises him for refusing the pleasures of the ‘vast brothel’ of South Vietnam as a result of his loyalty to her. He also tells us that, a few weeks after she bore their second child in Thailand in 1969, and despite the fact that she had suffered a postpartum haemorrhage, Holbrooke headed off to Vermont on a skiing trip. Even by the standards of the era, Packer concedes, he was ‘an absent husband and indifferent father’. The marriage ended in 1972. After playing the field for a few years, Holbrooke married Blythe Babyak, a television producer, in 1975. This marriage was even shorter than his first. Then he became a New York society fixture with a new girlfriend, the television news anchor Diane Sawyer. She left him, and in 1994 he married Kati Marton, a journalist. His capacity for self-absorption remained undiminished; his son reported that Holbrooke ‘wouldn’t recognise his own grandchildren in a toddler line-up’.
He was ‘Dick’ for most of his life until Marton ‘enforced a transition’ to the more ‘genteel’ Richard. In one marvellously awkward scene, Packer tells us that Holbrooke hesitantly corrected Obama when the president referred to him as ‘Dick’, telling him that ‘it’s important to my wife that you call me Richard.’ Packer implies that the incident foiled Holbrooke’s chances at higher office. But the truth is that throughout his career, Holbrooke was more nakedly ambitious than any bureaucratic organisation could tolerate. Samantha Power, a onetime reporter in Bosnia and a critic of American inaction turned stateswoman under Obama, says that Holbrooke ‘had a reputation for looking over the shoulder of an American president to see if there might be someone more useful behind him’.
‘Egotism without idealism is destructive,’ Packer writes, in one of the fortune cookie adages that appear throughout Our Man, but ‘idealism without egotism is feckless.’ Really? What stands out in Packer’s long book are the ‘heedless and needless’ cruelties of Holbrooke’s public life from beginning to end, ‘scattered’ daily ‘as if none of them mattered’. Petty slights behind the backs of enemies and friends alike were an addiction: ‘His central nervous system required losers.’ No doubt Marton, who hand-picked Packer to produce this quasi-authorised account, wishes she had gone with someone else. We can’t even be certain that Holbrooke’s late enthusiasm for his Jewish identity was more than a career move. Unlike Madeleine Albright, the secretary of state he served during Clinton’s presidency, Holbrooke could not claim to have been ignorant of his Jewish descent. But it didn’t affect his childhood – his parents had sloughed it off – and in the estimation of Leslie Gelb, a close associate since Vietnam and a foreign policy establishment grandee, he ‘spent his whole life denying’ his roots. This was understandable enough in an age when Wasp patricians stood at the helm, especially in foreign policy. Holbrooke had ingratiated himself with the epitome of the type, Averell Harriman, treating him as godfather and sage. Yet in June 1992, when he was appointed ambassador to Germany, Holbrooke was told it was advantageous in that post to be a Jew, and so he ‘became Jewish’ overnight.
Packer skates over Holbrooke’s support (and his own) for the Iraq War in 2003. Once again he is divided: was the American empire doomed from the outset, or is it still retrievable, if only in part? ‘Pax Americana began to decay at its very height,’ he writes, and proposes 1998 as the moment when smart power began to be misused. Yet the height of Pax Americana was during the Cold War, and it led to Vietnam, an imperial and interventionist disaster. Dayton was supposed to represent a different possibility for American intervention, but it turned out to be a moment of return to an almost relinquished illusion – and the end of Packer’s story proves it.
Holbrooke’s third and last act, in Packer’s account, begins after the interregnum of the George W. Bush presidency. On Obama’s election in 2008, Holbrooke was considered too toxic to be given a job, but in the midst of one of the periodic crises in the forever war, he was summoned back. His friends and even his enemies hoped he could perform a miracle and pull off in Afghanistan what he had in Bosnia. But this time round, Holbrooke’s shuttle diplomacy came up against intractable dynamics, and he wasn’t in any shape to persist. ‘I have so much to do,’ he told his aides in the ambulance after he suffered an aortic tear. There was a peace to be made in Bosnia, but peace has eluded every great power that has tried to use force in Afghanistan.
Ambivalent about Holbrooke’s golden moment in the 1990s, Packer is much clearer that after 9/11 nobody could have saved the American engagement and created an honourable or just peace in Afghanistan – or anywhere, really, in the face of endless war abroad and a great unwinding at home. It’s telling that Holbrooke kept away from the Middle East; he knew full well that the situation there was unsalvageable, and that the territory was fatal for diplomatic reputations.
In spite of Holbrooke’s many failings, Packer wants to redeem his life and the sort of power he stood for. Yet the moment when the national interest and the world’s interest coincide is always yesterday or tomorrow. For Packer, the moment after the Second World War that Holbrooke found it impossible to revive is little more than a pleasant memory, an emollient for the injuries of American decline – and for the outright xenophobia evinced by the current administration. For others, the only interesting question that Holbrooke’s career raises is how to account for such deeply ingrained mendacity. Packer provides no answer, but in spite of itself Our Man may be the most vivid tour of America’s foreign delusions that has been offered since the Vietnam War.
The night Holbrooke died, Hillary Clinton gathered with friends and staff to tell sad stories. They must have known at some level that the object of their mourning wasn’t so much American empire as their own rationalisations for it, which nobody really believed any more. ‘I know who you are,’ a solitary drunk woman called out to the group from the bar. ‘I know who you all are.’ She gave her last piece of wisdom through ‘a row of blood-red, wine-stained teeth’: ‘Everything ends.’
A correction was made to this article on 3 February to clarify its description of the events of 1992.