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The Canonization of Richard Holbrooke

Why Third Way liberals saw a glamorous, difficult diplomat as the protector of their values

Illustration by Ben Jones

If anyone questioned the sureness of Richard Holbrooke’s media touch during his lifetime—when he was persona very grata on cable news shows, dated Diane Sawyer, and set-designed the Dayton Accords on a remote U.S. air base to dramatize the inconvenient necessity of American power—the fact that George Packer has produced a 600-page portrait of him should lay to rest any doubt. Not every diplomat of the second-tier receives full biographical treatment, much less from one of the most beloved journalists in the country.

OUR MAN: RICHARD HOLBROOKE AND THE END OF THE AMERICAN CENTURY by George Packer
Knopf, 608 pp., $30.00

Perhaps this book originated out of some sense of obligation. After Holbrooke’s death in 2010, a group of his friends wanted someone to write his life. Already the author of a New Yorker profile of Holbrooke, Packer was the obvious candidate. Holbrooke’s widow entrusted him with a massive trove of Holbrooke’s personal papers and audio aide-mémoire. Less clear is what was in it for Packer. In order to get a long biography off the ground, he would need to make his subject embody something larger. If the mission was to re-quicken the country’s lost appetite for humanitarian intervention and liberal internationalism, Holbrooke was a promising vessel. Who better represented the more noble side of American power, on display during the golden years between, in Packer’s exacting periodization, “Cold War sobriety and the celebrity shitbox”?

Of course, Holbrooke could be belligerent, obtuse, and impatient: “Is he one of those guys you have to sit around and drink tea with for hours?” he complains about a Saudi go-between at one point in this book. “Holbrooke put his feet up anywhere,” Packer writes, “in the White House, on other people’s desks and coffee tables—for relief, and for advantage.” But liberal legend had it that he had solved the riddle of the Balkan Peninsula through the sheer force of his personality, and might have done the same in Afghanistan if only he’d lived long enough, or if his ego hadn’t tripped up his talents. In these dark times, with America’s global prestige apparently in ruins, surely we would rally to have him on our side. The “our man” of Packer’s title is in this sense not tip-of-the-hat-to-Graham Greene ironic, but elegiac and vaguely defiant.


“Holbrooke? Yes, I knew him. I can’t get his voice out of my head,” is how Packer, the Marlow of this tale, opens Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century. The book has all the qualities of a nonfiction novel. Packer himself features as a close-breathing narrator on the margins, relating the fate of the main character, Holbrooke, who is a kind of alter ego. Born in New York City in 1941, Holbrooke came from a Jewish middle-class liberal background, much like Packer’s own. (In Holbrooke’s case, the fact that his parents were Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Europe was kept from him until adolescence, and he downplayed it until late in life, when he suddenly “became Jewish” on the eve of his ambassadorship to Germany.) Like the young Packer, who joined the Peace Corps, Holbrooke too wanted to become a writer, though an early rejection from The New York Times seems to have sealed his fate as a foreign service officer, though one skilled at composing dispatches, foreign policy think pieces, and leaks to the press. “Journalism, diplomacy: one operated on the outside of power, the other on the inside, but both put you at the center of historic events,” Packer writes. “For the rest of his life Holbrooke compressed the gap between them as much as possible.”

When Holbrooke was sent to Vietnam for his first assignment in 1963, he saw this as a stroke of luck: He would be at the heart of the action. Once he arrived, Holbrooke volunteered to take up a position with outsize responsibilities in the lower Mekong Delta—“I’d like to have a province”—rather than a lower-level bureaucratic post in Saigon. He immersed himself in the details of the region, became a connoisseur of bulgur, played a lot of tennis in Saigon, wrote finely textured memos to himself, and good love letters to his girlfriend. At meetings with superiors, he did not hesitate to speak his mind about their failures to understand how gravely the war was losing them civilian support. But at heart, and for longer than some of his close government peers, Holbrooke was a staunch Domino Man. “I suppose that we are on the right side in the long run here,” he wrote in a letter to his future first wife. “There is no doubt in my mind that if we lose here we will be fighting this war in other countries in Latin America and Asia within a few years.”

Holbrooke was sufficiently partisan to sit out service in Republican administrations, which meant he was an official diplomat for less than half his career. In his political off-seasons, he made heroic efforts to ingratiate himself with the foreign policy establishment, the media, and, inevitably, Wall Street. The wooing began early, when, as a teenager, Holbrooke made the most of having future Secretary of State Dean Rusk as his best friend’s father. In the Nixon-Kissinger years, Holbrooke insinuated himself into the Georgetown set of FDR’s and JFK’s former courtiers. He would eventually co-write the memoirs of the longtime presidential consigliere Clark Clifford and became the adopted son of Averell and Pamela Harriman, who spotted him the down payment for a townhouse. As an editor of the upstart magazine Foreign Policy in the mid-1970s, Holbrooke became a tireless hustler, “the prototypical New Age political power networker,” as Spy magazine called him.

Packer relates fresh vignettes of how the hustling paid off when Holbrooke was back at the State Department in the Carter administration. After, for instance, he won the prize of youngest-ever assistant secretary of East Asian and Pacific Affairs in 1977, he took a trip to Laos, where he met the Vietnamese ambassador and blamed poor relations on Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security adviser. News got back to Brzezinski, who was furious, and tried to have Holbrooke fired. But in a nimble coupling of intelligence and media contacts, Holbrooke had the story discredited: He had a friend in the U.S. Information Service, who came up with the idea of dismissing the report as a piece of Soviet misinformation and had the CIA send a cable to the State Department exonerating Holbrooke. With his name cleared, Holbrooke then leaked details of the whole affair to right-wing talk show host Robert Novak, who mocked Brzezinski in a column for believing the Soviet fabrication.

Richard Holbrooke and Stanley McChrystal in Kabul, Afghanistan in November 2009.
Paula Bronstein /Getty

Holbrooke rode out the Reagan years as a senior adviser at Lehman Brothers, where he served as a decorative lunchmate for the bank’s bigger clients. A more standard biography would rush through this period, but Packer finds good material, such as Holbrooke being received by Beijing as if he were still an official diplomat when finessing market-entry strategies for U.S. companies like Nike, which he sagely counseled to alter the “Made in Taiwan R.O.C.” tags on its shoes. As a snapshot of the revolving doors of finance, media, and diplomacy, Packer’s anatomy of power is not new, but the vividness of the detail makes it compulsive reading. Packer alternates between Fremdscham for Holbrooke’s lower gambits—such as offering at least one Wall Street banker ennoblement at the Council on Foreign Relations in return for business—and awe at the man’s sheer capacity to climb.

The moral heat that Packer applies to his subject falls on some odd places. In Packer’s telling, the graver blemishes on Holbrooke’s record are, for instance, that he lied about a road accident outside Sarajevo. When three U.S. officials died in an armored personnel carrier that tumbled down the side of Mount Igman, Holbrooke at the time, and later in his published account, failed to mention that his own escort, Lieutenant Colonel Randall Banky, scrambled to retrieve the bodies under gunfire. Instead, Holbrooke made himself one of the heroes of the hour (shades of Hillary’s lesser fudging about “landing under sniper fire” at an air base near Tuzla). This sordid episode is only outdone by Holbrooke’s seduction of the wife of his best friend, Anthony Lake, which Packer relates in unstinting detail.

The way that women move through this book is perhaps worth some comment on its own. Packer takes Holbrooke to task for his sexism, “as unthinking as it was blatant.” Yet each time a woman appears in Holbrooke’s life, Packer has to size her up like a wingman. “Green eyes, tulip lips, luminous smile, fuck-you manner,” is Packer’s verdict on one girlfriend; “golden-brown skin and small curvy shape and smart hustle,” his impression of another. We learn considerably less about the physique of Holbrooke confidants like Les Gelb.

The episodes Packer exquisitely reconstructs from Holbrooke’s personal life pale a bit in comparison to Holbrooke’s trips in the late 1970s to Jakarta, where he praised Suharto for his efforts “to resolve Indonesian problems,” signaled U.S. support for the conquest of East Timor, and ensured the smooth delivery of weapons that helped Jakarta crush as many as 100,000 Timorese. There are other unsavory tidbits missing, such as a speech Holbrooke once gave about press freedom, as NATO bombs dropped on the headquarters of Radio Television of Serbia, but one book can’t include everything.


As the breakup of Yugoslavia began in the early 1990s, it seemed as if every American intellectual had booked a ticket to Sarajevo. Susan Sontag and her son, David Rieff, but also Michael Ignatieff, Roger Cohen, the young Gary Bass, the young Samantha Power: All of them, and many others, became regional experts overnight. The disproportion of coverage was reflected in American newspapers, where it dwarfed reporting from Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Algeria, and a host of other war zones, averaging a front-page appearance on The New York Times during the 1990s once every three days. Rieff would go on to become one of the most acute critics of the American capacity to reshape the world, while Power wrote the Obama-anointed textbook for humanitarian intervention, “A Problem From Hell.” That book was about sins of omission—crises in which the United States remained on the sidelines, or facilitated massacres. Packer’s project here, more like Power’s second book, is to build up a positive embodiment of interventionism.

Holbrooke’s route to becoming commentator-in-chief on the Balkans began with his work on behalf of a refugee NGO. After a series of dramatic foreign policy failures in Somalia and Haiti, Clinton’s administration brought in Holbrooke to see what could be done to stop the Balkan bloodshed. From the beginning, Holbrooke saw the advantage in being able to force the Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians into a peace by threatening to bomb the Serbs if they did not comply with his demands. The war provided a second life for NATO, then practically on life support, and, perhaps more decisively, it checked the nascent European Union’s autonomy by forcing an American-dictated peace. As Packer describes well, Holbrooke approved the selection of the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside of Dayton, Ohio, for the site of peace talks in part for its overwhelming Americanness: This would not be a peace negotiated at a French chateau, but one where the only off-base dining available was a burger joint.

The Bosnian war provides Packer with some of his defter passages. He shows how the Dayton Accords became an alibi for later American interventions, and a personal vehicle for Holbrooke’s own fame, spawning his best-selling memoir, To End a War, as well as a two-part series by Holbrooke in The New Yorker and a narrowly canceled HBO movie. (Packer also reports that Holbrooke once tried to have a dissenter at Brookings silenced and fired for suggesting in a published account that Anthony Lake was more responsible for Dayton than he was.) As Packer recognizes, the Dayton Accords did not so much stop the war as freeze it in its place. Holbrooke insisted on democratization and minority rights; these became ultra-prominent in the peace, to the point that Bosnia never could become a functioning state.

All Bosnia’s main ethnic divisions—Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox—were constitutionally grafted into the new electoral machinery: Muslims are expected to vote for Muslim candidates, Catholics for Catholics, and so on. (Jews and Roma cannot run for high office.) On top of this, the Bosnian Serbs were at some level rewarded for ethnic cleansing: They got their own republic within the new state, Srpska, while the Catholics got no such territory (admittedly they already had Croatia, whose consolidation may be the most striking example of a postwar European state secured through ethnic cleansing, and the one that gained European Union membership first because it no longer had any major minority problems). Put another way, Dayton was a bribe paid by the United States to the Balkan elites: Stop killing one another, and you can have your huge clientelist machines; we will overlook your corruption; your ticket into the EU is in the mail.

Packer could have ended the book on a chastened note: that diplomacy is about making small, easily reversible gains, and that to achieve such moderate expectations sometimes requires unhinged ambition behind the scenes. In such a telling, Holbrooke could be seen as an erratic gardener of NATO, flying around to its members, and plucking out grievances—as he did in one of his more surefire successes, when in the mid-1990s Turkey and Greece threatened each other with military action, and he helped calm the waters—but more often just getting bored by intractable conflicts, as he did with Cyprus in the late ’90s and with the now-solved Macedonia-Greece name dispute, a bit of NATO-friendly bricolage in Russia’s backyard, which the masterminds in the Kremlin were unable to derail. In Afghanistan, where Holbrooke was Obama’s special representative, he often took a more pragmatic view than the president, who could barely tolerate him and his analogies to Vietnam, with Hamid Karzai figuring for him as a redux of Ngo Dinh Diem and the Taliban as a frustratingly fragmented version of the Viet Minh, with whom Holbrooke advised cutting a political deal.

Yet every point of emphasis in Our Man bucks against this kind of diplomacy of responsible restraint. If there is one current in Holbrooke that Packer consistently seizes on, it’s his sense that some action is better than no action at all. As a teenager, Holbrooke was dismayed by Eisenhower’s unwillingness to “do something” about Suez, and the way he let America’s colonial allies down. In a letter to his girlfriend, Litty, Holbrooke, by then in his twenties, writes, “Remember, what is true in foreign policy is also in this case true in love: Inaction, inactivity is as much an action as action itself.” It is this basic strain in Holbrooke—action for the sake of action, with reducing misery around the world as a welcome bonus—that Packer singles out for admiration, and christens “the Holbrooke doctrine”:

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.

As progressives today rethink the direction and purpose of American policy—and forthrightly reckon with a balance sheet that has been anything but humanitarian in outcome—Packer, who sees no daylight between American restraint and abdication, still thinks the world is best served by American military supremacy, or in the preferred establishment euphemism, by America “leading the world.”


To this end, it’s not for nothing that Packer has hitched himself to a diplomatic star, whom Packer absolves for offering little in the way of actual strategy. The question of whether the NATO-induced birth of a state like Kosovo, which has a Ricard Holbruk street in the capital, might stall European integration and invite Russian countermoves—from South Ossetia to Crimea—never seems to have troubled him. That the accidental 1999 U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade is now lodged as the earliest taste of American foreign policy in the memory of an entire generation of Chinese citizens never seems to have occurred to him. Whether Russia and the rise of China signaled the return of nineteenth-century power relations was likewise not a going concern with Holbrooke, who was far too fixated on news cycles to keep his mind concentrated on what the world rapidly converting to capitalism would mean for American power. What is curious is that instead of criticizing Holbrooke’s restlessness, Packer consecrates it. The reason seems to be that deep in Holbrooke is something that appeals to Packer, a commitment to humanitarianism that claims to transcend ideology, and that focuses on intentions instead of outcomes.

In 1998, midway through Clinton’s second term, Packer wrote a long resignation letter from the Democratic Socialists of America for Harper’s. He described a movement that was too out of step with the zeitgeist to succeed. “One winter evening, as a board meeting in the church basement bogged down over the question of roast chicken versus Indonesian noodles for our Debs-Thomas fund-raising dinner, I looked at the faces of my comrades around the table and knew I was going to leave them.” Why? “I wanted to be on the side of history for a while, and when Clinton was elected I and others in the organization wondered if the moment hadn’t come.” But then comes the plaintive cry of Third-Way liberals of his generation. “With nothing to replace [democratic socialism] each of us is left alone to acquiesce in the given—or else find the will to answer in a new way the old question, What are we to do?”

The answer to the old question turned out to be the forever war. Five years later, Packer rallied behind George W. Bush’s Iraq War on a wing and prayer. “I can’t say that it was a rational deduction,” he would later remark. “It was just hope winning out, by a whisker, over fear.” It’s stunning how little distance Packer has traveled since then. His do-something-do-anything humanitarianism now has considerably more to answer for than the democratic socialism he once jeered. The most significant piece of Obama foreign policy—the Iran nuclear deal—did not require a maverick broker, but to survive, it would have required a popular movement. For future historians, Our Man will be a valuable artifact from the period when militant liberal internationalism became too weary to bother with reasons, and instead took comfort in the gut of a famous man.