The Heart and Hypocrisy of the American Empire

Richard Holbrooke was a symbol of his country’s promise as a superpower—and its decline.

Richard Holbrooke stands next to U.S. General Stanlely McChrystal, head of the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, before the arrival of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Nov. 18, 2009  in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Richard Holbrooke stands next to U.S. General Stanlely McChrystal, head of the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, before the arrival of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Nov. 18, 2009 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Paula Bronstein /Getty Images

Richard Holbrooke was an apostle, and his creed was America. Although experience left Holbrooke’s faith chastened, it never abandoned him. In the beginning, Holbrooke was a champion of progress, fighting for freedom in Vietnam in a war he considered the moral equivalent of the civil rights movement. By the end, the horizons of ambition had closed. Disbelieving in the prospects for military victory and convinced that development initiatives were engorging a corrupt Afghan state, Holbrooke turned to face the Taliban and tried to cut a deal.

Spanning half a century, the course of U.S. global power from Vietnam to Afghanistan represents a prolonged imperial twilight. After the clarity of the high Cold War, when presidents ranged light against dark and freedom against slavery, Vietnam ushered in a more ambiguous phase. The United States remained preponderant, but Vietnam left Americans humbled, capable of tolerating only interludes of elevated imperial hubris. It is this late phase of empire that the journalist George Packer traverses in his marvelous new book. Centered on the personality of Richard Holbrooke, Our Man deploys the career of a prominent diplomat to comprehend the character of an era.

Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century George Packer, Knopf, 608 pp., $30, May 2019

But why Holbrooke? Why should he command our attention in a door-stopping biography from one of America’s finest writers? Why not George Shultz, Condoleezza Rice, or James Mattis, none of whom has received comparable literary testament? (Colin Powell, another self-evident titan, is the subject of a new biography, but that book has not received the attention that Packer’s new biography of Holbrooke is generating.)

On the face of things, Holbrooke’s standing among the titans of American power is not self-evident. Over 50 years, Holbrooke served American power in diverse roles: as a foreign service officer in Vietnam; as Peace Corps director for Morocco, which he called “the best job he ever had,” according to Packer; twice as assistant secretary of state, first for East Asian and Pacific affairs under Jimmy Carter and later for European and Canadian affairs under Bill Clinton; as Clinton’s ambassador to Germany and then to the United Nations, his only cabinet-rank position; and, finally, as Barack Obama’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Between these assignments, Holbrooke edited Foreign Policy and wrote books. Holbrooke also made millions of dollars on Wall Street, although he was clueless about finance and squandered much on real estate, even a private plane.

But even as his obituary would bustle with accomplishment, others wielded greater status: the secretaries of state, the national security advisors, the senior commanders, and so on. As others formed, packaged, and marketed the ideas that animated foreign policy, Holbrooke’s stock-in-trade was access. It’s true that Holbrooke forged a peace in the 1990s, but so did George Mitchell, whom few would count among the foremost architects of U.S. global power.

Packer justifies his approach by deploying Holbrooke to probe larger themes, maximizing the analytical value of his biographical method. For sure, Holbrooke’s career contains much inherent interest. Holbrooke got embroiled in two of America’s most consequential wars, and his vantage, which Packer deftly probes, illuminates the courses of these conflicts and, in the case of Vietnam, its subsequent legacies. Holbrooke was also a partisan Democrat, and Packer’s account affords special perspective into his party’s fraught post-Vietnam relationship to the Pax Americana that an earlier generation of Democrats built. But what Packer unravels to greatest effect is the tension between the rhetoric and the reality—between the idealism and the egoism, to borrow his terms—that animate the pursuit and exercise of global power.

Holbrooke, Packer writes, was not “a grand strategist” who forged enduring orders so much as he was “the embodiment of certain ideas in action”—the idea, above all, of the United States as a responsible and ethical superpower. “Embodiment” is crucial, and it presents in Packer’s many descriptions of Holbrooke’s physicality.

Holbrooke’s journey begins as an eager foreign service officer, “young, tall and dorkish.” Over time, the burdens and the pounds accumulate, fueled by an appetite that is (almost) as literal as it is figurative. Holbrooke devours “junk food at his desk,” even “fistfuls of chocolate-covered espresso beans.” Holbrooke sweats and heaves, and his feet, “marbled red and white like steak,” become an unavoidable symptom of the escalating cardiovascular problems that would prematurely end his life. As a senior diplomat, Holbrooke sweats through half a dozen pairs of socks every day. He drapes used socks “over his seat pocket in first class” or stuffs them in a briefcase or rests his stockinged feet on a colleague’s desk. His podiatry crassness becomes infamous. He even points his soles at Afghan interlocutors, a cultural faux pas.

Another surprising theme is Our Man’s attentiveness to sex—a topic that seldom makes the subtext in writing about U.S. global power. Packer reckons with the spouses, the affairs, the divorces, and the lust. Holbrooke married young, after rendezvousing in Vietnam with a college sweetheart. His friends Tony and Toni Lake, pillars of the Saigon diplomatic community, hosted the 1964 reception in their Saigon garden. The marriage bore children but failed within a decade, after Holbrooke fell for Toni Lake, rupturing both a friendship and a marriage. Affairs followed, as did new marriages. The last, to Kati Marton, endured until his death, though it survived affairs.

The unexpected intimacy of Packer’s portrait reminds us that it is men and women, not impersonal institutions, that make history. We are not so far removed as we might flatter ourselves to believe from the dynamics that have moved imperial courts since time immemorial: the thrusting and the yearning, the desires, ambitions, and disappointments of flesh-and-blood human beings. “I sometimes think of Washington,” writes Packer of the nation’s capital, “as a sticky web of relations spun out by desire.”

For Holbrooke, desire meant ambition. His own lust for greatness drew him into the foreign service and never dissipated. When a girlfriend asks him in 1973 where he sees himself in five years, Holbrooke responds: “I’m going to be the next Henry Kissinger.” He never reached such heights, and the failure ran him ragged. Unfulfilled, his ambition became, in Packer’s take, “wild and crass, and mortifying in the details.”

Deceit ranked among the sins ambition bred. Holbrooke may have been “endless fun,” but he took liberties with friendships and not only with the Lakes. The saddest of the deceits follows a tragic accident on a Sarajevo mountain road. In his book To End a War, Holbrooke presents himself as the hero of the incident, struggling to free four men from a burning armored personnel carrier. The reality was quite different, Packer shows. After half his convoy plummeted down Mount Igman in August 1995, Holbrooke “left the heroics to others.”

The true heroes of the day included Lt. Col. Randall Banky, who followed the personnel carrier into the ravine in an effort to rescue its passengers. Exaggerating his own heroism served Holbrooke’s ambition but stole the valor of Banky. Even worse, Holbrooke transformed Banky into a malingerer, doing real harm to an honorable man. “Ambition,” to borrow Packer’s phrase, “is not a pretty thing when you see it up close.”

Packer’s reckoning with Holbrooke’s “gargantuan faults” serves an analytical purpose. Holbrooke idolized “the visionary action of figures” such as Dean Acheson, George Kennan, George Marshall, and William Harriman—Pax Americana’s founding generation. He yearned to emulate them, to lay his hands on history’s tiller, and to impose his great will on events. Born in 1941, the axial year of the American Century, and condemned to labor in the late afternoon of America’s imperial heyday, Holbrooke encountered frustration. In the fun-house mirror of Holbrooke’s unsatisfied and unslakable ego, Packer shows us the face of imperial frustration.

Sex counted among these frustrations. Holbrooke’s own sexism is unsurprising, but it remains striking—“as unthinking as it was blatant.” It presents early. We encounter a young Holbrooke in Vietnam, still unmarried, complaining that the spouses of his fellow U.S. diplomats are “either bitches, dull, overtalkative, or all three”—with the telling exception of Toni Lake.

Such prejudice persists. Passed over by Bill Clinton for the secretary of state’s office, the mature Holbrooke regards Madeleine Albright with a contempt “compounded of sexism.” When Holbrooke in his final phase ends up clinging for protection to Hillary Clinton, the effect is ironic. When he strives to make “women’s issues” a centerpiece for U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, the effort reeks of mild hypocrisy. Reality is complex, though, and Packer reminds us that Holbrooke also “championed women in government.” It matters, too, that he lived a world of change. Empire in the 1960s was a man’s game. By Holbrooke’s end, the cast of characters was more diverse. The passage of white male ascendancy ruffled Holbrooke’s ego but jibed with the egalitarianism of his avowed principles.

In the late, ragged Holbrooke, we may scent the desperation of U.S. power post-Vietnam. Though leavened by his capacity for love, affection, and friendship, Holbrooke’s engagements, especially with women, betray his presumptuousness. Holbrooke assumed running the world to be his vocation. More menial tasks—“cleaning, shopping, raising children”—could be entrusted to mortals. In life, as in geopolitics, or so Packer’s account might lead us to intimate.

Holbrooke’s entitlement echoed the founders of Pax Americana: the Kennans and the Achesons he so admired, who had assumed the prerogative to lead. Holbrooke’s outlook was not so different from theirs. What had changed were the circumstances. Back in the 1940s, the necessity for singular U.S. leadership had been self-evident, at least to most Americans, and the material resources available to U.S. elites more than abundant to the task. As relative decline proceeded, slowly but inexorably, the exercise of singular responsibilities became more difficult. Some elite decision-makers, such as Kissinger and Obama, strived to adapt to evolving realities, favoring retrenchment. Others huffed and puffed, modeling the frustrations of a dwindling hegemony.

In Holbrooke’s raging ambition, moreover, Packer shows us American power as others perhaps see it: overbearing, lustful, and mendacious. The foreign-policy cognoscenti might flatter themselves to imagine Kissinger—creative, cerebral, and strategic—or George H.W. Bush—reasoned, decent, and reliable—as personifications of American power. Not so, at least not from the receiving end of power. It is Holbrooke—with his bravado, his presumptuousness, and his failure to realize his own vast ambition—who stands in for a superpower that has struggled to achieve what it set out in the 1940s to accomplish. It is Holbrooke who functions as an avatar for the American Century at low ebb.

The moment for the Holbrooke style in U.S. diplomacy may today be past, but Packer is far too good a historian to plumb only the depths of its hubris, as if its excesses had nothing to teach us save bad manners. There was in Holbrooke’s career a great deal of salutary example, and Packer shows readers what Holbrooke’s heirs might usefully take from him.

First, mull Holbrooke’s insistence on seeing for himself. The trait showed itself from the very outset. Walking the streets of Saigon on his first day in country, Holbrooke noticed a crowd gathering around the Xa Loi Pagoda. He joined the throng of pilgrims and soon found himself staring down a sacred relic: the charred heart of Thich Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk who set himself ablaze in June 1963 to protest the religious bigotry of the very Saigon government that Holbrooke had been tasked to support.

The encounter was ominous. As he exerted himself on behalf of pacification and rural development, Holbrooke came to despair of the Saigon regime, a government “so totally bankrupt and disgusting it is hard to describe.” Take away the Cold War dimension, Holbrooke mulled, and “we really should be on the other side.” Holbrooke was not the only American to think such heretical thoughts, but what made his trajectory on Vietnam distinct was the extent to which experience, rather than politics or ideology, shaped his outlook. Holbrooke went, he saw, and he reflected. In the end, he reached his own conclusions about the situation and its stakes, based on what he saw.

The mature Holbrooke still quested to learn truth on its own terms. As Bill Clinton struggled to define a foreign-policy team, Holbrooke traveled to Bosnia to see firsthand the war that would vex U.S. foreign policy in the early 1990s. What he saw convinced him of the necessity for action. Sixteen years later, Holbrooke found himself in Afghanistan. The more he listened, the louder clanged the echoes of Vietnam, and the more skeptical he became of military solutions. “[W]e are back in Vietnam,” Holbrooke noted. “[M]ilitary success is not possible.”

Such intellectual candor underpinned a second appealing trait, which was Holbrooke’s willingness to deliver inconvenient truths to power. For sure, Holbrooke was no rebel prophet. Like most high-ranking officials, he preferred to keep his own counsel rather than jeopardize his access to power. He would calibrate his views on Afghanistan, lest he estrange himself from Hillary Clinton, the patron on whom his own continuation as special envoy depended.

Within the parameters of the permissible, though, Holbrooke spoke with candor. As special envoy, he sketched his wavering views on Afghanistan in a series of memos that showcased what Packer calls his “ice-blue gaze at a difficult reality.” The touchstone for Holbrooke’s truth-telling, though, remained the 1967 memo on Vietnam that he drafted for Lyndon Johnson, who ignored him. What made Holbrooke’s intervention remarkable was not the cleverness of the solutions it envisioned—these were few—but the clarity of its vantage. Packer, who should know, calls Holbrooke’s memo perhaps the finest “piece of writing on Vietnam by an American official.”

Clear eyes and a strong pen were Holbrooke’s hallmarks, but the greatest of his contributions to U.S. diplomacy was his faith, his guiding conviction that America could, and indeed must, stand for something larger than the national interest. This, as Packer argues, was his idealism, a creed that animated from the very outset. Holbrooke entered the foreign service an intuitive universalist, convinced as a matter of basic faith that human lives are equal. “[T]he essential evil of intolerance on racial or ethnic grounds,” he wrote in 1962, is the “one thing on which I remain certain.”

Holbrooke’s “horror of racism” remained a lifelong touchstone. A true believer in the noblest, all-men-are-created-equal version of the American project, it was for Holbrooke axiomatic that the United States stood for human rights, even humankind. The equation was the foundation for his American creed. Holbrooke identified with America not only because he was an American but also because he considered America a universal cause. That the identification was self-serving is beyond debate; it is not without cause that so many historians fixate on the excavation of the hypocrisies. Yet Packer’s empathetic and insightful account invites us to contemplate the alternatives to power unleavened by values, the alternatives to the uneasy equilibrium between egoism and idealism that Holbrooke for the most part sustained.

Holbrooke’s faith in his country’s redemptive responsibilities moved him to intermittent action. He witnessed in Vietnam the failure of Pax Americana’s first grand universalist venture, which had bid to recreate alien societies in the image of American modernity. He exerted far greater direct influence on the second universalist venture, which aimed to utilize the instruments of U.S. power to curb the world’s worst brutalities.

Holbrooke in the late 1970s helped formulate an agenda for a prophylactic humanitarianism. He denounced the genocidal Khmer Rouge, becoming one of the first U.S. officials to do so. He mobilized in 1978-1979 an official response to the plight of Vietnam’s maritime refugees, or “boat people,” goading a reluctant U.S. Navy to undertake a rescue mission. The episode, Packer notes, shows us Holbrooke’s “egotism and idealism in perfect balance to achieve something good.”

The climax of Holbrooke’s, and perhaps America’s, global meliorism came during Bosnia’s civil war. Convinced that the application of U.S. military power might precipitate a peace settlement that would end the genocide of Bosnia’s Muslims, Holbrooke became a vigorous proponent for intervention. His “sympathy at the plight of helpless people” was genuine, and it moved him, and perhaps America, to action. The climax followed the bombing, as Holbrooke dragooned Bosnia’s warring parties through weeks of peace talks into an imperfect settlement. He reckoned that Dayton deserved a Nobel Peace Prize. His campaigning for the honor likely did not improve his prospects.

Looking back from an altered America, Our Man presents a graceful elegy for the symbiosis of egoism and idealism that Holbrooke perfected, a symbiosis that reckoned U.S. power a redemptive force in a broken world. “He was that rare American in the treetops,” Packer writes, “who actually gave a shit about the dark places of the earth.” This is a worthy epitaph—all the worthier, in fact, for Packer’s reckoning with Holbrooke’s brutal ambition and its repellent effects.

For sure, Holbrooke was neither saint nor martyr. Yet the pursuit of power for Holbrooke and his America was tempered by a clearsighted idealism. To grapple with his legacy may be to risk succumbing to nostalgia for an American creed that in our times has taken flight from the highest echelons of the policy arena, from the treetops that Holbrooke once strived to dominate.

Daniel Sargent is the author of A Superpower Transformed: The Remaking of American Foreign Relations in the 1970s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). In 2018-19, he is the William C. Bark National Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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