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Review by Donald Camp

Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century By George Packer

Richard Holbrooke’s story is well known – he was the larger-than-life diplomat and idealist who never achieved the Secretary of State job he craved, in part because of his tragic flaws of egotism and self-promotion.  George Packer does not change our image of the man, but he gives it form and substance in a biography that draws on access to Holbrooke’s extensive diary, and interviews with all three of his wives as well as 250 of his friends and detractors.   This is a comprehensive biography, well-written and compelling, presenting flaws and all.
Packer’s journey takes us from Holbrooke’s counter-insurgency baptism in Vietnam to his success in the Dayton talks on Bosnia, and finally his efforts on Afghanistan where his diplomatic skills abroad were overshadowed by his confrontational style at home.  Packer pays little attention to the off-years; when Republicans were in power in Washington, Holbrooke spent his time making money on Wall Street and writing about foreign affairs.  Neither of these meant as much to Holbrooke as the making of foreign policy.
This is also a book about the American foreign policy establishment that is now disappearing from the scene.   In some ways it is a biography too of Tony Lake, Holbrooke’s best friend in Vietnam and in later years.  The men’s friendship and professional partnership remained solid until it dissolved during the Clinton administration over bureaucratic struggles (and perhaps elevation to National Security Advisor).
Holbrooke’s friends from his first foreign service tour in Vietnam formed the foreign policy and journalism establishment of the past four decades – besides Lake, there was Frank Wisner, John Negroponte, Frank Scotton, Les Gelb, David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Ward Just and others.   He intersects with them for good or ill for the rest of his life.    But, true to Holbrooke’s character, he was also making connections with those who could help launch his career.   How many 21-year-old Foreign Service officers can say they lunched with Henry Cabot Lodge, played tennis with Maxwell Taylor and William Westmoreland, went shopping with Robert McNamara and watched a tennis match with Dean Rusk?   Once back in Washington, he parlayed the Wisner connection into entry to mom Polly Wisner’s Georgetown salon; he was soon lunching with Bobby Kennedy and befriending Averell Harriman.   These relationships – and many others – were useful throughout his career.
Packer breaks news in this book.   With new interviews and access to an unpublished (and probably suppressed) UN report on the tragic deaths in Bosnia of most of Holbrooke’s team (Bob Frasure, Drew Nelson, and Joe Kruzel), Packer rewrites the conventional history of the accident on the road to Sarajevo.  Holbrooke told his version in The End of A War; he writes of General Wesley Clark’s rappelling down the side of the cliff amidst mines to find the vehicle while Holbrooke remains in his Humvee to contact the outside world.   The UN report reveals that the armored personnel carrier’s running off the road was caused by excessive speed, trying to stay up with Holbrooke’s lead vehicle.   Clark stayed with Holbrooke while an unsung lieutenant colonel discovered the bodies (in Holbrooke’s telling, “LTC Banky disappeared”).   Packer has Holbrooke telling Clark “don’t leave me.”
Packer writes with an engaging first person style, as if he is talking informally to the reader.   It works, except when Packer is being disingenuous about his own role   At one point he tells of Holbrooke’s increasing estrangement from the Obama White House: “In September an article on him appeared in the New Yorker. Not a particularly good one since the writer didn’t realize how perilous Holbrooke’s standing was in both Washington and Kabul….[It confirmed] every dark thought in Obama’s inner circle about Holbrooke the shameless self-promoter.”    Packer leaves to a footnote the relevant fact that he was the author of the magazine article.
Holbrooke’s last great effort – on Afghanistan – was flawed from the start.  After Obama declined to make him Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton’s offer of Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan was his only option for staying in the game.
Packer gets the main Afghanistan themes right:
• Holbrooke’s determination to include India within his mandate, even after Delhi made clear it would accept no such linkage, especially if it meant mediating a Kashmir settlement.   That meant he never got India whole-heartedly on board with his process.
• The transparent effort to prevent Hamid Karzai from a second tour as president.  That meant he was soon persona non grata in Kabul.
•  The intense bureaucratic warfare with the White House (who can win that battle?) and consequent humiliations.   National Security Advisor James Jones tried to fire him, and Obama refused to meet him privately and went to Afghanistan without informing him, much less taking him along.
• His determination to pursue a negotiating track with the Taliban, as a complement to ramping up the military effort.  That looks pretty good from today’s perspective, but he ended up being steamrolled by the military and the White House (“Clinton didn’t want to hear of peace talks; neither did the military and neither did the White House”).
Packer portrays him as basically irrelevant by 2010, reduced to running his interagency policy group and back-benching at NSC principals meetings.
Packer could have done a better job on the Afghanistan narrative if he had interviewed players like Richard Boucher, who ran State’s South Asia bureau where regional and policy expertise on Afghanistan resided.  And there was Bruce Riedel, who led Obama’s first policy review on Afghanistan and set the stage for what followed; Riedel could have told him more about Obama’s souring on Holbrooke from the beginning.  Packer missed some of the drama at the White House in the early months of Obama when the NSC was feuding internally and Holbrooke was building his own interagency Afghanistan coordination cell at the State Department.  And he also misses the way Holbrooke’s bulldozer style, so successful with hard targets like Milosevic, didn’t work as well with south Asian leaders.
The character flaws?   The book is filled with evidence of Holbrooke’s willingness to lie when it served his purposes.  The newly-revealed facts on the tragic deaths in Bosnia are compelling.  But there are more stories.   Once, caught denigrating pacification guru Edward Lansdale to journalist Stanley Karnow, Holbrooke claimed Frank Wisner had done it (Wisner forgave him).  Years later, on a trip to Asia as Assistant Secretary, he was indiscreetly frank with a Vietnamese interlocutor.   The White House’s outrage reached Holbrooke in Rangoon, where he and his old friend Frank Scotton created a CIA intelligence report that attributed the report to Russian disinformation.  When he got back to DC, he leaked the fake report to journalists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak.  In another incarnation, he lied to Afghanistan President Karzai, telling him it was the British (specifically the ambassador) not Holbrooke himself who was seeking to have him replaced as president.  It takes some doing to garner this comment from Henry Kissinger: “he’s the most viperous character I know.”
What about the achievements?  There were lots of those too.  As Packer says, “he was that rare American who actually gave a shit about the dark places of the earth.”  His idealism came out in his work on HIV/AIDS assistance in Africa.  His focus on Indochinese refugees, while Assistant Secretary of State in the Carter administration, culminated in the Refugee Act of 1980, which tripled the number of refugees admitted to the U.S.  His success at Dayton came from weeks of bull-headed Holbrooke diplomacy among Balkan heads of government who detested each other.
The book describes another less-heralded but remarkable Holbrooke success.  As ambassador to the UN, he wooed anti-UN Republicans in Congress including Jesse Helms to get them to release long-unpaid UN dues.  He followed that victory by negotiating a deal that permanently reduced our UN dues from 25% to 22%.  That required working one-by-one to convince all 188 other countries that they should pay more.
Everything he did, he did fully and to the best of his ability.  He pursued single-mindedly his attempt to make peace in Afghanistan even as his wife, friends, and cardiologist told him to slow down before his heart gave out.  His heart did him in. End.

Don Camp
Don Camp

Donald Camp is a retired Foreign Service Officer who divided his career between south and east Asia.   He was a Deputy Assistant Secretary in State Department’s South and Central Asia Bureau when Richard Holbrooke was named Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He also was Senior Director for South Asia on the National Security Council staff during the early months of the Obama administration.  He is currently non-resident Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.   Twitter:  @donacamp

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