Book Reviews - Summer 2019

The Difficult Diplomat

A highly flawed man who brought peace and controversy

By Charles Trueheart | June 3, 2019
Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s top diplomat in Afghanistan and Pakistan, visiting a military training facility in Kabul in October 2010  (U.S. Air Force)
Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s top diplomat in Afghanistan and Pakistan, visiting a military training facility in Kabul in October 2010 (U.S. Air Force)

Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century by George Packer; Knopf, 592 pp., $30

Richard Holbrooke died nearly a decade ago, not yet 70, having charged through American diplomacy for nearly 50 years on a manic quest for self-realization. He wore his ambitions so nakedly and bore his many disappointments so bitterly that his occasional triumphs, notably in drawing a shaky but durable peace from a genocidal war in Bosnia, can be obscured.

In his supercharged new biography, George Packer doesn’t lose sight of Holbrooke’s spasms of near greatness, or of the high ideals that were in symbiosis with his oily machinations. Yet the cascade of often awkwardly intimate details—many of them in Holbrooke’s own words—can’t help but make him a figure of contemporary tragedy, a man helplessly consumed and undone by his own demons.

Holbrooke’s resumé sketches the past half century of American engagement and over-extension. Scarsdale-bred, fresh out of Brown, hungry for the world, Holbrooke asked a friend’s father for advice about pursuing a career in the Foreign Service. (The friend’s father happened to be Secretary of State Dean Rusk.) In 1963, Holbrooke, a newly minted junior diplomat, was dispatched to Saigon and began a remarkable, testosterone-charged career forged by that defining experience.

One of his young colleagues and best friends at the Saigon embassy was Anthony Lake, who would play a role in tense tandem with Holbrooke for the rest of their careers, and who makes a rich figure of contrast here, the ego to Holbrooke’s id. As Holbrooke and Lake reemerge in positions of power in the years ahead, facing new crises in new places, always “Vietnam was the tiger in the forest, the ghost in the Situation Room.” So was Holbrooke’s 1960s affair with the first Mrs. Lake, carefully recounted here.

Holbrooke spoke openly in his mid-20s about his ambition to become an assistant secretary of state by the time he turned 35. Eyes rolled, but he rose quickly in Saigon, serving as special assistant to two American ambassadors, then attaching himself to Averell Harriman, the Democratic Party warhorse, at whose side he attended the Vietnam peace talks in Paris. When Democrats returned to power in 1977, Holbrooke became assistant secretary of state for Asia, on schedule, at the age of 35—the youngest in decades, he liked to point out.

When spearheading the Dayton Accords, Holbrooke displayed tenacity and guile in forcing blood enemies of a millennium to come to terms.

During the Nixon years, as later during the Reagan-Bush years, Holbrooke plotted his return from political exile, oblivious or powerless to tame a growing reputation for monstrous arrogance.

In the first exile (1969–1976), Holbrooke ran the Peace Corps in Morocco and then became editor of the center-left Foreign Policy magazine. In the longer, latter interregnum (1981–1993), Holbrooke bounced from high-paying Wall Street rainmaking jobs and a glamorous life in the New York media world—including a romance with Diane Sawyer, among many others—to a peculiar and disastrous stretch writing the memoirs of another Democratic warhorse, Clark Clifford. Just as the project reached publication, Clifford was indicted in a banking scandal.

But Holbrooke never counted himself out. When Bill Clinton was elected, he clawed his way into the new president’s circle, mostly populated by lifelong colleagues and friends hoping for one of the top foreign policy positions. Holbrooke had to settle for being ambassador to Germany, then for another assistant secretaryship in a region he did not know—Europe.

Yet Europe offered him the climax of his career. The 1995 Dayton Accords that Holbrooke spearheaded achieved a peaceful repartition of southeastern Europe after years of conflict. These arduous negotiations, punctuated by personal tragedy and tense brinkmanship, are the most dramatic and moving spans of the Holbrooke arc, evidence of his tenacity and guile in forcing blood enemies of a millennium to come to terms. In Serbia, a verb was coined, holbrukciti, meaning “to get your way through brute force.”

The theme of exile and return was repeated in the new century. Holbrooke’s hopes to be named secretary of state (deluded, says Packer) were dashed by Al Gore’s defeat in 2000. With Barack Obama’s victory in 2009, Holbrooke sought to ingratiate himself with the new president. Their first meeting, during which Holbrooke proffered a patronizing job pitch, is but one of many poign-ant examples of his constitutional inability to see how he came across. When Obama greeted him as Dick, Holbrooke told the president that his wife preferred that he be called Richard. Then, in an overweening peroration to Obama, Holbrooke’s eyes filled, and he remarked, “You know, you don’t have to be African-American to cry.” Obama was appalled.

Despite this disastrous encounter, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton persuaded the president to make Holbrooke a special diplomatic czar for Afghanistan and Pakistan. In a later unforgettable scene, Holbrooke is in Kabul on a video conference call with the president and his senior advisers in the White House Situation Room as they address decisions about troops in Afghanistan.

Obama calls on Holbrooke, who proceeds to make a long statement. At one point, he says: “As your first decision to send troops overseas and into combat … this decision lies at the savage intersection of policy, politics, and history.” To which Obama abruptly murmurs: “Who talks like this?” Everyone hears the president but Holbrooke, 7,000 miles away, who drones on. Finally, Obama interrupts him: “Richard, what are you doing? Are you reading something?’”

Holbrooke labored on with the thankless AfPak portfolio. Never a man in good health, he died of a ruptured aorta in December 2010, at the age of 69.

Packer’s is an intimate account, not just of Holbrooke’s life but of the author’s own reportorial odyssey. The diplomat had gotten to know Packer late in life, when Packer profiled him for The New Yorker. Endearingly, he confesses here to having been seduced by his subject, that time. He was hooked. From the first page of Our Man, Packer is right there in the crackling, smarmy presence of his subject. In several dramatic sections, the biographer lapses into the role of medium, channeling Holbrooke in a plausible first person. He sources many of these monologues to copious diaries that Holbrooke kept off and on, “the prose always glancing sideways in the expectation of being read.”

Elsewhere Packer favors podcast-y personal asides about his quest and even the wanderings of his mind: “Foreign policy is given to heavy internal bleeding, for reasons I’ve never really understood—perhaps they’ll become clearer as we go along.” Of Holbrooke’s assignment in Germany: “I don’t have much to tell you about his year in Bonn.” A little of this goes a long way.

When it comes to Holbrooke’s personal life, Packer is not loath to linger. He does so tastefully; the lady-killer’s ladies, including three wives, all survived him and most seem to have confided forthrightly in the author. The accumulation of his “relationships” during the Reagan era gives you some idea of Holbrooke’s pathological neediness, to say nothing of boundary crossing in a bygone era. Yet the women he knew can offer a softer window on the man. One of them, “the elegant photography agent,” remembers a sweet side to Holbrooke, “lying in bed … asking about her day, her children, intimate and funny, indulging his love of the art of conversation in that postcoital spell when the restlessness temporarily faded.”

At one breathless moment, Packer asks himself: “What was he like? He didn’t want to miss a minute of his life.” In this book, we don’t, and we come away enlightened and sad.

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