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Richard Holbrooke, the last of the action men

The remarkable career of the celebrity diplomat and hyperactive emblem of the Pax Americana.

From the early years of US involvement in Vietnam to the latter stages of the war on terror, the remarkable career of Richard Holbrooke spanned almost half a century before coming to a dramatic end just before Christmas 2010. Holbrooke was already something of a dying breed – a celebrity diplomat and hyperactive emblem of the Pax Americana that had emerged out of the Second World War but was already entering its twilight years. At a meeting with his boss, then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan – a position that he had insisted on naming himself so that everyone knew it was a rank above a mere “special envoy” – became breathless and turned such a fierce bright red that it was immediately clear to everyone in the festively decorated room that something was terribly wrong.

An internal fury had been bubbling inside him for months, caused by a life of frustrated ambition and the realisation that no one in the Obama administration cared much for his counsel. Years of fast living, air travel and stodgy diplomatic dinners had also taken their toll on this 6ft 1in barrel-chested missionary for the idea of the American superpower as a force for good in the world. The terrible pain that Holbrooke felt in his chest was from the tearing of his aorta: his heart was literally breaking apart. Even in his last moments, as doctors prepared to rush him to surgery, he became an almost cartoonish version of himself – barking quick-fire instructions to his staff, flirting with the medical attendees and insisting that he could not possibly die because he still had much work in the world to complete. Who else, after all, but the broker of the Dayton peace agreement of 1995 – when Holbrooke had browbeaten the warlords of the Balkans into agreeing an imperfect but much-lauded peace – was going to end the “forever war” in Afghanistan?

Holbrooke is at once an alluring figure – a swashbuckling Yankee Lawrence of Arabia – and a deeply unattractive character. Among his many bad habits – which included adultery, betrayal and dirty tricks – one of the lesser ones was a tendency to take his shoes off and rest his large sweaty feet on almost any desk he sat at. It was typical of his jockstrap machismo and desire to impose his personality wherever he went. But here is the paradox: Holbrooke was also an idealist, genuine humanitarian and inspiration to many who worked alongside him.  

In 1965, as a handsome and confident but junior state department adviser on Vietnam, he was bold enough to speak some uncomfortable home truths to President Lyndon Baines Johnson, warning him about the futility of the military build-up in which he was engaged. By the time of the early stages of the Obama administration, as the new president debated whether or not to agree to his generals’ demands for a troop surge in Afghanistan, the same gut instincts were present but the old tricks were wearing thin. Appearing from Kabul on a large screen, Holbrooke sought to seize the moment with a prepared speech, telling Obama that his decision lay “at the savage intersection of policy, politics and history” and would be made in the “shadow of Vietnam”. Obama, who liked to reserve the pulpit for himself, bristled. “Who talks like this?” he murmured disdainfully so that everyone but Holbrooke could hear.

And yet, Holbrooke had legitimate criticisms of what he saw as the militarisation of American foreign policy and the emasculation of traditional diplomatic arts, starting under George W Bush but continuing under Obama. He described the White House situation room, where drone wars and special operations were overseen, as “a windowless below-ground room in which the distance from real knowledge to people is at its very greatest”. His military counterpart in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, stated jovially that Holbrooke was his “diplomatic wingman”, before growing tired of his games. Holbrooke griped that the balance in the relationship was wrong: “His job should be to drop the bombs when I tell him to.”

As such, Holbrooke remains a cult figure among those who lament the passing of a world in which America was once a diplomatic powerhouse with a “can-do” attitude to every crisis. In recent years he has been the subject of a misty-eyed HBO documentary, The Diplomat (directed by his son David), and the heroic protagonist of books such as Ronan Farrow’s War on Peace (2018).

I must admit I began this tome with some scepticism that the world needed a Tolstoian backstop of 500-plus pages of exhaustive detail on an “almost great” second-level character in the annals of American diplomacy. After all, despite serving in the administration of every Democratic president from Johnson to Obama, Holbrooke never rose above the rank of assistant secretary of state, a position he achieved in the era of Jimmy Carter. To his chagrin, he never reached the heights or influence of Henry Kissinger, who served as both professional lodestar and dastardly counterpoint against which to measure himself. And the story of how Holbrooke knocked heads together over Dayton, his diplomatic efforts aided by the not inconsiderable threat of American air power, is already well documented. Holbrooke himself made sure of that as he lobbied intensively and unsuccessfully for the Nobel Peace Prize that Kissinger had won and which he so coveted for himself.

Mercifully, George Packer, formerly of the New Yorker and now a staff writer at the Atlantic, is such a masterful narrator – and Holbrooke such a vexing subject to portray – that this story is both gripping and surprisingly pacey, its wheels greased by revealing excerpts from Holbrooke’s personal letters and the private reflections he recorded to tape. Added to this is Packer’s arresting thesis: that his brash but erudite and driven subject symbolises something about America’s engagement with the world following the Second World War that will never be recovered after Trump.

Holbrooke was born in New York in 1941, the son of Jewish émigrés from Nazi Europe and was raised with a lifelong conviction that America had a historic mission to fulfil in world affairs. When he became American ambassador to the United Nations under Bill Clinton in 1998, he was moved to tears when he recalled his father taking him to see its headquarters being built on the East River in 1949. As a teenager, on a backpacking tour of Europe that took him to Sarajevo – where he later wound up on behalf of the International Rescue Committee as the putative saviour of a city under siege – he spoke of his unshakeable conviction that America must be nothing less than the “leader of the West”.

Holbrooke’s entry into the glamorous ranks of postwar American scholar-diplomats and “action intellectuals” began with a fortuitous connection to Dean Rusk, the father of his closest school friend, who was appointed John F Kennedy’s secretary of state in 1960. After Holbrooke joined the Foreign Service himself in 1962, Rusk became the first of the many people he betrayed, by leaking unfavourable stories about his policies to the press. His willingness to do this time and time again was not simply from pure ambition but also a genuine belief that he knew better than everyone else in every situation in which he found himself. His closest friend in his first posting in Vietnam was Anthony Lake – later Bill Clinton’s national security adviser – until Holbrooke ruined the friendship, and Lake’s marriage, by sleeping with his wife. Thrice-married, an absentee father to two boys, Holbrooke suffered from a “psychological mutation of not being able to see himself”, Packer says.

“You have a brilliant future ahead of you,” Holbrooke was told by an official at the embassy in Saigon, “but you will move faster if you slow down.” He never did, crashing from war zone to bureaucratic bun fight in the most undiplomatic way. And yet the same sense of urgency and messianic commitment to ending the Bosnian War gave Bill Clinton’s foreign policy a sense of purpose it otherwise lacked.

“I like Deek,” former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic once said of him, “but for the sake of career he would eat small children for breakfast.” To Packer, despite all these flaws, he was “that rare American in the treetops who actually gave a shit about the dark places of the Earth”. There are plenty who are relieved that the sweaty uninvited feet of the American empire are no longer resting on their desk. But without the likes of Richard Holbrooke descending from UN helicopters or courting the cameras in a besieged city, it is not clear that world is going to be a happier or more peaceful place. 

John Bew is professor of history and foreign policy at King’s College London and a New Statesman contributing writer

Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century
George Packer
Jonathan Cape, 608pp, £25

John Bew is Professor of History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London and is leading a project looking at Britain’s place in the world for Policy Exchange. He is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of Citizen Clem, an Orwell Prize-winning biography of Clement Attlee. 

This article appears in the 24 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit earthquake