Once Upon a Time, Americans Believed in America
A new biography of Richard Holbrooke is a portrait of an era when the United States was at the center of the world—and assumed it should be.
It is impossible to read George Packer’s new biography of Richard Holbrooke without a piercing sense of melancholy, not only that a man so supremely alive should be dead, but also because such people—Our Man, in Packer’s title, the incarnation of vanished glory, imperial hubris, exceptional Americanism—no longer walk the earth. Thus Packer’s subtitle: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century. This extraordinary book forces a question: What, exactly, was the virus of which Richard Holbrooke was the last host body?
We think of Holbrooke, the U.S. diplomat who died in 2010, as a product of Vietnam, because that is where his extraordinary diplomatic career was born. But the genealogy is wrong; it applies not to children of World War II like Holbrooke, born in 1941, but to people like me, born in 1954. In a letter written from Princeton University in 1970, Holbrooke raged against the 60s Generation kids: “Their country in the world outside means Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam. … The fight against Fascism and Nazism, the defense of Korea and Berlin … the terrible struggle over McCarthyism and bigotry at home, and even the Cuban missile crisis (!)—all of those are events from another age.” People of my generation had to be convinced—often as a result of the 1990s intervention in Bosnia, thanks in no small part to Holbrooke—that the United States could do good in the world. Holbrooke, by contrast, knew all about Korea and Berlin. The Vietnam War, which he came to regard as a catastrophe, deeply shook what had been a complacent certainty of U.S. benevolence. The effect was not to undermine his faith in the United States but to force him to recognize the intractability of the world and thus the limits of U.S. power.
Holbrooke’s career stretched from the Kennedy administration to the Obama administration. One is tempted to say that he spanned the American Century, which arguably reached its zenith under President John F. Kennedy, the brash Navy veteran who announced in his inaugural address that his generation, “tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace” was prepared to “pay any price, bear any burden … to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” And one could make the case—I think Packer would—that the era ended with President Barack Obama. When Holbrooke fell into Kennedyesque cadences in the Obama White House, the whiz kids rolled their eyes and asked him to get to the point. Holbrooke’s two-year tenure as special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan under Obama was pure pathos.
By this reckoning, Holbrooke’s generation, tempered by Vietnam rather than by the epochal fight against totalitarianism, represents a midpoint between the self-righteousness and self-certainty that propelled Kennedy into the Cuban missile crisis and the early stages of Vietnam, and Obama’s post-Iraq skepticism about the efficacy of force and his all-too-prudent resistance to demands for intervention from what members of his administration called “the Blob.” In this middle station of the American Century, Holbrooke’s generation still spoke unironically about American leadership, although he knew all too well how American leaders hypnotized themselves with the myth of national benevolence.
Holbrooke saw that self-delusion in Vietnam, and he saw it again in Afghanistan. In Our Man, Packer shows us Holbrooke as the Ancient Mariner, compelled to ceaselessly repeat his doleful tale of Vietnam until it became a standing joke in the Obama White House. But he was right—the Afghanistan War is Vietnam. Holbrooke believed that the counterinsurgency Obama’s generals wanted, and that Obama ultimately approved in a limited form, would fail, as it had in Vietnam. And it did. Packer tells us that Holbrooke would have been prepared to add fewer troops than the generals’ low number—perhaps 20,000 to 25,000—but that the explicit goal would have been to extricate the United States through diplomacy, which of course he would mastermind. The generals didn’t want to hear it, and neither did Holbrooke’s boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who wasn’t going to let any daylight show between her and the generals. For once silent, he did not advance his own proposal.
Do we see the irony here? Holbrooke, the maximalist, wanted less. He saw how self-defeating was the American instinct for bigger, costlier, deadlier. Obama, the alleged minimalist, endorsed, albeit reluctantly, the 70-yard touchdown pass the generals insisted they could throw. This quiddity that we call “American exceptionalism” is not just, and in fact not chiefly, a confidence in U.S. power; it is, rather, the belief that the United States has a global mission and advances its own interests by shouldering the burden of global leadership.
Holbrooke was a hard-headed pragmatist who as assistant secretary of state under President Jimmy Carter was perfectly prepared to defend America’s autocratic allies, Carter’s human rights policy notwithstanding. He was an inveterate, if often self-defeating, political operator who advised Sen. John Kerry to support the war in Iraq in order to preserve his credibility ahead of the senator’s 2004 presidential run. He eluded categorization as a realist or an idealist, though he cannot be dismissed as an opportunist. Holbrooke had a glandular certainty that the United States—and therefore, of course, himself—must be at the center of everything. The world that shaped him was the one that President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Secretaries of State Dean Acheson and George Marshall had fashioned. Holbrooke was a child of the liberal world order that the United States made.
Is this unironic faith in U.S. leadership a quaint artifact of the American Century, now receding in our national rearview mirror? Maybe, yet the belief in a providential destiny predates the era of hegemonic power. It arose with the Founding Fathers, was refracted mystically through the person of President Abraham Lincoln, and began to take on its modern, world-altering form only with Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson (whose views were otherwise almost diametrically opposed). Nor, I would argue, did it come to an end with Obama, for all that he deployed a new language of partnership suitable to a post-hegemonic age. Obama entered office with an almost Wilsonian dream of a world reorganized by the United States to confront the global issues of climate change, nonproliferation, and failing states. That post-sovereign vision was premature; like so many of his predecessors, Obama was ambushed by history. Yet that burden remains to be shouldered.
Obama does not mark the guttering of that flame; President Donald Trump does. It is Trump who bridles at the obligations of leadership, who gags at the language of moral obligation, who fawns over tyrants. I’ll stop, because we all know the litany by heart now. The question for the future is whether the American people care to rekindle that flame. Foreign policy is a matter of peripheral interest to most Americans; nevertheless, statesmen require national acquiescence in order to spend significant amounts of money or lives. At critical moments, Obama found that he could not marshal that support, thus his rather desperate insistence that “the nation that I am most interested in building is our own.” Candidate Trump promised to reduce foreign policy to walls, literal and metaphorical—and won.
In Richard Holbrooke’s heyday, Americans were prepared to pay for guns and butter. Now, it’s mostly butter, with whatever’s left to be spent on walls. A recent survey by the liberal Center for American Progress think tank tries, not very convincingly, to put a positive gloss on this inward-facing mentality. Americans want “restrained engagement,” the authors find, but they don’t want it very much. “Voters,” they conclude, “desire protection above other foreign policy goals—protection from harm and protection of U.S. jobs—and favor investment in domestic infrastructure and economic opportunities.” The nation Americans build should be their own.
Obama intuited, before Trump did, that figures like Holbrooke who wanted the United States to be at the center of everything were overdrawing the account. Americans wanted to run the show, but they didn’t want to pay for it. Maybe they hadn’t for a long time; maybe it took President George W. Bush to really bankrupt the system. Obama tried to turn down the dial in the hopes of making his foreign policy “sustainable,” to use one of his favorite words; it was still too much. Trump may have turned down the dial too far, though the Center for American Progress study describes one-third of American voters as “Trump nationalists.”
As a journalist who wrote about Holbrooke and, like most journalists, saw his best side and admired it very much even while knowing the rest, I’m very sorry that he’s no longer around—all the more so after immersing myself in George Packer’s bildungsroman. But Packer is right that Holbrooke’s moment died before Holbrooke himself did. It never will come back. Perhaps the next Richard Holbrooke will be Chinese.