“Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century” by George Packer
Review by Paul A Myers
George Packer has used the ambition-driven life of diplomat Richard Holbrooke to mount an acidic takedown of American foreign policy since the days of John F. Kennedy when the world’s quagmires were still small puddles. The analysis is all the more trenchant because Holbrooke only served during the administrations of Democratic presidents; the analyses of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton are corrosive. Obama comes out okay mostly because Holbrooke didn’t get a correct reading on Obama and he died before further experience might have provided that insight while Packer seems to criticize Obama for not knowing how to use Holbrooke’s talents.
This first part of the book focuses on the indepth personal experience of Holbrooke in Vietnam 1963-66 and provides some of the background behind David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest.” Halberstam was a close friend of Holbrooke’s. This book could have been titled: “The Best and the Brightest – the Sequel.” Packer’s book adds insight to that much earlier classic tale of elites gone wrong. The crucial takeaway for the reader is that the same combinations of illusion and delusion, false reporting, institutionalized wrong-headedness, and intellectual arrogance have continued to this day.
One might say that Americans never did understand the Buddhist small-farmer countryside of Vietnam or the intense nationalism animating the North Vietnamese leadership. Today, one can say that the Americans do not understand the culture and politics of most if not all of the 1.8-billion-person Muslim world. American favor passes from one corrupt satrap to another across the region and over the decades. When it comes to understanding, it’s always Vietnam 1963. One more regime change will do the trick goes the thinking. Or at least he’s our SOB.
Holbrooke served as assistant secretary of state for the Far East and Pacific during the Carter administration. This is where the book excels at giving insights into the bureaucratic infighting in what Packer calls “the treetops,” the upper reaches of the power structure. He tangled with Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Kissinger-like national security adviser, and this makes interesting reading for some solid critique of Zbig. The Iran hostage crisis was woefully mismanaged from the beginning. The Carter foreign policy was a tug-of-war between Secretary of State Cyrus Vance—completely old school—and Brzezinski who was a hard-edge operator. For this reviewer, Brzezinski adds to the distaste for émigré-bred foreign policy mavens. Holbrooke correctly perceived that Brzezinski was so anti-Russian that he missed having a wider vision, a crucial dimension during periods when big change is getting underway.
Holbrooke’s big achievements came in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s during the Clinton administration. The Bush administration left the Balkans and Somalia in policy chaos in early 1993. Holbrooke was sort of exiled to Germany as ambassador but the crisis in Bosnia brought him back despite the misgivings of most of the top Clinton foreign policy hands. Clinton’s foreign policy team was basically dull, risk averse, unimaginative and didn’t trust the incandescent and extemporaneous style of Holbrooke. But Holbrooke conceived of the Dayton Peace Talks and pushed the Accord across the goal line allowing Bill Clinton to take a victory lap in foreign policy just before his reelection campaign , a lap for which the president made little actual contribution.
Holbrooke’s lifelong quest was to be secretary of state. He almost made it in early 1996 but one his biggest supporters, Hillary Clinton, wanted Bill to have the distinction of naming the first woman as secretary of state and so the job went to Madeleine Albright. Holbrooke returned to the private sector while serving part-time as a special emissary. Clinton comes out of the entire eight years looking a little too detached in Packer’s account.
The last phase of the book turns to the drama of working with no-drama Obama. The president never considered Holbrook for a top post but did allow Hillary Clinton as secretary of state to designate Holbrooke as a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Packer provides lots of fascinating detail about the various tangles between Obama and his young advisers, Hillary Clinton and Holbrooke, and the Pentagon and “their” war in Afghanistan.
But this reviewer does not think that Packer got the overall frame correct. My opinionated assessment is there was a lack of goal congruence between Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Holbrooke. If Holbrooke would have grasped Obama’s frame—and if Obama had clued him on it—then the story may have taken a different course. Obama viewed Afghanistan as a tactical challenge, a place where a terrorist attack could originate, while viewing Pakistan and its 50-plus nuclear weapons as a strategic threat of the highest order. So whose eye was on what ball was part of the misunderstanding.
In 2009, Holbrooke was frantically trying to signal Obama not to repeat the mistake of LBJ in 1965 by ordering a big troop buildup. More likely Obama understood all of this while also knowing that he was being played by the military and the Pentagon on what came to be the Afghan surge. But Obama kept this buildup carefully contained from the beginning; he had his eye on reelection in 2012 and did not want to appear “soft” on using military force while avoiding another Iraq war quagmire. It was a Goldilocks strategy of not too hot, not too cold. Obama outplayed the Pentagon, the true adversary for a Democratic president. So Holbrooke’s warnings were irrelevant to Obama and the president was annoyed with the pestering over the issue. For one of the few times in Holbrooke’s life, he didn’t “get it.”
The big goal Holbrook was striving to achieve was to set up some sort of diplomatic framework similar to what he had done in Bosnia and achieve a peace settlement. Obama never seems to have regarded this eventuality as possible, maybe not even desirable. Afghanistan was a problem to be managed, not solved. The default position seems to be since Pakistan has numerous nuclear weapons situated in what is a failed state, the US is stuck with having to maintain some military presence in South Asia. It’s a no-exit situation into the indefinite future. Undoubtedly the Pentagon plays this card again and again.
Packer provides a gripping account of the collapse of Holbrooke’s health under the weight and pressure of his personal ambition, and ambition in Packer’s telling is what killed the hyper-intense diplomat; he went one quagmire too far, dreamed of one peace settlement too many.
Throughout this biography richly sourced from correspondence, diaries, and interviews comes also the story of the unwinding of two marriages and the stresses and strains on the third. The breaking apart of relationships reads like chapters from a novel and the various wives’ frustrations are insightfully chronicled. Packer has a rich eye for the role of women in the upper reaches of the political power structure.