Book Reviews

Feet of Clay

George Packer’s Richard Holbrooke is both daring and brilliant— and self-aggrandizing and cynical.

By Hussein Ibish

Tagged Foreign PolicyLiberalismNeoconservatism

Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century By George Packer • Knopf • 2019 • 608 pages • $30

George Packer’s captivating but not entirely convincing new biography, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and The End of the American Century, champions its subject, albeit in attenuated, even halfhearted, tones. It’s certainly not a hagiography. Packer is a masterful storyteller and wordsmith, and he gives us both his main argument on behalf of Holbrooke and a guiding metaphor for his often-repulsive shortcomings upfront. Packer’s essential argument is that, for all his flaws, Holbrooke embodied the promise of American liberal interventionism in the post-Vietnam era better than any other policymaker, and that this orientation is preferable to the alternatives, such as the neoconservatism of the George W. Bush era or Donald Trump’s mercantilist neo-isolationism. For Packer, Holbrooke was a flawed but relatively superior advocate and practitioner of a flawed but relatively superior U.S. foreign policy doctrine, both mainly recommended by contrast with the alternatives. It’s hardly a whole-hearted endorsement.

Packer is captivated by Holbrooke’s formidable intellect and haunting voice. Still, he recognizes the late diplomat’s considerable defects. This idol had, he tells us—in often disgusting detail, especially in the prologue, which neatly summarizes all the primary arguments of the narrative, and then throughout the subsequent history—feet of clay. Or rather feet of fetid flesh; in Packer’s telling, hideous, appalling feet that “swelled up and became marbled red and white like steak,” requiring “special shoes” and “sweating through half a dozen pairs” of socks daily. On the very first page, we are introduced to these repugnant extremities and their long-suffering socks, invited to imagine him “draping them over his seat pocket in first class, or else cramming used socks next to the classified documents in his briefcase.”

These feet serve as a synecdoche for all of Holbrooke’s flaws—raging narcissism, extreme arrogance, wild ambition, emotional cruelty, and the willingness to trample anything and anyone in his way—which Packer details with admirable lucidity. Yet Packer also romanticizes Holbrooke as the most talented American diplomat of his crucial generation in the “American half-century.” “Ideas mattered to him,” Packer insists, “but never for their own sake, only if they produced solutions to problems,” and he stuck to “the biggest, hardest ones”—a debatable claim, since he carefully avoided all things Middle Eastern.

For Packer, Holbrooke epitomized one of the central competing impulses of post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy: the liberal internationalism that came to be associated most with the Bill Clinton Administration, beginning with the intervention in Somalia and culminating in the use of force and diplomacy to end the Balkan wars, including the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 to stop the war in Kosovo. This impulse, also essentially expressed in the limited NATO intervention in Libya in 2011 under Barack Obama, emphasizes U.S. management of chaos to preserve stability and order and minimize humanitarian disasters in the context of an international rules-based order, carried out with the cooperation of large, fixed alliances like NATO and multilateral organizations like the United Nations.

Initially, it competed mainly with the neoconservative orientation that dominated much of the George W. Bush Administration, which sought to cast the United States as a relatively independent and globally dominant actor using its might to spread democracy aggressively around the world, and particularly in the Middle East. Since this approach crashed and burned in Iraq and Afghanistan, Holbrooke-style liberal internationalism now mainly competes with a still-developing Donald Trump foreign policy vision that is strongly opposed to fixed alliances and all forms of multilateralism and has strong mercantilist and neo-isolationist tendencies. Indeed, organized neo-isolationism seems to be getting another boost in the Trump era with the formation of the Quincy Institute, a new foreign policy think tank which brings anti-interventionists from the far left and far right together with funding from the unlikely pair of Charles Koch and George Soros. Its seems to be formed precisely to oppose everything Holbrooke ever stood for. In contrast to the extremes of both hubristic neoconservatism and solipsistic neo-isolationism, liberal internationalism seems today like an Aristotelian golden mean, neither seeking to dominate nor ignore the rest of the world. What’s more debatable is whether Holbrooke’s career is the best advertisement for this genuinely persuasive position.

Our Man is squarely in the “great man” tradition of historiography. It assumes Holbrooke either was a “great man,” or nearly one, and we are supposed to readily agree: “He came of age when there was still a place for it and that that place could only be filled by an American.” But while Packer allows that Holbrooke was only “almost great,” he never attempts to define what constitutes “greatness.” That makes it hard to test his assertions about Holbrooke.

Holbrooke was born in Manhattan in 1941 to a Polish-Jewish father named Abraham Golbraich who emigrated to the United States in 1939, with an Italian medical degree, and quickly refashioned himself Dan A. Holbrooke, MD. As Packer explains in detail, out of college the younger Holbrooke joined the State Department and was posted to Vietnam where he became an early, but very quiet and cautious, war skeptic. After a stint in the Peace Corps and at Foreign Policy magazine, he joined the Jimmy Carter campaign and was appointed assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs. During the Reagan years, Holbrooke dedicated himself to a little writing and a great deal of capital accumulation in investment banking. It was the Clinton Administration, which he served as assistant secretary of state for European affairs starting in 1994, that gave him his greatest challenge and opportunity in the form of the increasingly appalling ethno-nationalist war in the fragmenting former Yugoslavia.

Packer’s case for Holbrooke’s near-greatness, if that means anything, relies almost entirely on that single feat: His negotiation of the end of the Balkan war, particularly the peace agreement at Dayton. It’s long been widely recognized that Holbrooke played a singular role in ending that terrible war, and he got a lot of credit for it. Packer makes that familiar case, although he acknowledges that Holbrooke needed both his best and worst qualities to accomplish it. Who else, Packer asks, might have been able to “cajole and bully and outlast the Balkan warlords until they sat down together for the initialing ceremony?” He was so effective with Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, whom he interacted with like an “old friend,” in part because they shared some of the same penchant for political thuggishness. “In Serbia,” apparently, “his last name became a verb: holbrukciti, to get your way through brute force.”

Packer, one of the most respected American long-form journalists and staff writer now at The Atlantic after a long and acclaimed stint at The New Yorker, knew and admired Holbrooke, who clearly managed to capture his imagination. Building on that solid personal foundation, Packer was given complete access to Holbrooke’s intimate diaries and letters, along with full cooperation from the diplomat’s third wife and widow, Kati Marton. He interviewed 250 of his associates. Packer paints vivid landscapes of Holbrooke’s tempestuous relationships with Tony Lake, early a close friend and later a bitter foe; Hillary Clinton, who appreciated his talents; Barack Obama, who had no patience for his bombast and self-regard; his mentor Les Gelb; and friends like Frank Wisner and many others.

Packer cites an impressive array of different participants in the Balkan drama as acknowledging that Holbrooke had a unique, or at least unusual, set of characteristics and abilities that enabled him to broker that agreement. To Bosnians at the U.S. Embassy, Packer writes, “Holbrooke didn’t seem like a diplomat—he was more like a hooligan, rude, almost lunatic . . . He acted just like the men who brought the war . . . ”, and yet “only this type of man would stand up to the warlords . . . And force them to stop.” “Let’s give him his due. He ended a war,” Packer urges, and that’s only fair, especially given how terrible that conflict was, reintroducing genocide and mass ethnic cleansing to Europe for the first time since the days of Hitler.

Still, Packer’s account of the tragic 1995 armored personnel carrier crash involving Holbrooke’s party on Bosnia’s Mount Igman, in which three American officials were killed and others injured, leaves a very bad taste in the mouth. As Packer explains in what he admits is “absurd detail,” from the very day it happened, Holbrooke spun a false narrative of the events, one in which he played a central role that was entirely fictional: running to the rescue and taking charge of the situation, when he did no such thing. Packer agrees that in fact, Holbrooke did what “the most important person on the mountain was supposed to do. He left the heroics to others.” But Holbrooke then concocted a story that turned “the accident into something larger than a mere tragedy,” a rallying cry to honor the dead in a mission he led.

But not only did Holbrooke’s account of the Igman tragedy in his memoir falsely represent him as a central and heroic player in the aftermath that centered on the assertion that the real hero of the day, Lt. Colonel Randall Banky, simply “had disappeared.” As Packer notes, “Banky’s military friends assumed this meant that he’d been a coward and had run away.” When later confronted by Banky, Holbrooke promised to correct the record but never did, and Banky believed “his Army career ended because ‘Colonel Banky had disappeared.’” In passages like these, and there are many of them scattered throughout this book, it’s hard not to imagine Holbrooke’s crimson, engorged, and rank feet shoved in our collective faces.

In this case and several others, Packer deftly counters his own moral caveats in the Holbrooke saga with a practical rationalization that almost convinces: Here, the use of the lie for noble or at least practical purposes. The Igman tragedy combined with a second Serbian rocket attack on a Sarajevo market, “broke the years-long Western deadlock in Bosnia and set American foreign policy on a new, more muscular course,” involving a willingness to use force that ultimately allowed Holbrooke to leverage the parties into an agreement.

The other great extended metaphor of Our Man is Holbrooke’s diplomacy as an exercise in political and psychological theater, best exemplified at Dayton, Ohio. Dayton, which took place in November 1995 after three years of bloodshed, arguably still represents the zenith of American post-Cold War diplomatic achievement and undoubtedly saved an untold number of innocent lives. “Holbrooke’s diplomacy was theater for moral stakes,” Packer writes, and, in an extended metaphor of staged drama, that “I keep thinking of live theater—Holbrooke as a producer-director, an impresario” of the spectacle. “He refused to sell tickets” to the press, Packer writes, and describes the use of “extras,” “characters,” “plot,” “stage,” “closing date,” “script,” and “improv” that Holbrooke coordinated to force his way at Dayton. Holbrooke captivated his wife by “his tireless performance on the stage of his own design.” Packer acknowledges that the arch-villain of the Yugoslav war, Milosevic, was also the Balkan player most committed to achieving an agreement at Dayton, because he was desperate to get out of a crippling sanctions regime and to finally control his unruly Bosnian Serb allies, and made the concessions to secure it. But in his single-minded attention to Holbrooke, Packer does not dwell on this astounding irony in the Dayton drama.

This is, after all, not a history of that war but a detailed biography of Holbrooke. “Our man” is supposed to represent something. The details of his earlier professional incarnations, his growing disillusionment with Vietnam in the 1960s, his losing battles with Zbigniew Brzezinski in the Carter Administration, and his forays into commentary and business, all set the stage for his indisputable achievement at Dayton. After that, Packer writes, “it seemed as if Holbrooke might be the author of a new doctrine.” That would be the kind of liberal interventionism that appears to have perished in Iraq, a war that Holbrooke supported, although Packer suggests, entirely without evidence, that this support may have been disingenuous and intended to preserve his political viability. Packer describes these “ideas in action” as the recognition that “power brought responsibilities, and if we fail to face them the world’s suffering would worsen, and eventually other people’s problems would become ours,” and that chaos should be managed “not necessarily with force, but with the full weight of American influence.”

Packer argues that Holbrooke was committed to the idea that “America stood for something more than just its own power.” But, again, Packer never defines what, exactly, that was, other than alleviating somebody’s suffering somewhere, sometimes. This is hard to square with Holbrooke’s participation in and endorsement of the U.S. support of the retention of Cambodia’s UN seat by the Khmer Rouge, and, in effect, formal recognition of that government’s authority, despite the very genocide that he was the first American official to condemn in congressional testimony. Packer quotes Holbrooke as saying, “It ran counter to my private views,” but that “I had to swallow hard,” because, as Packer explains, “Holbrooke pointed out that a no vote would cost the United States far more than it would gain.” There is no explanation in this book, or any other I’ve ever read, convincingly explaining what intolerable price U.S. foreign policy would’ve paid by refusing to endorse Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia despite Vietnam’s intervention. We are apparently supposed to assume that the near-great man knew whereof he spoke about the national interest in backing Pol Pot, despite his own private reservations.

Despite that, and many other complications both included and omitted from this volume, Packer argues that “he represented what was best about us,” and that even if there were problems with the Holbrooke approach, “I’d still take him over the alternatives.” “Idealism without egotism is feckless,” Packer insists, while “egotism without idealism is destructive. It was never truer of anyone than Holbrooke.” It’s a compelling formulation, but while Dayton is undoubtedly a major achievement, if Packer wanted to make the case that Holbrooke was the embodiment of this dialectical unity of opposites, he doesn’t really succeed. The virtues of a policy that avoids the frenzied overreach of neoconservatism and the cynical instrumentality of neo-isolationism should not depend on representations of the relative merits—whether personal, intellectual or professional—of individual practitioners. The point is better made in terms of balancing national interests and universal values, independent of personalities.

There is no doubt Holbrooke was a remarkably intelligent and talented official. He and other brilliant and senior American diplomats may have understood one another with disturbing clarity. “I have never heard such a vile, profane man,” Holbrooke says of Brzezinski. “He is evil, a liar, dangerous,” Cyrus Vance agrees. Bill Clinton describes Lake, Holbrooke’s one-time friend and long-time enemy—especially after Holbrooke seduced Lake’s wife and then came to blame Lake for the transgression—“with admiration” as “mean and nasty.” No less an expert than Henry Kissinger describes Holbrooke as “the most viperous character I know around this town.” Meanwhile, “our man” is reduced to whining pitifully that “for some reason people don’t like me.” One starts to wonder if lack of character, breeding mutual dislike and distrust, is a senior foreign policy job requirement.

There’s a great deal in this book, especially about Holbrooke’s endless romantic travails and dysfunctional family life, that feels superfluous and, indeed, is downright boring. At least 100 pages of it could have been chopped off without cost. In its place, Packer might have tried to define his notion of greatness and near-greatness, and what he understands as the imperatives of American liberal internationalism, all through the lens of Holbrooke’s career. I’d readily agree with Packer that, particularly in the aftermath of the Iraq fiasco, and above all in the age of Trump’s mercantilist neo-isolationism, the liberal internationalist policy orientation desperately needs to be recuperated, championed and, above all, explained and sold, if possible, to the broader American public.

If, in Our Man, Packer seeks to use Holbrooke’s career to explicate and defend that imperative, he hasn’t succeeded. The Holbrooke that emerges from this book is too self-centered, self-aggrandizing, cynical, and pragmatic, and not programmatic and visionary enough, to serve the purpose. The most lasting impression isn’t of a lost innocence, which for some reason Americans always believe we’ve just misplaced, nor of a moment and personage of tremendous promise that didn’t quite realize itself, nor of the last, best chance at greatness of a fleeting and now departed American half-century. Instead, the most enduring image is of Holbrooke’s literal and metaphorical feet of ocher, sticky clay.

Read more about Foreign PolicyLiberalismNeoconservatism

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

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