Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, by George Packer (Knopf, 608 pp., $30.00)

George Packer sometimes seems willfully obtuse to the implications of his own finely shaded work. For Assassin’s Gate, Packer spent two years tacking between Washington and Baghdad’s Green Zone, and he wrote perhaps the authoritative account of the muddled thinking behind the Iraq War. In the end, though, he resisted the natural conclusion from the evidence he had collected. His verdict: “the Iraq War was always winnable; it still is.” In The Unwinding, his account of America’s fraying social compact, he traveled to Silicon Valley, Central Florida, and Ohio’s Mahoning Valley. Packer uncovered the country’s social rot (“the default force in American life . . . is money”), and he offered familiar solutions: social programs, organized labor, and progressive taxation. Packer’s great virtue is his desire to see for himself, to read everything, to talk to everyone. His signature weakness is that having traveled and interviewed and brooded, he tends to return to the safety of received ideas.

Packer, a staff writer at The Atlantic, has written a biography of the late diplomat Richard Holbrooke, a fixture in the foreign policy camps of Democratic administrations spanning almost 50 years, and the man most credited with fashioning the 1995 Dayton Accords, which ended a brutal war in Bosnia and outlined a framework for peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Holbrooke was not just a skilled diplomat and political infighter; he was also a cult hero for liberal intellectuals, a familiar guest on Charlie Rose, and an intellectual who both held power and knew what to do with it. In other words, Holbrooke was a deeply romantic figure—and Packer has fallen hard for him.

Packer frames Holbrooke’s life around the half-century of American power that began in Vietnam and ended with the War on Terror. This “we won’t see his like again” formulation is endemic to the genre, but the elegiac tone feels forced here. Washington will continue to produce people of enormous personal ambition, the way smelting generates slag, and the United States will continue to exercise enormous power. The broader theme of Our Man may be the seductions and risks of the liberal-interventionist tradition in foreign policy that Holbrooke embodied and that Packer admires.  

Holbrooke’s glittering career was bookended by the signature failures of that tradition: Vietnam and Afghanistan. Packer knows his Vietnam history cold; his extended profile on Holbrooke’s time there as a junior diplomat is excellent. The author has also reported extensively on Iraq and Afghanistan and considered their implications carefully. He knows what war costs and recognizes the blind spots in our worldview (“That’s always been the weak spot of our Foreign Service—other countries. It’s hard to get Americans interested in them.”) What Packer has not done is change his mind.  

Our Man is therefore not especially compelling as history. As an ethnography of the foreign policy establishment, however, and a psychological study of one figure who embodied it, it is fascinating. Packer pushes in close, and what he finds is a rank mix of ambition and fear. Even the seasoned players would sooner betray their own values than risk appearing soft or naive. Any perception of weakness damages U.S. interests; more importantly, it scuttles careers. Some have so internalized the problem that they no longer perceive it as a conflict; others maintain a kind of double-entry bookkeeping, a conscious gap between what they believe and what they think they can say. Holbrooke sometimes took career risks to forward contrarian views; more often, he remained silent. These are the compromises one makes to reach the highest levels of power in Washington.

A paradox emerges atop any status hierarchy: its members protect their club from incursions while also treating each other with chilling viciousness. Holbrooke was the subject of unkind gossip, and he had many enemies. No one trying to accomplish something in public life fails to collect them, and Holbrooke excelled in this as in everything else. Institutional life, the meetings and memos and chains of command that inch a bureaucracy forward, was essentially impossible for him. Holbrooke believed in the State Department’s mission without quite believing in the State Department itself. He was always prepared to destroy it in order to save it.

The Barack Obama we meet in Our Man is a “technocrat in the guise of a visionary”—intelligent, calculating, and cold.  Obama disliked Holbrooke for his vanity and because Holbrooke represented the hawkish foreign policy establishment that Obama distrusted. With his unshakeable self-belief and meager self-understanding (“so much thought, so little inwardness”), Holbrooke never stopped believing that he could make Obama like him.  Obama never did change his mind about the man he made his senior advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan, a job that was not so much a benediction as a curse.

Holbrooke’s own egotism was monstrous, and Packer concedes that some hated him for good reason. His career paralleled that of Anthony Lake, a friend and rival in foreign-service circles (and later National Security Advisor under Bill Clinton), of whom Holbrooke made a devoted enemy by attempting to seduce his wife. The Lakes eventually divorced, as did Holbrooke and his then-wife. Holbrooke proceeded with a series of glamorous lovers, including Diane Sawyer. That women liked him is to Holbrooke’s credit; that he usually betrayed them and was often betrayed in turn is not.

In the end, Holbrooke tends to frustrate our moral categories. He was intensely preoccupied with greatness without being much interested in goodness. Having a sharp sense of evil in others, he lacked the moral courage to recognize it in himself. His capacious life lacked a tragic dimension because the requisite self-knowledge was missing. Our Man reinforces the idea that the character of our leaders, while difficult to know, is ultimately their destiny—and ours.  

Packer’s verdict on Holbrooke is that he was “almost great,” a fair judgment but one that damns with faint praise. He knew Holbrooke (“I wasn’t one of his close friends, but over the years I made a study of him”), and the emotion behind Our Man is palpable. Packer attempts a final note of uplift, reminding us of what good company Holbrooke was, the glamorous friends he made and sometimes kept, and his signature victory at Dayton. Yet there was a Charles Foster Kane-like emptiness at his core. Our Man inspires admiration for Holbrooke’s intellect and drive and the good uses to which he hoped to put them, but it also prompts sadness—a dull, saturnine feeling of waste and futility. For Richard Holbrooke, too much was never enough.

Richard Holbrooke (Photo by Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)


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