Holbrooke wanted more. He wasn’t a grand strategist, but his frenetic public presence made him the embodiment of certain ideas in action. He believed that power brought responsibilities, and if we failed to face them the world’s suffering would worsen, and eventually other people’s problems would be ours, and if we didn’t act no one else would. Not necessarily with force, but with the full weight of American influence. This was the Holbrooke doctrine, vindicated at Dayton. But it didn’t come out of government experience, much less analytical rigor. His views, like everyone’s, emerged from his nervous system, his amygdala, the core of his character, where America stood for something more than just its own power. He was that rare American in the treetops who actually gave a shit about the dark places of the earth.
At no time in recent memory has a book consumed me as much as the one I read over the past week. On its surface, George Packer’s Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century doesn’t seem like the sort of book that will pack an overwhelming punch. It’s a biography of a diplomat who garnered respect in certain circles, but never became a household name or rose to the highest positions he craved. I expect Holbrooke will be lost to history in a generation or two, and his flaws were glaring enough that he doesn’t deserve any posthumous sainthood. But as an analogy for the apogee and decline of American power, his story is too perfect, and Packer, a master craftsman, the grand elegist of the broken American Dream, is our man to tell the tale.
Holbrooke served every Democratic president from Kennedy to Obama. He joined the Foreign Service in 1962 as an acolyte of the builders of the post-World War II order, and went straight to Vietnam, where he vainly struggled to expand the vision of what it would take to win. Holbrooke and his fellow rising stars in the Foreign Service all read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and, instead of seeing themselves in Greene’s blindly optimistic American agent Alden Pyle, earnestly believed they could do better. But that was only the start of a long and industrious career that barreled along at breakneck pace right up until his aorta burst in a meeting with Hillary Clinton in 2010. He was, Packer argues, the ultimate symbol of American global ambitions in the twilight of the nation’s hegemony.
Foreign policy is a particularly Hobbesian realm of endless war between large egos measured against blurry standards. It’s rarely an issue that drives the polls, and one observer’s great act of diplomacy is another’s unconscionable sellout. The realists and idealists collide, and in his early years, Holbrooke’s ideals often left him on the losing side of arguments. The military shunted aside the nation-builders in Vietnam, and in the Carter years, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Cold War realism had little time for humanitarian concerns in southeast Asia. Defenders of diplomacy were at their peak after World War II but found increasingly less room to operate, especially when the military, whether in Vietnam or Afghanistan, gave presidents—particularly Democrats scared of coming across as weak on national security—instant credibility and concrete body counts that can generate good headlines.
Diplomacy is the trickiest form of politics, more art than science and yet insistent upon clear results. Statements almost always come with subtext and hidden agendas, and even the greatest can fail to find the real meaning, the real goals, the real sources of power. A sympathetic Pakistani ambassador likened the drama in central Asia to “a theater in which everyone understood their part, except for the Americans,” and Holbrooke saw it as his job to understand that part. At his best, he was a master of complexity, never more so than in Bosnia. He traveled there on his own before Bill Clinton’s inauguration and spent a chaotic New Year in besieged Sarajevo, took that passion into an administration with no foreign policy direction to speak of, and somehow got a bunch of squabbling warlords to accept the Dayton Accords. Another high point was his tenure as ambassador to the United Nations, as he was able to show even isolationist conservatives the value in propping up an international system favorable to U.S. interests and ideals. He could disarm large egos that others thought lost causes.
Perhaps his comfort with this complexity is why Holbrooke clashed horribly with the Obama administration in the final phase of his career. The law professor of a president wanted crisp arguments and decisive rhetoric, not murky maneuvers and dealings with questionable characters. For a president whose story was to be a revival of the American Dream, there was no room for Holbrooke’s lessons from Vietnam, an analogy Obama rejected out of hand. “By the end he was living each chapter of his life simultaneously—Kennedy and Obama, Vietnam and Bosnia and Afghanistan…All that accumulated experience—we Americans don’t want it,” writes Packer. “We’re almost embarrassed by it, except when we’re burying it. So we forget our mistakes or recoil from them, we swing wildly between superhuman exertion and sullen withdrawal, always looking for answers in our own goodness and wisdom instead of where they lie, out in the world, and in history.”
Holbrooke knew he faced long odds in Afghanistan, but it didn’t stop him. Despite his ego and bluster, he built an idiosyncratic team of the best people he could find, from prolific academics to a woman who tried to lecture him on an airport shuttle. Their role, he told his team, was to break through the turf battles, process over substance. He loved them like his own children (whom he neglected until later in their lives, though there is a superb sequence in which his prep school reject teenage son moves into his New York bachelor pad and leaves him notes like “I suppose leaving half the Grape-fruit Juice out to Spoil is your way of Leading by Example”), and tracked his way all over south and central Asia in search of some way to stop the region’s entropy. But none of it mattered, because Hillary Clinton was the only person in the administration who didn’t think he was a pompous windbag from another era, and even she could only expend so much political capital on one lonely diplomat working a long-shot battle to open dialogue with the Taliban and end a war the military could not win. It still hasn’t.
Our Man is a lament for the decline of American international influence, and Packer’s turning point is the late 90s. He demolishes the American hubris of that era in a few pages that I could quote in full. At the unquestioned peak of American power, there was no serious strategy, just Holbrooke and a few colleagues using the lessons of a lifetime of experience to bring peace. The U.S., terrible imperialists, looked for quick solutions instead of managing chaos. Al-Qaeda’s bombings of two American embassies in Africa elicited only a perfunctory volley of cruise missiles in response, and Washington spent a full year, in Packer’s elegant phrasing, on “Oval Office cocksucking.” (That year, 1998, was also the year the Yankees won 114 games and the World Series and Duluth East last won a state hockey title. It really has been all downhill since.) “Our leaders believed they had the luxury to start tearing one another apart, and they’ve never stopped,” Packer pontificates. “Did any country ever combine so much power with so little responsibility? And slowly, imperceptibly at first, we lost that essential faith in ourselves.”
Holbrooke, somehow, never lost that faith. His ambition pushed him along in dogged pursuit of glory. It also killed two marriages and left a third on life support, cost him many of his friends, and shameless lobbying ruined his chances at being Secretary of State or winning a Nobel prize. He was a vainglorious to the end, though it was a complex egotism. In the words of Tony Lake, his Vietnam era best friend and later-stage mortal enemy, “‘What Holbrooke wants attention for is what he’s doing, not what he is…That’s a very serious quality and his saving grace.’” As I’ve long believed, ambition is both the source of human greatness and the root of human demise. “And if, while following him, you ever feel a disapproving cluck rising inside your palate, as I sometimes do, don’t forget that inside most people you read about in history books in a child who fiercely resisted toilet training,” Packer writes. “Suppose the mess they leave is inseparable from their reach and grasp?”
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Why did Our Man hit me so personally? Probably because, for a healthy chunk of my life, I wanted to become Richard Holbrooke. I wanted to be the globetrotting diplomat who could dive in and end age-old wars through sheer power of will. I wanted to believe in an open and democratic world order, and I wanted to believe my country could learn from its past sins and use its power as a force for decency. I went to Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, where I brushed shoulders with Holbrooke’s two great rivals (Lake and Madeleine Albright, both on the faculty at the time) with the express purpose of following this path.
And yet I didn’t, and found myself tunneling into old journals to remind myself why. Did I lack the killer instinct that drove Holbrooke both to glory and the grave? Was I doomed from the start by a lack of WASPy cred, a wishful believer in a dream I never could achieve? Was my reaction to life in DC too visceral, too uncompromising and unwilling to make sacrifices? Was I too consumed with other events in my life that turned me inward and homeward? All of the above, I think, to varying degrees.
And so, around the exact time Holbrooke died, my belief in his project also died. I’d prepared myself for a world that was already halfway gone by the time I graduated from college. I’m at peace, or so I tell myself: most people learn to leave behind childhood dreams, and I have a new vision of a good life that I’m pursuing. Our Man is not a flattering window into American government, and a career in that world seems to break down so many who do undertake it: petty infighting, endless politicking, 20-hour days that ruin families. Even Lake, ever Holbrooke’s foil, ever the more noble and cautious and thoughtful counterpart, succumbed to the same miseries.
As a child of a different era, I’m more skeptical of the liberal internationalist order than Packer is and Holbrooke was. But after a decade of Obama-led “managed decline” (Packer’s words) and the incoherent bluster of its America First successor, the virtues of that belief in American goodness, for all its flaws, also undergirds so many of the steps the world has taken in a saner direction since the end of World War II. And while it makes for brilliant writing, Packer’s requiem for a superpower may be premature as well. If future diplomats can harness both that spirit and apply some hard-earned lessons from the past, the U.S. could yet arrive at a foreign policy befitting of this moment in history. The ambition lurks within, repressed but still very much alive.