In ‘Our Man,’ a beautifully written tale of an ‘almost great’ life

Why We Wrote This

Richard Holbrooke’s “almost great” diplomatic career provides a metaphor for U.S. foreign policy and the end of an American faith in intervention.

‘Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century’ by George Packer, Knopf, 608pp.

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George Packer’s biography of diplomat Richard Holbrooke, best known for brokering the Dayton Accords that ended the Balkan wars of the 1990s, is also an elegy for the vision of American power that Holbrooke represented.

Holbrooke, who began his career as a U.S. Foreign Service officer in Vietnam and ended it as President Barack Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was a big man with a big ego and big appetites, and his flaws ensured that he remained “almost great,” says Packer, who won the National Book Award for his 2013 “The Unwinding.”

“Our confidence and energy, our reach and grasp, our excess and blindness – they were not so different from Holbrooke’s. He was our man,” he writes in his insightful, compelling book “Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century.”

A friend who noticed my copy of George Packer’s “Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century” asked me, “Holbrooke, he was secretary of state, right?” 

He was not, but he ardently wished to be, and the mistake is perhaps suggestive of how close he got. Holbrooke, who began his career as a U.S. Foreign Service officer in Vietnam and ended it as President Barack Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, is best known for negotiating the Dayton Accords that created a truce in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. He was a big man with a big ego and big appetites, and his flaws ensured that he remained, in Packer’s words, “almost great.” Why tell his story? For one, he’s a compelling character who led a fascinating life. But more importantly, Packer’s mesmerizing biography is an elegy not just for his subject but for the vision of American power that he represented.

Packer, a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of 2013’s National Book Award-winning “The Unwinding,” establishes Holbrooke as metaphor from the outset. “Our feeling that we could do anything gave us the Marshall Plan and Vietnam, the peace at Dayton and the endless Afghan war,” he declares in the introduction. “Our confidence and energy, our reach and grasp, our excess and blindness – they were not so different from Holbrooke’s. He was our man.”

As a young diplomat in Vietnam in the early 1960s, Holbrooke was an idealist. But after seven years embroiled in the conflict, he summed up Vietnam with what he called “one simple, horrible truth: we didn’t belong there, we had no business doing what we were doing, even the good parts of it.” The lessons he learned there were formative.

Holbrooke served in Democratic administrations and waited out Republican presidencies with lucrative jobs in investment banking. He was an assistant secretary of state in the Carter administration, but President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, disliked him, which prevented him from rising. He was President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Germany but again had made a powerful enemy, in this case Secretary of State Warren Christopher, an austere man who found Holbrooke’s bombast distasteful. 

But when Clinton finally became convinced that the United States ought to intervene to stop the ethnic bloodshed in Bosnia, even Christopher supported Holbrooke, a fierce and early advocate for U.S. intervention in the region, to lead the delegation. “The same traits of character that made the secretary of state shudder – the self-dramatization, the aggressiveness – would be more than a match for the Balkan warlords,” Packer writes. The chapters on Holbrooke’s diplomacy in the former Yugoslavia – relentless, fast-paced, insistent, bullying – are the heart of the book.

When it came to how the U.S. should deploy its power, Packer writes, “Dayton did not mark a new path in the American story. It was closer to the end of something.” Holbrooke believed that in the post-Cold War era, America’s superpower status gave the country the responsibility to manage humanitarian crises and political chaos around the world, but the idea never took hold.

The diplomat had enjoyed a good relationship with Hillary Clinton, and if she had won the 2008 presidential campaign, perhaps she would have rewarded his loyalty with the job he’d long wanted. Instead, she became secretary of state under Obama. She found a place for Holbrooke, putting him to work on Afghanistan and Pakistan, but he saw echoes of the Vietnam quagmire and couldn’t stop talking about them, becoming, in Packer’s words, “a Vietnam bore.” 

Obama, who disliked drama and didn’t care for being lectured to, made clear to his staff that he didn’t want Holbrooke around.

Packer acknowledges, at the end of this insightful and beautifully written book, that Holbrooke’s memory will fade, along with “the idea of a life lived as if the world needed an American hand to help set things right.” In December 2010, Holbrooke fell ill and was rushed to the hospital, where he died. Even as they rode in the ambulance, Holbrooke protested to his deputy, “I have so much to do.”

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