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“A bull with no china shop”: the diplomat who embodied the many sides of American optimism
Diplomat Richard Holbrooke was at the heart of America's greatest foreign policy challenges in the latter 20th century — and represented the end of a national era.
“Above all, not too much zeal,” Talleyrand famously counselled his fellow diplomats. Richard Holbrooke was a keen student of history, but he never got the memo.
This giant of American diplomacy—who worked for Democratic presidents from Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama, and who helped broker peace in the former Yugoslavia—was certainly undiplomatic. Holbrooke sought to bend history with his self-belief. He earned the grudging respect of Slobodan Miloševi?, and his name became a Serbian verb—holbrukciti—to get your way through brute force. Needy, offensive, mischievous, sceptical, abrasive, he combined physical courage, moral passion, boundless energy and a sense of fun. He elbowed into other people’s cars, lifts, meetings, portfolios, peace processes, offices, even bathrooms—anything to further his agenda, and his career. He rarely paid for the lunch, cab, apartment, failed marriage or failed policy. “If Richard asks you for something, just say yes,” Henry Kissinger once said. “If you say no, you’ll eventually get to yes, but the journey will be very painful.”
Holbrooke became the embodiment of an outward-looking, muscular US foreign policy. But was he swimming against the tide of history? And does he deserve a central place in that history? George Packer’s unsparing new biography tries to find the answers. Packer has had great access to Holbrooke’s papers and friends. But this is no hagiography—he gives his subject more credit than that.
Holbrooke’s Jewish parents fled Europe and he was born in New York in 1941, the year Henry Luce defined the American century. They buried their own history by giving him as many non-Jewish names (Richard Charles Albert) as they could cram on a passport; his father had already changed his own surname from Goldbraich. He was marked by his father’s early death, when Richard was 15. “Throughout his life, the person whose approval he needed most was no longer there to be impressed,” writes Packer. He carried with him the memory of their visit to the construction site of the new United Nations building in 1949, aged eight. His father told him the postwar world could be different. Holbrooke took it as a mission statement.
Inspired by Kennedy, his first posting was as a civilian officer in Vietnam, from 1963. His idealism soon faded amid the chaos and incompetence. As the US got bogged down, colleagues circulated Graham Greene’s The Quiet American—“I never knew a man who had better motives for the trouble he caused.” And the Peanuts cartoon of Charlie Brown wondering, “how can we lose when we’re so sincere?!”
In 1969, Holbrooke wrote a letter to his friend Tony Lake who had recently joined President Nixon’s National Security Council: “we have to get out of Vietnam. The war has already spread a poison through our nation which will take years to neutralise.” When Saigon fell, he wrote in his notebook of “one simple, horrible truth: we didn’t belong there, we had no business doing what we were doing, even the good parts of it.”
After Vietnam he became the youngest ever US assistant secretary under Jimmy Carter. Later, after years out of office, he was a popular ambassador to Germany (1993-4), and became Bill Clinton’s envoy in the Balkans, which turned out to be his finest hour.
When Clinton complained that he was “getting creamed” for his inaction, Holbrooke seized his chance. “He gave the impression of being always in motion,” writes Packer, “sweeping with his entourage in and out of airports and hotels, crowding each day with meetings deep into the night, always pushing the pace, and this intensity created momentum for the next small breakthrough.” After watching another theatrical display of anger, one sceptical colleague conceded that he was “a true character. Can’t fail but like him. He is something to watch.”
Holbrooke, who was no dove, persuaded Clinton to “bomb for peace.” At one negotiation in Dayton, Ohio, he seated the Bosnian Serbs below a Tomahawk cruise missile hanging from the ceiling, the same kind that had been fired at their forces. He bullied, caressed and corralled the factions towards the 1995 Dayton Accord, which brought peace between the warring Balkan factions. It would never have happened without him.
The Holbrooke legend was burnished by the man himself. He served as ambassador to the UN (1999-2001), where he directed his talents to negotiating US dues, thus saving the institution from decline. He put Aids on the Security Council agenda for the first time, and recognised early on that modern diplomacy would take place beyond the maps and chaps inside the room.
Throughout his career, Holbrooke was a writer-diplomat. When the US team in Saigon was banned from talking to journalists, he sought them out. He leaked relentlessly. “In journalism I was regarded as a bureaucrat, in government as a journalist, so I have felt an outsider in both.” He took two years off to edit Foreign Policy.
The wheels came off when he became envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan under Obama. His abrasive style quickly led to a fallout with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a man who—the greatest sin for Holbrooke—wanted power for its own sake. He alienated the US embassy, the generals and Washington. Obama regarded him as a prima donna who lectured him about Vietnam. Excluded and humiliated—the White House didn’t even tell him when Obama was in Afghanistan—he became a shadow of his former self, sulking through meetings when Obama needed him to argue against a proposed troop surge. Perhaps Holbrooke recognised that if he applied the real lesson of Vietnam—don’t get involved in the first place—he’d be out of a job. At one point, Obama’s National Security Adviser fired him, only to be overruled by Hillary Clinton.
In December 2010 Richard Holbrooke collapsed from a heart attack in Clinton’s office. But by that time the “Holbrooke” of legend was already dead.
Holbrooke always marched towards gunfire. In Vietnam, he asked to be sent to the Mekong Delta, which he called a “supremely unlivable place.” For Packer, he was always “unafraid to face the truth, cared enough to act on it, and was willing to take the consequences.” Even as a junior official, he questioned President Johnson’s Vietnam strategy. He wrote parts of the Pentagon Papers, which took apart US policy. Ideas mattered to him, and the more fiendish the problem, the better.
But his “disorderly presence” was also his greatest flaw. “The propulsion from idea to action was never broken by self-scrutiny,” writes Packer. He couldn’t hide his ambition. He lobbied for a Nobel Peace Prize, and elbowed Holocaust survivors off the bus taking them to an Auschwitz commemoration. A colleague in Vietnam advised him that “you will move faster if you slow down.” But it was too late. One girlfriend wrote in a Newsweek piece taking down the culture of Washington that “the only romance in town is the one with power.” Everyone read this as an attack on Holbrooke. He had it framed.
For Packer, such flaws define the man. For him, “idealism without egotism is feckless; egotism without idealism is destructive.” Yet this idealist and egotist was destructive. He was an absent husband and indifferent father; he exaggerated his own role at the expense of more dignified colleagues.
The hatred towards him was often visceral. Kissinger called him “the most viperous character I know around this town,” quite something from that quarter. When Holbrooke put his boots up on the sofa of Obama’s UN Ambassador Susan Rice, she gave him the finger. “I like Deek,” said Serb leader Slobodan Miloševic´, “but for the sake of his career he would eat small children for breakfast.” Vice President Joe Biden couldn’t stand him.
Yet those under him were fiercely loyal. One British colleague told me that “working for him was a constant workshop in being alive. He had your back.” Ronan Farrow, who worked with him at State, has called him a father figure. And we get occasional glimpses of sensitivity. When friends organised his 50th birthday, he was hurt by speeches highlighting his flaws. “Never, never forget Dick’s fragility, his vulnerability,” his friend Les Gelb said at his funeral.
Amid the three marriages and numerous affairs, the relationship that stands out is with his friend and rival Tony Lake, who went to Saigon to work in the embassy the same year. They were inseparable as thrusting young diplomats in Vietnam and Washington. But then Holbrooke had an affair with Lake’s wife. They circled each other like hawks for the rest of their careers. Holbrooke replaced Lake as key aide to the ambassador in Saigon, and then again at State in 1970 when Lake’s doubts over Vietnam become too grave. They argued throughout Lake’s tenure as Bill Clinton’s NSA: over who went in the car, whether Holbrooke should nod in meetings with the president and—most importantly—how America should behave in the world. “What the hell happened to those guys in Vietnam?” asked Clinton. Holbrooke called Lake “a control freak who is now out of control… the person in greatest denial of himself of anyone I’ve ever known.”
Lake allowed his nemesis to get the Balkans job, through gritted teeth: “it might take that kind of shamelessness to push the ball over the line,” he admitted. For a brief moment, they reunited and wrote the strategy together. And then Holbrooke ignored Lake’s contributions. Later, when a book by a former NSC official shared the credit for the Dayton peace with Lake, Holbrooke tried to have it blocked and its author fired from Brookings. The final straw was when Holbrooke, as UN Ambassador, blundered through Lake’s mediation on Ethiopia and Eritrea. They never spoke again.
But perhaps Lake understood him better than anyone. “What Holbrooke wants attention for is what he’s doing, not what he is. That’s a very serious quality and his saving grace.” When Holbrooke died, Lake slipped quietly in to his UN memorial in New York.
Most biographies skip past the wilderness years, but Packer gives us great insights into how they shaped his subject. What does the man of destiny do when destiny is eluding him? He frets and manoeuvres. He makes joyless money and dubious friends. He seethes at his enemies and resents his allies. He settles scores. He writes books that don’t get read, bar the index. He gets more obsequious with those in power, and more obnoxious with everyone else. He sleeps with other people’s wives and hunts for a better-connected wife for himself. He invents new ways of describing old diplomatic ideas. He watches friends die or peter out, and celebrates or mourns their lack of impact on history. He becomes a bull with no china shop.
Packer uses Holbrooke to say something about half a century of American decline. Holbrooke starts out amid towering figures, who saw a ruined world at their feet and didn’t just “grab for land and gold like the great men of earlier empires. Instead they built the structures of an international order that would endure for three generations.” That scaffolding looks increasingly fragile.
For Packer, US foreign policy failures show “we’re no good at it because we don’t have the knowledge or patience, few of our people are willing to learn the history and language and put the years in… It comes down to our belief in ourselves. If we are good… we won’t need to force other people to do what we want.” Meanwhile the rest of the world swings between frustration at too much interference and despair at too little engagement. Like Holbrooke, the best and worst are inseparable.
We now know that the nationalism Holbrooke challenged in the Balkans was not just the death throes of the 20th century. We can only imagine what Holbrooke would have made of a US president who now treats Nato and the UN as a business deal, befriends tyrants and alienates allies, and leaves the state department humiliated. Holbrooke represented the end of an era when America didn’t have to tell the world—or itself—that it was great.
Could Holbrooke have thrived among today’s less forgiving moral codes, social media scrutiny and risk averse bureaucracies? Probably not. Diplomats tend to be the ripples in the pond, not the stone that creates them. Yet his friend Les Gelb captures an enduring reality that many modern diplomats would acknowledge. “Foreign policy makes no sense. The people in charge make decisions based on the politics of the moment, or on an ideology that bears little relation to human reality, or on sheer ignorance compounded by wishful thinking. Or they don’t make a decision at all—events gallop ahead and the decision-makers stumble to keep up. Then they spend the rest of their lives pretending that they knew what they were doing all along and justifying something that made no sense in the first place.”
Diplomats might also recognise that this vocation can destroy relationships and lives. Pressure, long days and flights, endless paperwork, a merciless press and the frustrations of having no objective standard against which to measure their performance all contribute. As a result, observes Packer, diplomats obsess over office size and proximity to power, presence in the right meetings and protocol. More fundamentally, many “feel a profound sense of responsibility for matters that are ultimately uncontrollable.” Fast forward to Iraq or Syria, and some things never change. Yet the idealism keeps calling them back.
Holbrooke “didn’t want to miss a minute of his life.” Neither should we. He was never boring or insipid. Like Holbrooke, Packer’s account barrels along, brimming with mischief, verve and a sense of history. Unlike Holbrooke, it is tender and self-aware. “In that unfinished space where the souls of the almost great clamour to be recognised, he was still struggling, striving, yearning for more.”
And what of that place for him in “ruthless” history? His doctrine, vindicated at Dayton, was that if the US fails to act no one else will, and other people’s problems will become America’s. Towards the end, Holbrooke weeps through a performance of South Pacific, “the sense of loss of American optimism and our feeling that we could do anything.” They play an excerpt at his funeral. But it is too soon to bury this idea itself. It will find its place again.
Blessed are the peacemakers, the unofficial UN motto goes, for they will be hated by everyone. But Dayton stands out as a high point of late 20th-century diplomacy. Every secretary of state wants their Holbrooke moment, but few have the patience and drive to get it. And Holbrooke’s other success in getting Carter to take in 1.5m Indochinese refugees should help us to forgive him the tantrums and narcissism. “Human suffering didn’t plunge him into psychological paralysis or philosophical despair. It drove him to furious action… his egotism and idealism in perfect balance to achieve something good.” As Kofi Annan said, he always came with good intentions, however well disguised.
Pity the ambitious man who does not attain his ambitions. And pity the man who does. Perhaps Holbrooke’s old friend Strobe Talbott deserves the last word, telling Bill Clinton that “pound for pound, ounce for ounce, Dick is the most talented, energetic, experienced, able, articulate broad-gauge foreign policy operative of our time. Also a royal pain in the ass.”
Photograph description: George Packer’s “Our Man” reveals a portrait of a diplomat who embodied America’s outward-looking muscular foreign policy, at a time when the country did not try to convince itself it was once great. Photo credit: Getty Images