In the case of the globetrotting American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, there is only one degree of separation between him and almost every significant figure in American foreign policy in living memory. His surrogate father in high school was Dean Rusk, President John F. Kennedy’s secretary of State. He played tennis with General Maxwell Taylor, JFK’s top military adviser, as well with Robert Kennedy. He had lunch with George Kennan, perhaps the most towering figure of postwar American foreign policy, the day his second son was born. He wrote one of the Pentagon Papers—yes, those Pentagon papers—commissioned by Robert McNamara. And years later, he ghostwrote the memoirs of Clark Clifford, counselor to presidents from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson.
Holbrooke was even a member of Averell Harriman’s Vietnam peace delegation in Paris as a young Foreign Service officer. That friendship lasted decades and evolved into a special relationship with Pamela Harriman, through whom he socialized with Washington’s political and media elite, including future Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Later in life, he befriended Pete Peterson, a billionaire and Commerce secretary for Richard Nixon who kept him plugged into the New York worlds of finance, law and entertainment. These were just some of the older men who helped him thrive in international high society’s power elite, smoothing his path to high posts in the Carter, Clinton and Obama administrations. When it came to his peers — men like Anthony Lake, Frank Wisner, Strobe Talbott and Leslie Gelb — they were either the closest of friends or, in the case of Lake, best friends and best enemies.
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Especially for those of us from a younger generation of American diplomacy, George Packer’s new biography, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, is not only a riveting read but also an eye-opening psychodrama, revealing the feuds and friendships behind the scenes that often drove and always colored American foreign policy for five decades, from Vietnam in the 1960s to the Balkans in the 1990s to Afghanistan today.
But the book purports to be more than just a biography: This tale of Holbrooke’s diplomatic ambition and dramatic death is also intended as an authoritative historical statement about the end of an era—and a pessimistic one about the future of American power. When it was excerpted in the Atlantic, for which Packer is a staff writer, the headline splashed across the cover was “Elegy for the American Century.” American diplomats, we are told, will never again be as relevant as Holbrooke and his predecessors were because America’s power to influence our world has waned — the American century has come to a close. As a consequence of its brilliance as a biography and the seriousness of Packer’s ambitions, Our Man is sure to have an effect on the intensifying debate about the right level of U.S. engagement in today’s world. Even if a new wave of “America First” isolationism wasn’t rising in our domestic politics, defining the U.S. role would still be difficult in an international environment marked by a return of great power confrontation with China and Russia, continued chaos and political upheaval across continents, biblical refugee flows, and a series of hot wars in the greater Middle East.
Unfortunately, the book draws only part of the lesson it could take from Holbrooke’s career. It paints a compelling collective portrait of the Vietnam generation’s brutal infighting and, especially, of its disastrous consequences in Iraq—but in focusing on only the negative lessons from that history, it risks adding a defense of declinism to the debate over America’s role in the world just as an important presidential campaign season is starting up. With the Iraq fiasco still haunting both parties, Afghanistan’s conflict approaching the 20-year mark and President Donald Trump destroying what remains of a domestic consensus on American internationalism, it is imperative to get the diplomatic history right.
The Holbrooke story will never be told better than it is in Packer’s tale of this one-of-a-kind American diplomat. The author is a public intellectual whose evolution from journalist to prominent supporter of President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq gives him a particularly profound appreciation of Holbrooke’s standing in the foreign policy firmament, which may be the reason Kati Marton, Holbrooke’s widow, allowed him unfettered access to all his diaries and other documents heretofore unavailable. This rare access combines with Packer’s extensive reporting and gifted writing to bring us as close as we may ever get to the truth about Holbrooke’s life and work, its high and lows, and its rare intersection with many of the finest diplomats and journalists from Vietnam, Bosnia, Washington and Afghanistan. The remarkable result reads more like a final draft than a first draft of history.
Too often the picture is not a pretty one. Holbrooke was already known for his in-your-face style—he could be aggressive, even bullying, in pursuit of U.S. objectives, which were often hard to disentangle from Holbrooke’s personal ambitions. Packer shows us this self-regard playing out in Holbrooke’s climb to the top of his profession. Again and again we see Holbrooke crossing lines of propriety like few others, revealing how often he leaked to the media and lied to his friends, then covered his tracks—sometimes, as in the case of Frank Wisner, by fingering a close friend for one of his damaging leaks during the Vietnam War. Although uncomfortable, we learn about a critical broken friendship that came back to haunt him: his relationship with President Bill Clinton’s national security adviser Tony Lake. It was a feud Clinton apparently never could understand. It was not a matter of war and peace or bureaucratic intrigue that led to Lake’s hatred of Holbrooke, we learn: Instead, it was mostly a consequence of Holbrooke telling him that he had fallen in love with Lake’s wife. So much for policy differences.
Which makes it even more mind-boggling that Holbrooke’s signature achievement was made possible by his friend-turned-foe, Lake. Packer portrays Lake as having the rare ability to separate his personal feelings from diplomatic business, at least during the Clinton era. Indeed, it was his cooperation with then-U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright in 1995, while Holbrooke was on an extended vacation, that drove a change in U.S. policy on the catastrophic war in Bosnia, from passivity and deference to Europe’s priorities and the United Nation’s studied neutrality to an assertion of American leadership with intensive diplomacy backed by NATO’s formidable firepower. This policy shift, in turn, led to the bombardment of the aggressor Bosnian Serbs and what would be seen as Holbrooke’s greatest diplomatic achievement: ending the Bosnian war.
Holbrooke’s role in NATO’s 1995 bombardment of Bosnian Serb forces is often misunderstood, as it is by Packer. It was not until NATO finally decided to use air power that the Bosnian Serb military halted its campaign of ethnic cleansing and mass murder of Bosnian Muslims. Despite how it may have seemed to the public, the individual most responsible for setting those deadly air strikes in motion was British General Rupert Smith, who used his authority to unleash NATO airpower until the Bosnian Serbs agreed to end their brutal siege of Sarajevo. And it was Lake, leading an interagency team on his most important diplomatic mission, who presented Clinton’s muscular new policy to our European allies in London and Paris. But when it came time to tell the warring parties of the new strategy, the torch was passed, with Lake’s approval, to the man he most despised to finish the job. Then, to give the diplomat his due credit, with the power equation finally shifted away from the Serb aggressors and in favor of the Bosnians, Holbrooke’s brand of bluster, bluff and flattery at the negotiations in Dayton, Ohio, proved decisive in bringing peace to that troubled land after three years of war and misery. At Dayton, Holbrooke ended a war.
Packer is accurate in saying there will never be another Holbrooke. For one thing, the pool of America’s foreign policy professionals has expanded many times from the relatively small men’s club that dominated the halls of power for so long. For another, two powerful women, Albright and Hillary Clinton, soon became the leading players, taking the stage as Packer’s narrative became a tale of frustrated ambition and sudden death worthy of a Greek tragedy.
In fairness, I should say that as a close adviser and spokesman for Albright, I had a difficult relationship with Holbrooke. As Packer himself reports, I wasn’t alone in finding Holbrooke exasperating in the extreme. In fact, I remember once smashing one of those large government-issued cellphones against the side of the secretary of State’s Boeing 707 in frustration after “our man” and I argued over some detail of the Kosovo diplomacy in 1999. But I respected his boldness and unequaled knowledge of American diplomacy, and in subsequent years our relationship improved to a stage that might be described as a wary professional friendship.
Packer’s declinism is possible partly because he glides over important achievements. He spends many pages bemoaning the fact that the peace in Bosnia made at Dayton was flawed, which has meant little political development and continued ethnic struggles in that once peaceful center of ethnic coexistence. All of which is true.
But it is also the case that most of the Balkan countries are democratic, independent and allies of the West. That came about because in the wake of the years it took to act in Bosnia, President Clinton and Secretary Albright developed a strategy for the emerging crisis in Kosovo that improved on the previous model, accelerating decision-making, and thus managing to head off some of the shortcomings that were codified in Dayton.
Holbrooke and Albright worked together on Kosovo, but as that province exploded into violence—when Albanians’ demands for equal rights triggered a violent crackdown by Serbian forces controlled by strongman Slobodan Milosevic—she felt a far greater sense of urgency with respect to the use of force and resisted his continual pressures to make diplomatic engagement with Milosevic a higher priority. While a peace agreement and diplomatic solution were given every realistic chance, Milosevic’s clear guilt was not masked in a cloak of constant engagement and theater. Instead, the Albright State Department moved quickly to establish principles that would synchronize force and diplomacy. NATO unity and international legitimacy was one principle; another was a commitment to a U.S.-led peacekeeping force in a postwar environment, agreed in advance. And American leadership was less bruising than in Bosnia, as a daily call was established with foreign ministers of the UK, France, Italy and Germany to guide the process. The partnership with our allies was real in Kosovo, and not just a fig leaf for Washington dictating every outcome.
The result of this model was an unqualified success. Kosovo was free and Milosevic was overthrown by his own people and sent for trial before the international war crimes tribunal in the Hague. And the truth is that back then Holbrooke was frustrated by his second-tier role and took to second-guessing Secretary Albright every step of the way.
Packer’s excessive focus on the drawbacks of Dayton may be part of the reason for his pessimism regarding the power of the United States. This dim view of U.S. leadership is then reinforced by the final act of the drama, which centers on Holbrooke’s inability in 2009 and 2010 to persuade the Obama administration to develop the necessary ingredients to negotiate an end to the war in Afghanistan.
This is the most painful part of the book for admirers of Holbrooke. Having lost again in his never ending quest to be secretary of State—this time to Hillary Clinton, who he regarded as a friend and supporter—he was given a major post as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. By this time the war in Afghanistan, having been ignored by the Bush administration, was in its eighth year and provoking comparisons to the Vietnam conflict during which Holbrooke’s career began. This was different than Vietnam in an important way: Afghanistan’s terrorist network had shown on Sept. 11, 2001, what can happen when a far-away conflict comes to America. Yet for Holbrooke and his generation, the lessons about getting trapped in a distant and misguided war seemed more and more relevant. Secretary Clinton was hoping that the man who ended a war in Bosnia could achieve similar success there.
But in a meaningful sense, Holbrooke did not get the mandate he needed. If Holbrooke were alive today, I believe he would be looking over at Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, Trump’s envoy to Afghanistan, with a certain degree of envy. Not only has the current administration decided not to expand America’s military deployment—a strategy Holbrooke secretly supported in 2009—but Khalilzad has also been given space to negotiate with the Taliban to end the Afghanistan War without a lot of oversight from American officials in Washington. There is a relevant historical analogy here that Holbrooke absorbed from his time with W. Averell Harriman. Harriman often told Holbrooke that when it came to his most successful diplomatic missions—keeping Stalin on side for President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II and negotiating a partial nuclear test ban treaty with Russia on behalf of JFK—he had a straightforward objective and little or no micromanagement from Washington.
By contrast, Packer tells us in excruciating detail how Holbrooke’s experience as President Barack Obama’s envoy to Afghanistan was the opposite of Khalilzad’s today. Holbrooke said he had the worst office in the State Department, that the U.S. military was leading around the diplomats, rather than having the civilians in control. All the while, the White House was signaling its contempt for the special representative. Obama would travel to Afghanistan and White House aides would hide the fact of the trip from Holbrooke until Air Force One was landing in Kabul. And not once would Holbrooke—a man who saw himself as the bridge to America’s titanic inside players of diplomacy—ever meet the president alone.
This was Holbrooke’s world in 2009 and 2010, the last years of his life. And in his final months of his life, several generals worked together to build a case for his dismissal, we learn. We watch how this formerly formidable bureaucratic infighter is reduced to begging colleagues for support and praise. With only Secretary Clinton still in his corner and little to show for all the effort expended, Holbrooke literally bursts his biggest blood vessel in the secretary of State’s office—the office to which he had aspired for so many decades—and dies in the operating room later that night.
As a biographer, Packer has proved beyond doubt that Holbrooke was an almost-great man. He is right to demonstrate how rare it is for someone who is not secretary of State to be so dominant and prominent in American foreign policy.
Is American international leadership really at end? Is it really true that American diplomacy is no longer capable of greatness?
But the second part of his thesis is more assertion than analysis. Is American international leadership really at end? Is it really true that American diplomacy is no longer capable of greatness? “The American century,” he writes, “ended in Baghdad and Helmand, in Aleppo and Odessa, and in Beijing. … Another place the American century ended was Bosnia.”
The shortcomings of the Dayton plan for Bosnia’s future prospects and the length and seeming futility of the war in Afghanistan are reasons for frustration, but do they justify Packer’s grandiose assertions about the end of American leadership? No doubt America’s costly and ill-considered occupation in Iraq has also damaged perceptions of U.S. leadership. Confidence in international action has been shattered in many Western countries, too. Packer himself went through his own wringer on the question of U.S. intervention. He was one of many prominent liberals who supported the Iraq War and then was understandably demoralized by the failures to stabilize Iraq after the fall of Saddam. His compelling account, “The Assassins’ Gate,” documents his disillusionment.
Packer wasn’t the only liberal hawk mugged by the Bush administration’s multiple failures before, during and after the Iraq invasion. But just as lessons from history must be learned, they should not be overlearned. In my view, the model of American leadership using diplomacy backed by force that President Clinton and Secretary Albright enunciated and implemented in Kosovo—U.S. leadership, international support, a postwar plan and international peacekeeping—has never really been applied since. Indeed, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously told the Pentagon that nothing about the Balkan wars should be seen as a guide for the future. Sure enough, in Afghanistan the Bush administration refused allied support and rejected NATO’s historic offer of help before the war. And it refused to send a peacekeeping force to key areas when the Taliban fell. Instead, key resources and energy were diverted from Afghanistan back in 2002 when they could have been decisive and attention turned to the ill-fated invasion in Iraq.
Just as dangerous was the overreaction to the Iraq fiasco that led to international abdication in Syria. Failure to act in Syria has devastated the international order, with hundreds of thousands dead, millions of refugees destabilizing Syria’s neighbors and Europe, and a previously unthinkable vacuum that the Kremlin has filled with its massive military campaign to save Bashar Assad and return Russia to the region, to the detriment of us all.
The United States will never again have the near total monopoly on military power and economic production we had at the end of World War II. Too often that moment is set as some kind of baseline, when in fact it was an aberration. The growth of other global economies, such as Germany’s and Japan’s, is more a sign of a successful U.S. policy than a diminution of U.S economic power. It was our policy to promote American growth by building large trading partners in Europe, Asia and around the world. That policy has worked, as billions of people’s standard of living has risen. Nor will there be another unipolar moment like the 1990s, when Soviet communism’s collapse left the United States without rivals. Russia has rebuilt its military and the Chinese are doing the same.
China and Russia are genuine adversaries seeking to undermine American power and potential. And many of our successful friends around the world have grown weary of a sometimes-aggressive leadership style. But most of the ingredients of America’s leadership position remain. It will require a new resolve to lead internationally, new approaches to tap the potential of our partners and friends, and restored confidence in American leadership. In truth, it is more a matter of will than wallet.
Books that suggest American greatness is behind us can serve to sap that will without justification. We are still the indispensable nation, for instance, when it comes to leading our hemisphere against a regime in Venezuela that has impoverished its people and caused chaos and instability across the region and leading our European allies to contain Russia’s international aggression and contempt for the Western institutions many thought it wished to join. And in Asia, where China’s new, more aggressive leadership presents clearer dangers to the region, the openness to American leadership shows what distinguishes us from global powers of the past. We have voluntary military relationships with dozens of countries in East Asia and the greater Middle East—the kinds of alliances China will never have. Countries like Vietnam want American ships visiting their ports. Japan, Thailand, and others may have specific problems with the current administration, but they do not want to be dominated by China. They still look to America to balance Chinese power, keep the sea lanes open and allow their economic growth to continue. None of them, not even North Korea, wants an alliance with communist China.
The secret to wielding American power on behalf of enlightened international leadership is much the same today as it has been since the days after World War II, when American diplomacy was harnessed to create decades of international peace and growing prosperity. Just as those diplomats created alliances and a structure of partnerships to support American leadership, it is the way we manage our allies and partners that will be the key determinant of what is possible and what is not. Maintaining and expanding alliances has not been a high priority for the Trump administration, and the president’s statements and actions too often weaken our key asset. But when Trump is gone, those alliances can be rebuilt and strengthened. Perhaps they won’t be quite as strong as they were in the 1990s, but the world has changed since then. Certainly they can be strong enough for American diplomacy to matter again and for American diplomats to do great things.
They may do these great things without the kind of personal references to the wise men of the postwar era that Holbrooke was famous for. But there is still a lot of work to do. And for as far as we can see, America will still be the strongest military power—with alliances that multiply that power exponentially—and have an economic strength second to none and a political system that, painful as it to watch sometimes, is far more admired and emulated around the world than the alternatives.
Ironically, Packer deploys some of the hubris and hyperbole he correctly attributes to Holbrooke by making a subtheme of his biography the idea of the end of an era of American leadership. And unfortunately it seems that Packer the biographer has adopted some of the myths of American decline that have been popular in recent years. Certainly, we have had successes and failures. But it is far from clear from this account that American leadership has reached a point of no return.
In the end, if we marshal our substantial power and the energy of our allies, there is every possibility that the United States will play an equally important role in the next century as we did in the last one. Yes, we need to regain the will we have lost since the Iraq fiasco and the 2008 financial crisis, but the possibilities are still there, whether or not our brilliant biographer can see them.