President Barack Obama and the Guardian described him as "a true giant of American foreign policy." Others, including the Economist, described him as the most influential and effective American diplomat of his generation. Richard Holbrooke was certainly present at most of the hot spots of his era: a young diplomat serving in Vietnam during the Vietnam War as well as part of the United States negotiating team in Paris; ambassador to Germany during its reunification; the leader who held out the carrot and brandished the stick that finalized the Dayton Agreement ending the Bosnian War, and the special representative of the United States to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Whether he was “a true giant” depends on your perspective. George Packer’s account of Holbrooke’s career, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, tells the story of two failures - the inability of Holbrooke to become Secretary of State and the inability of the United States to continue its post-World War II domination. Packer weaves together Holbrooke’s overwhelming ambition and arrogance with U.S. foreign policy.
Packer’s recounting of Holbrooke’s career is in stark contrast to Dean Acheson’s autobiography of his years in the State Department (Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department) during the United States’ successful domination of the post-World War II world order. Holbrooke was present at the demise of American hegemony. And unlike Acheson, he was never able to get the one job he most coveted, Secretary of State.
The title of Packer’s book summarizes it all. Richard Holbrooke was “Our Man.” He, like those Baby Boomers born in the euphoria after World War II, was supremely confident that he and the United States had all the answers to how the world should be governed. Holbrooke’s personal ambitions came from his belief that his diplomatic successes would be in the world’s best interest; a clear win-win situation. Across the globe, from Asia to Western Europe to the Balkans, Holbrooke and the United States sought to impose their system. Before Francis Fukuyama’s triumphantly theorized the end of history, Richard Holbrooke incarnated the hubris of American exceptionalism.
What makes Packer’s book so instructive is the sheer force of Holbrooke’s character, the arrogance of never once calling into question his motives or the consequences of his actions, including trying to seduce his best friend’s wife. Full steam ahead, Holbrooke and the United States tried to remake the world in their image.
Ask the French about Vietnam? Hell no. Divide the Balkans in a form of ethnic cleansing in order to stop the shooting? Whatever it takes. Cajole and negotiate with Slobodan Milosevic in a Midwest air force base like a used car salesman desperate to make a deal? Don’t confuse means and ends, it’s only the bottom line that counts.
If Donald Trump is the ultimate anti-diplomacy president, Richard Holbrooke was the ultimate anti-diplomacy diplomat. When he was introduced by President Obama at the State Department as the special representative for Afghanistan/Pakistan, he stepped forward before colleagues, before the President and Secretary of State, with no prepared statement. Unlike George Mitchell who read an elegant presentation after being introduced as special envoy to the Middle East, the unprepared Holbrooke slowly stepped forward, gloating in the moment of returning to the place where he had so often been cast aside. He looked out at the crowd and pointed; “I see…my former roommate in Saigon, John Negroponte, here. We remember those days well. And I hope we will produce a better outcome this time.”
The royal we, just like Packer’s Our Man. He thought he represented us all. He, Richard Holbrooke was the embodiment of America, warts and all. “Produce a better outcome”? As if whatever lessons were learned in Vietnam could help further the imposition of the American way of life on the rest of the world, never once considering that the very act of imposing was the problem.
I met Holbrooke years ago at a conference in Switzerland. As he came through the hotel entrance, he looked down at me, literally and figuratively and asked: “Young man, do you know who I am? Where is the red carpet?”
“Holbrooke,” I replied. “I know who you are and that is why there is no red carpet.” He let out a primal scream.
Packer’s book begins by asking “Do you mind if we hurry through the early years?” We don’t mind because the message of the book is Holbrooke/U.S. diplomacy. Whatever personal stories Packer includes complement the arrogant/hubris image of the man and the country he served.
What will Holbrooke be remembered for? No doubt the signing of the Dayton Agreement that ended the 1992-1995 war and the siege of Sarajevo. The Agreement was supposed to be temporary. A later, final agreement was to restore multiethnicity in the former Yugoslavia. What do we have today? A plaque on Sarajevo’s City Hall that reads: “On this Place Serbian Criminals in the night of 25th-26th August 1992 Set on Fire National and University’s Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina …Do Not Forget, Remember and Warn!” Or a school in Travnik that is divided between Croats and Bosnians, divided even by the colors on the outside of the building; the Croat side is blue, the Bosnian side is yellow.
On the pavement of a street in Sarajevo is written: “Sarajevo Meeting of Cultures.” Sarajevo was supposed to be a successful multi-ethnic Jerusalem of the Balkans, a city hospitable to all cultures. Sarajevo was the poster child of multiethnicity.
While Holbrooke was able to stop the fighting by the Agreement, he was unable to establish a deeper reconciliation. The tragedy of Holbrooke, like the tragedy of Henry Luce’s American Century, is the overwhelming impulse to control the immediate. Only supreme personal and national confidence could allow this. Holbrooke represented the American way. He/we seem incapable of understanding the deeper currents of culture, the deeper lessons of history, the limits of what can and cannot be done.
Even Holbrooke, in a moment of rare humility understood the limits of the Dayton Agreement. In his memoir, To End a War, he asked: “Did Dayton bring peace to Bosnia, or only the absence of war?...Can Bosnia survive as a single multiethnic country, as called for in Dayton, or will it eventually divide into two or three ethnically based states?”
Acheson’s Present at the Creation implies an American divine right that was the marching order of the State Department from 1945 onwards. Holbrooke’s death in 2010 was more than just his death. If he was generally acknowledged to be the leading American diplomat of his generation, his death also symbolized the death of his style of overwhelming diplomacy and the ultimate failures of post-World War II U.S. foreign policy. Holbrooke, John Negroponte and their contemporaries like John Bolton have never produced a better outcome.
And the reign of Donald Trump is a fitting end to that era.