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Slow Down, Holbrooke!

May 6, 2019  | 

The late American diplomat Richard Holbrooke (1941–2010) had a knack, that is to say a weakness, for self-promotion. He lobbied for the Nobel Peace Prize. He hinted broadly that he could serve as secretary of state. When one of his old friends died, Holbrooke petitioned the man’s widow to be included among the eulogists. During meetings in the Situation Room, he started out against the wall with the other assistant-level staff, but slowly inched his chair forward to the table among the cabinet officers. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance’s personal assistant had to write a memo in 1978 admonishing Holbrooke not to “insert yourself as a passenger in the Secretary’s car unless this office has specifically approved your request.” Where a lesser striver might have perceived a rebuke, Holbrooke had the memo framed.

He liked to dispense with the fussier conventions of statecraft. “There are two kinds of people,” he told his sons: “those who like fart jokes and those who don’t. We know where the Holbrookes stand.” Most diplomats keep safely to the other side of the fart-joke line. Yet most diplomats also do not sweat through a half-dozen pairs of socks per day or hang their used ones on an airplane’s first-class seat pocket to dry. Nor do they sit on the bed in their underpants eating Russian caviar straight from the jar. Their French is not delivered in a New York accent. They do not delight in pranks, like de-blousing a colonel’s resplendent uniform in the innermost halls of the Pentagon. After organizing a goodwill game of softball with staff from the Japanese embassy, they would not crush the ambassador’s first pitch for a home run and laugh their way around the bases. 

Holbrooke was less a statesman or strategist than a character from a Philip Roth novel: a hustling, sweating, deeply imperfect, occasionally inspiring, mouth-full-shouting specimen of the human condition. He had three marriages and too many mortgages; he disregarded his children; he wept when called upon to speak of his father in public. He flirted with one of the doctors who tried and ultimately failed to save his life. Yet at his most statesmanlike moments, like negotiating an end to the Bosnian war in 1995, he could be extraordinary. During a half century in public life, Holbrooke became America’s all-purpose hot-zone fixer, the one who jumped into quagmires with both feet and somehow emerged with a deal. The journalist and former diplomat Ronan Farrow, who worked closely with Holbrooke and described him as a father figure, has written that “he was the rare asshole who was worth it.”

In an entertaining and humane new biography, Our Man, George Packer portrays a deeply flawed figure of tremendous energy, blindness, and passion. Holbrooke was constantly “doing something to you,” Packer writes, “cajoling, flattering, bullying, seducing, needling, analyzing, one-upping you.” By the end of an encounter, “you found yourself far out from where you’d started, unsure how you got there, and mysteriously exhausted.” One negotiating team member on the Bosnian detail wrote in his journal, “A true character. Can’t help but like him. He is something to watch.” 

Packer, a heavyweight journalist who joined the Atlantic last year after a distinguished run at the New Yorker, was friendly with Holbrooke and is well positioned to tell his story. It is a subject worthy of Packer’s considerable narrative gifts: a tragicomic hero who poured all of his infuriating ambitions and intensities into a life of purpose on stages both global and bureaucratically small. Bosnia is the heart of Our Man, and it was Holbrooke’s great accomplishment. And don’t think he wouldn’t have let you know it: on his bookshelf he kept three dozen copies of the memoir in which he portrayed himself as the savior and indispensable figure of the peace negotiations. Which, in fact, he was. 

Holbrooke came to diplomacy coincidentally. Growing up in Scarsdale, New York, he was the surrogate son of Dean Rusk, the father of his best friend and a future secretary of state. Holbrooke’s own father died of cancer when he was fifteen, and he did not learn of his family’s Jewish heritage until later in life. Addressing the senior class of Scarsdale High in 1958, Rusk gave bland but fateful advice: “When you’re thinking of careers, think of the Foreign Service.” After an internship with the New York Times, Holbrooke passed the Foreign Service exam and became a member of the class of 1962. 

Packer organizes Our Man around three wars: Vietnam, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. Holbrooke served the United States government in varying capacities in each. In Vietnam, he learned; in Bosnia, he triumphed; and in Afghanistan, he failed. As an aid worker handing out farming supplies for USAID in Vietnam, Holbrooke witnessed the senseless waste of American blood and treasure in pursuit of hubristic goals. He worked in Saigon and the countryside, throwing himself into harm’s way by volunteering for service deep in Vietcong territory. Breaking with diplomatic practice, he befriended and caroused with journalists like David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, two of the war’s most perceptive critics. 

He also offered trenchant analysis. One of Our Man’s strengths is Packer’s willingness to quote at length from Holbrooke’s journals and correspondence. Holbrooke was no antiwar radical, but he spotted the weaknesses in American policy sooner than most. Here he is in 1963 or early ’64, prefiguring the misgivings that would later typify most critiques of the war:

We arrive here with no knowledge of the country or of the situation and immediately start giving advice, some of which we can really turn almost into orders because of the materials and money and transportation that we fully control. I think that no American would stand for such a deep and continuing interference in our affairs, even if it appeared that survival was at stake. 

Too junior to influence policy, Holbrooke instead watched, worked, and remembered. “His ambition still had a clean smell,” Packer writes, foreshadowing the way his subject’s ladder climbing would later outweigh his idealism. Holbrooke also gave himself over to the romance of service abroad in pursuit of national goals. “Some things I enjoy about Vietnam, not necessarily related to our mission but to my disposition,” he confided in a letter: “I enjoy the fast pace of the people who are good, the men who are doing the best job for us.” It was thrilling to return to the city or “an airstrip somewhere in the Delta” and run into “these people, with whom you may have shared a tough day in the field somewhere.” And, of course, he loved “the drama of the helicopters.” 

In Vietnam Holbrooke made the most consequential friend of his life: Anthony Lake. They were yin and yang: Lake the Harvard WASP to Holbrooke’s New York Jew; Lake who was understated and subtle where Holbrooke never entered a room he could not fill. Holbrooke developed a close friendship with Lake and his wife Toni in Vietnam, playing tennis and lingering over lazy meals. Their lives and careers would run in parallel until Holbrooke and Toni fell in love, dooming the friendship and poisoning Holbrooke’s first marriage. Holbrooke somehow contrived to blame Lake for this.

After participating in the Paris peace negotiations and then editing Foreign Policy during the Nixon years, Holbrooke joined the Carter administration as assistant secretary of state for East Asia. In that position he started making enemies in earnest. Slights and snubs began to add up; so did more Shakespearean enmities with heavyweights like Zbigniew Brzezinski. Holbrooke advised Carter against naming Brzezinski national security adviser, and Brzezinski apparently found out. Brzezinski engineered a campaign of petty retaliation: excluding Holbrooke from meetings, sticking him at the back of motorcades, refusing to let him see the talking points. The great strategist behaved like a third-grade bully, and Holbrooke frantically tried to save face. 

Yet, Packer writes, Holbrooke brought his egotism and idealism into balance in order to do good. In a remarkable effort, he championed the cause of South Vietnamese refugees, helping persuade multiple governments to increase their quotas. It was a smaller moment in a career full of blockbuster set pieces; a lesser biographer might have overlooked it. “Human suffering didn’t plunge Holbrooke into psychological paralysis or philosophical despair,” Packer asserts. “It drove him to furious action.” Holbrooke earned loyalty from his staff, giving them “not personal warmth—during conversations he was always on a phone call and shuffling paperwork—but intellectual stimulation, openness to dissent, and a sense of collective mission. In return they gave him their best.” And he proved a natural at bureaucratic tricks, exceeding his negotiating authority to achieve breakthroughs and shamelessly leaking to the press. When Reagan became president, Holbrooke spent a decade in the wilderness, cashing in his name and network for a sinecure at Lehman Brothers. It was a terrible fit, but at least it paid well.

Upon Bill Clinton’s election, Holbrooke scrambled for a top foreign policy position in the administration. But he had made too many enemies, and his brash and openly ambitious style alienated too many people. To borrow Saul Bellow’s description of Vladimir Nabokov, Holbrooke was one of the great wrong-way rubbers of all time. Anthony Lake was named national security adviser, but by then the two men were practically enemies, and Lake declined to help him. So did other putative friends. 

So Holbrooke returned to the field, sending himself on a fact-finding mission to Bosnia in January 1993. He again felt the excitement of stepping into a war zone, and once more linked arms with a journalist, this time John Burns of the New York Times. They toured Sarajevo, which had been under siege by the Serbian army for 270 days and running. Holbrooke encountered camp survivors, bloodstains, rubble, and refugees. He confided to his journal, “If I don’t make my views known to the new team, I will have not done enough to help the desperate people we have just seen; but if I push my views I will appear too aggressive. I feel trapped.” The ambivalence quickly resolved in favor of trying to force action to stop the genocide. Holbrooke wrote unanswered memos and news articles urging the use of force against Serbian aggressors.

His government exile ended in 1993, when Clinton named him ambassador to Germany. The next year he became assistant secretary of state for Europe and Canada; a colleague told him that the job would include solving “the Bosnia problem.” Holbrooke spent much of his wedding day in 1995—his third—on the phone with Washington. While Clinton waffled during the Srebrenica massacre, Holbrooke seethed. (“If we’d bombed these fuckers as I had recommended,” he said, “Srebrenica wouldn’t have happened.”) He nearly lost his life in a car accident on Mount Igman in Bosnia that claimed three American lives. Eventually NATO airstrikes brought the Serbs to the negotiating table, where Holbrooke was determined to press his advantage during the short window while the bombs fell.

Packer’s chapters on Holbrooke’s negotiating efforts in Belgrade, and then in Dayton, where the peace talks concluded, are the centerpiece of Our Man. They show Holbrooke not exactly at his best, but certainly at his most. He alternately finessed and screamed at Slobodan Milosevic. (An observer commented that their “two egos danced all night.”) He sat through endless banquets. He lifted glasses of Scotch to his lips but barely drank, in order stay clearheaded. “He didn’t stick to talking points—had no real talking points—but let the conversation run its meandering course while looking for openings to run through,” Packer writes. Through it all, Holbrooke never let up, “always pushing the pace, and this intensity created momentum for the next small breakthrough, and each breakthrough added more speed and power.” To the extent that he had a strategy, Packer writes, “it was this: he set himself in motion and caused others to move, and things became possible that never happened with everyone at rest.” The war ended, on terms that were less than just—but it ended.

Nothing could top that experience, and nothing did. When Clinton was reelected, Holbrooke hoped to be named secretary of state but was passed over for Madeleine Albright—another enemy. (Later, during the 2000 presidential campaign, she was heard to remark, “I hope Gore gets elected, but I’ll be damned if Holbrooke is going to succeed me.”) Instead Holbrooke continued to troubleshoot hot spots, serving as Clinton’s special envoy to Cyprus, U.S. ambassador to the UN, and U.S. negotiator during the Kosovo war in 1998. During the 2000s, he returned to Wall Street, allied himself with Hillary Clinton—his most faithful patron—and worked on his marriage. Around this time Anthony Lake made a perceptive and generous observation about his former friend: “What Holbrooke wants attention for is what he’s doing, not what he is. That’s a very serious quality and it’s his saving grace.” 

A reckless and impulsive action-diplomat with a flair for the dramatic was bound to rub the cerebral Barack Obama the wrong way. Packer ably chronicles the friction between the two men. During one briefing on Afghanistan, as Holbrooke described a decision point as being “at the savage intersection of policy, politics, and history,” Obama murmured, “Who talks like this?” But as Afghanistan proved more and more intractable, Obama did what other presidents had done before him: he sent in Holbrooke, this time as special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was an impossible job. Holbrooke fell out with Hamid Karzai; he could not afford to show daylight between himself and Secretary Clinton; he was nearly fired. Like Vietnam—which Obama quickly tired of hearing about—it was just too big a problem to solve.

If there is a line running through Holbrooke’s public life, it is a combination of liberal internationalism, a willingness to use American military power, and an easily overlooked decency toward the forgotten people of the world. Some of his worldview has gone out of fashion after the disastrous Iraq War. Is humanitarian intervention worth its very high costs? In Bosnia, yes. Libya, no. Kosovo, yes. Iraq, very much no. Rwanda, we will never know. But in the end, Richard Holbrooke’s life says less about foreign policy than about humanity itself. His profound imperfections reveal vulnerability and bathos, no more so than when he desperately tried to name all the people he loved as he lay dying—and then said to a staffer, “Make sure you’re recording my every witticism.” When a great man departs, it is often said that we will not see his like again. The mere thought of another Holbrooke is exhausting.

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