The American Century’s Last Man
For those of us who were blessed – some might say cursed – to have spent important parts of our careers with Richard Holbrooke, the journalist George Packer’s masterful biography of the American diplomat had to clear a high bar. I, for one, opened Our Man with a sense of dread as to what Packer would choose to say about such a complex person. After all, among the hundreds of people interviewed for the book, many have been harshly critical of Holbrooke.
One could imagine an opening like that of Charles Dickens’s ATale of Two Cities: Holbrooke was the best of friends and often the most difficult of friends. He was both a mentor and a tormentor. On that, I think most of my colleagues who knew him would agree.
Holbrooke’s career extended from John F. Kennedy’s presidency to Barack Obama’s, a span rarely matched in the annals of diplomacy. More important than his longevity was the fact that he traveled the globe to take on some of the toughest challenges facing the United States – from the Paris peace talks that sought to end the US role in Vietnam, normalization of relations with China, and his signature accomplishments in ending the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo to his stewardship of US policy in Afghanistan, America’s longest war.
Living and working within Holbrooke’s orbit, one would suffer his odd personal habits, mood swings, random outbursts, middle-of-the-night phone calls, and occasional mendacity. But one would also witness his brilliance and clarity of thought, his warmth and, especially, his humor, which always left one wanting more. This duality comes out clearly in Packer’s description of Holbrooke all the way up until he is lying on his deathbed. Those who understand who the man was – and Packer is certainly one of them – recognize that you didn’t get the good without the bad. It was a single package.
GOOD MORNING, WASHINGTON
Those of us who ascended the United States’ diplomatic ranks during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, or during Holbrooke’s stewardship of the Afghanistan/Pakistan policy (the AfPak brief, in bureaucratic-speak) in 2009-10, heard his stories about Vietnam. We all learned to hate that place, and not just because it was the site of one of America’s most painful wars. Whenever Holbrooke started in on the topic, it could be an hour before we got back to discussing the matter at hand.
Packer chronicles Holbrooke’s time in Vietnam, when he was a precocious 20-something foreign-service officer living on his own in the Mekong Delta. Here, we learn of Holbrooke’s early doubts about the entire venture, which he committed to writing in letters at the time, demonstrating a degree of sophistication well beyond his years.
In fact, some of the most interesting parts of Packer’s biography are in Holbrooke’s own words. We learn that during the Vietnam years, he fought constantly with just about everybody. On display in his letters are clear antecedents of his skepticism toward know-it-all members of the military brass. That skepticism would be further reinforced much later in his life, during the infighting over AfPak policy in the Obama administration. Packer’s account captures, early on, Holbrooke’s brilliance and analytical capacities, but also his ambition and unquenchable neediness. We learn at the outset that he was not someone who liked to spend time by himself.
Later, as the book picks up speed, Holbrooke makes his way to Washington, DC, where the reader gets a closer, and even more painful, look at his endless efforts to ingratiate himself with important people. His encounters with the rich and famous, animated by his shameless self-promotion, are often cringeworthy. But those who knew Holbrooke will immediately recognize the character Packer describes.
For example, Holbrooke absolutely did have an annoying habit of looking over the shoulder of whomever he was speaking with to find someone more important. Phone calls with him were disquieting experiences of rushing to say what you wanted to say before hearing a couple of clicks and then, “Just a second, Chris, just a second …,” followed by silence and, predictably, “I’ll have to let you go … I’ll call you back.” I always wondered who was calling him on the other line (or, more likely, calling him back); he never told me, and I never asked. This was merely a part of the Holbrooke we knew – irritating, to be sure, but a minor exasperation compared to the exhilaration of working with him.
For someone regularly dismissed as an egomaniac (“malignant narcissist” not yet having made it into the common parlance), Holbrooke certainly had his vulnerabilities, and Packer misses none of them. At one point in the book, a young Holbrooke is told – in writing – that he cannot simply jump into the secretary of state’s car, and must instead ask permission first. In Packer’s telling, this story has a happy ending: Holbrooke later frames the memo and hangs it on his wall.
But it is worth noting that the man’s capacity for self-deprecation was fleeting. On another occasion in the book, Holbrooke’s friends throw him a 50th birthday party that turns into a boisterous roast. Packer describes this episode in detail, and it is clear that it left Holbrook deeply hurt.
And then there were the girlfriends, as well as a series of unsuccessful sexual conquests (the two often overlapped), which were driven not so much by ego as by his deep-seated neediness. One of Holbrooke’s long-term companions, the journalist Diane Sawyer, ended the relationship quite unemotionally, telling him to clear out his belongings that day, as if he was a boarder who had fallen behind on his rent.
But the love of Holbrooke’s life was Kati Marton, his third and last wife (and also a journalist). This comes out clearly in Packer’s account, and it was obvious to all of us who knew Holbrooke. Sometimes, he would be sitting in his office presiding over an impromptu staff meeting, only to glance at his watch, realize he was late, and dash out to meet Kati. On one of the rare occasions when Holbrooke showed some self-awareness, he told me, “I’m not going to blow this one.”
In the event, all of us who wanted to see Holbrooke happy welcomed Kati, even though we had to refer to him as Richard instead of Dick when she was around. Take it from me, Holbrooke was definitely not a “Richard.” And yet, in Our Man, I learned a lot more about his and Kati’s relationship than I had ever guessed at. There were affairs and fights and sometimes dueling ambitions; but, more often than not, there was synergy. Kati, Packer writes, was Holbrooke’s “climbing partner.”
The details of Holbrooke’s uxoriousness are all there. Packer recounts with brutal accuracy Kati’s presence at the Dayton peace talks, when she would sit on Holbrooke’s lap during staff meetings – yes, staff meetings. He would often instruct her, lovingly, to take a walk with this or that Balkan warlord to convince him to agree to the terms on offer. Kati was Holbrooke’s Yoko Ono, and the rest of us were just members of the band, trying to avert our eyes from the awkward display.
THE AUDACITY OF NOPE
Packer’s narrative concludes by chronicling Holbrooke’s Mozart-like demise. His fall from grace was painful, and helped along by many Salieri-like rivals who were envious or just plain sick of him. They conspired to push him down, and ultimately succeeded. Packer, again, leaves little to the imagination in describing Holbrooke’s inability to connect with President Barack Obama, despite his best efforts.
Obama’s youthful team just couldn’t see the value of this extraordinary figure. Holbrooke’s accomplishments were known around the world, but not necessarily in the political-staffer echo chamber of Washington, DC. At any rate, many in the Obama administration saw his approach to foreign policy as dated, and they were rankled by his efforts to ingratiate himself with people such as National Security Adviser Susan Rice (who never seemed particularly enthusiastic about him). Most important, Obama himself was not a fan, and wasn’t going to become one.
One of Packer’s keenest insights lies in his description of the cascading disrespect Holbrooke suffered in the Obama years. Once the president had soured on him, so did everyone else. White House aides, bereft of any personal accomplishments of their own, lived solely off the president’s trust in them. They had no reason to care what anyone else thought, least of all an old mandarin that Obama didn’t want to have around. One top aide, having been instructed by Obama to talk to Holbrooke, subjected the senior diplomat to a finger-wagging rebuke.
In Packer’s telling, Hillary Clinton, then the secretary of state, comes across as one of Holbrooke’s only supporters in the administration. But their relationship does not seem to have been particularly close. As Holbrooke once told me, “You never really know what she is thinking.” Still, on one occasion when Obama’s aides were going in for the kill, Clinton stepped in to save Holbrooke’s job. Yet, even here, one gathers that she was more worried about protecting her own policy flanks than about showing loyalty to Holbrooke.
OUR MAN IN THE WORLD
By plumbing the depths of Holbrooke’s character, Packer has helped readers understand the person behind the name. But what is even more riveting about Our Man is how he situates Holbrooke in history. Holbrooke’s story, he suggests, is also the story of the end of the American century – his personal idiosyncrasies mirror both the achievements and the foibles of the country. Unlike Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, Packer’s man is one whose character was in perfect step with that of his country.
Packer describes Holbrooke’s substantive contributions to US foreign policy, and the complexity and subtlety of his judgment, in clear, accessible language. This part of the narrative leaves the reader wanting more, because it shows that Holbrooke was not put on this Earth just to amuse, confound, or annoy the rest of us. He got stuff done. He was not “almost great,” as Packer writes, adopting that backhanded compliment often uttered by Holbrooke’s admirers. He was, in fact, great – the greatest American diplomat of his time.
Consider the Dayton Accords, which did not just result in an obscure peace agreement to end an obscure war, but saved Bosnia and created the basis for transatlantic relations after the Cold War. Among his many contributions, Holbrooke made human rights a key feature of US foreign policy, not as an inconvenient afterthought, but as something that gives meaning to American values.
In a world consumed by chaos, where US diplomacy no longer offers solutions and has become part of the problem, Packer asks whether we should have any regrets. It is a rhetorical question: anyone who makes their way through this extraordinary biography will know the answer. Holbrooke never achieved his life’s ambition of becoming secretary of state, but when he set his mind to something, one got the impression that things were going to get better. At the very least, the world – which was always his stage – respected American diplomacy more by virtue of his involvement in shaping it.
The contrast between his era and the present couldn’t be more striking, whether in Trump’s tariff wars – a blunt and inaccurate weapon wielded by a blunt and uninformed president – or Holbrooke’s direct diplomacy. One can only imagine a North Korea negotiation with Holbrooke. He read not only his briefing papers, but also entire books to prepare for the negotiations, and he insisted that his staff do the same. He had an integrated mind that brought to bear all the elements of a possible solution, and he would not have forgotten, as this administration seems to have done, that other countries have an interest in a solution. Given North Korean behavior, the results may have been the same, but no one would question the US side’s seriousness of purpose or attention to detail.
Holbrooke believed in human rights not just because he believed in humanity in some abstract sense. Despite all his quirks and flaws, he sincerely liked people, which is why he always wanted some around. He took an interest in peoples’ families, remembered their children’s names, and always made time for them, even time that he didn’t have. Packer shows that those working with Holbrooke in AfPak were extremely loyal to him, and I can certainly say the same for those who worked with him in the Balkans.
Holbrooke may have been guilty of looking over your shoulder for someone more important, but he also had a seemingly endless supply of empathy and loyalty toward his colleagues and friends. In my case, I suffered the death of a parent while working with him in Kosovo, and he gave me and my family his attention and support. He was a genuine and loyal friend, which is reason enough to miss him dearly.
(George Packer, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, Penguin, New York, 2019.)
Published Date: Friday, June 14th, 2019 | 10:21 PM