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

By George Packer. Alfred E. Knopf, New York. Hardback, 590 pp. US$30

It is telling that George Packer, the 60-year-old author and writer for New Yorker and Atlantic, dedicated this book to Leslie and Judy Gelb and Frank Wisner, who arguably topped the long list of people that Richard Holbrooke bedeviled and frustrated during the five decades he spent in public life, dying in 2010 at the age of 71 of a massive heart attack in a Washington, DC hospital.

This is as complete an evisceration as I believe I have ever read of a public figure, by an author who obviously admired him deeply at the same time.  Holbrooke seems to have been created out of some petri dish to be a diplomat, the only person ever to have been assistant secretary of state for two different hemispheres, Asia from 1977 and Europe from 1994. But like George F Kennan and Charles E. Bohlen, two other superbly talented diplomats, he never ascended to the job of Secretary of State, a position he had lusted after from the time he was a superbly talented USAID official in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.

Packer uses his portrait of Holbrooke to deliver a trenchant deconstruction of the decline of American power, the US inclination to veer between global realpolitik to liberal interventionism, encapsulated in a figure who could attempt to woo Ferdinand Marcos into capitulating to the human rights concerns of the Americans and ending up satisfied with the release of a single dissident. 

Holbrooke came within an ace of getting the brass ring but he managed to blow it with Bill Clinton in 1966 by an outre performance before the president, then again when Barack Obama came from nowhere and defeated Hillary Clinton in 2008. The job he thought should have been his went to Hillary.

Holbrooke, Packer writes, “lived through action, and it’s through action that we can know him. The smothering silence that settled over his early years and…family tragedy – that was action. The self-creation that begins in self-erasure was another, maybe more radical than opening a phone book and taking a new name (as his Jewish father did on arriving in the United States after fleeing a pogram). He became the son of no one and nowhere – of himself, of America.”

He demonstrated amazing talent and precocity in the Delta, writing brilliant analyses of the situation that were not read by nearly enough of his superiors. He was such a gifted and sensitive writer that Packer gives over the entire fourth chapter of the book to Holbrooke’s description of his tenure there. 

But his diplomatic skills kept getting superseded by his instincts. His closest friend was Anthony Lake, who would go on eventually to become Bill Clinton’s National Security Adviser. He would have an unconsummated affair with Lake’s wife Toni, that made their long association painful and ultimately fractured it. He was too in-your-face, too plainly on the make at the same time he continued to demonstrate diplomatic brilliance.

There was undeniable diplomatic brilliance. He served as US Ambassador to Germany, he was instrumental in putting together the Dayton Peace Accords ending the savage three-and-a-half-year Bosnian War, a formidable achievement that forms a major part of this book. He was US Ambassador to the United Nations and was a special adviser on Afghanistan.

It seemed that wanting the job too much was his downfall. Every time he was close to the secretaryship, presidents and presidential advisers shied away from him at the last minute. Eventually, despite his clearly demonstrated brilliance, he would leave government for the business world, joining Lehman Brothers, the investment bank that would ultimately go under and very nearly take the US financial system down with it, as a rainmaker.

He dated or married a long series of beautiful women including NBC television personality Diane Sawyer and others and ultimately married ABC new presenter Peter Jennings’ ex-wife. A serial divorcer, he treated his wives and children badly and seemed not to know who some of them were.

“Holbrook became a New York media target,” Packer writes. “After a prolonged struggle, against his better judgment, he couldn’t resist stepping into the trap of a side profile in Spy, as if to confirm the magazine’s profile of him as ”the prototypical New Age political power networker.”

He returned to government as United Nations Ambassador from 1999 to 2001 in the Clinton administration, perhaps the happiest period of his life. Glamorous, well-dressed, media magnet as well as target, with a beautiful wife on his arm, he became known unflatteringly as a star-fucker, on television talking heads programs as much as at the UN.

But it was the government that he wanted. Growing older and clearly unhealthy, he would come back as a special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010, to discover that his colleagues at the State Department found him almost irrelevant. For most of his career, he had the bad habit of pushing himself in where he wasn’t altogether wanted. Often it worked and was responsible for his remarkable rise during his youth.

Now, he wanted to be as close to the secretary’s office as he could get. And nobody wanted him there. As the title indicates, he arrived back in government at the end of the American Century. His frustration at not being heard in attempting to solve the Afghan situation, which continues unsolved to this day, at 71, grew. He would literally die in office, being carried out to the hospital from there. Barack Obama, Packer, writes, spent the entire two hours of his memorial ceremony “out of respect or penance” for his end. “Privately, Obama expressed frustration with the notion going around, that he had killed Richard Holbrooke.”

By the end, Holbrook “was living in each chapter of his life simultaneously. Kennedy and Obama, Vietnam and Bosnia and Afghanistan – as if he were floating in a single body of water whose temperature varied from place to place and dept to depth. All that accumulated experience—we Americans don’t want it. We’re almost embarrassed by it, except when we’re burying it. So we forget our mistakes or recoil from them, we swing wildly from superhuman exertion and sullen withdrawal, always looking for the answers in our own goodness and wisdom instead of where they lie, out in the world and in history.”