An American in the Treetops, by David Rieff

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September 2019 Issue [Reviews]

An American in the Treetops

Should we miss Richard Holbrooke?

Discussed in this essay:

Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, by George Packer. Alfred A. Knopf. 592 pages. $30.

Richard Holbrooke at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 26, 2009 © Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

Richard Holbrooke at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 26, 2009 © Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

Few American diplomats have been so royally and unabashedly loathed as Richard Holbrooke. Even to his many friends and admirers, Holbrooke was someone whose character flaws were best admitted up front. In a 1998 interview, one of his oldest friends, Frank Wisner, with whom Holbrooke had served as a Foreign Service officer in Vietnam, felt obliged to concede Holbrooke’s faults before going on to insist that “the pluses outweigh the minuses.” Ronan Farrow, who served under him at the State Department and who called Holbrooke “the closest thing to a father I had,” described him as “the rare asshole who was worth it.”

All biographers of any quality become obsessed with their subjects, and as Judith Thurman has said, “There is no objective biography. You are judging in what you choose to describe and the way you choose to structure the story.” But from the first sentences of his prologue to Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, George Packer leaves little doubt that his biography is also an act of mourning. “Holbrooke?” he begins. “Yes, I knew him. I can’t get his voice out of my head.” This emotional register would be a natural one to adopt in an intimate memoir of a loved one, but in Packer’s hands it comes across as exhibitionistic bathos. Nowhere is this more evident than in Packer’s decision to insert himself into the book as its narrator and, further, to yoke this authorial “I” to a second-­person-­singular “you” to whom he addresses himself at crucial points, though the exact identity of this reader is something he never really makes clear.

Add the I that is Packer to the You that is his reader and you get “us” and “our”—Holbrooke is “our man,” he exemplified the best and the worst about “us,” etc. There are many things wrong with this approach, but the first and most obvious is its breathtaking provincial­ity and self-absorption, which is not a little morally offensive, particularly in a writer whose cosmopolitanism is beyond dispute and who would certainly consider himself an internationalist.

Perhaps Packer felt that the conventional biographer’s obligations did not apply to him. For as he makes clear, his book is a biography of and an elegy not only for Holbrooke the man but also for the America that Packer believes Holbrooke incarnated. For Packer, there is symmetry in the fact that the so-called American Century occurred in the span of Holbrooke’s adult life. Even Holbrooke’s “monstrous” egotism (which, Packer adds, again addressing the reader, was “even worse than you’ve heard”) becomes archetypally American:

the best about us was inseparable from the worst. . . . Our confidence and energy, our reach and grasp, our excess and blindness—they were not so different from Holbrooke’s. He was our man.

So it turns out that Packer’s warts-and-all panegyric for Holbrooke is actually a warts-and-all panegyric for the American Empire, as Packer makes clear in the book’s last three sentences. “One day,” he writes,

[Holbrooke’s voice] will start to fade, along with his memory, along with the idea . . . [that] the world needed an American hand to help set things right. By this point you’re familiar with its every failing. But now that Holbrooke is gone, and we’re getting to know the alternatives, don’t you, too, feel some regret?

I am quite certain that I was never intended to be that “you” whom Packer means to address with this plangent playing of taps for the “American-led order.” (Even that choice of words, which along with “American leadership” has always been the preferred term among supporters of the Pax Americana, rather than “hegemony,” or—dare one say it?—“empire,” represents a rhetorical and ideological stacking of the deck on Packer’s part.) Yet I would be willing to bet that I am not alone or, for that matter, just a member of some small, disgruntled minority of Packer’s readers, in answering his question with a flat “no.” Nonetheless, he writes as if this regret were inevitable (though he hedges a bit with that “some regret”).

It’s a view that puts Packer in distinguished, if not necessarily good, company. Since at least the turn of this century, when it became clear just how fleeting American hegemony would be, nostalgia over its passing has been the received wisdom at the Council on Foreign Relations, Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, and the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins. Indeed, in 2006, Michael Mandelbaum, a professor emeritus at this last institution, wrote a whole book on the subject entitled The Case for Goliath, which concludes with the claim that, in the event this system does disintegrate, “[the rest of the world] will miss it when it’s gone.” The current president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, has put the same case far more judiciously in his recent book, A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order.

Holbrooke himself shared this view, and Packer is right to portray him as one of its most determined advocates. To be sure, in doing so, Packer shortchanges the central role played by Holbrooke’s hated rival, Secretary of State Madeleine ­Albright, in formulating a new rationale for American hegemony, just as he shortchanges—and here Packer uncritically parrots the Holbrookean party line—­Albright’s role in ending the Bosnian War. The best he can muster is this: “Let’s give [Holbrooke] his due. He ended a war. Well, he and others.” Packer’s taut, inviting prose here is as unconvincing as his argument. It was ­Albright, after all, who popularized the phrase “indispensable nation,” which has since become the accepted shorthand in policy circles for the essentially benevolent character of American hegemony and, even more important, for the view that there is no alternative to it either at the present time or for the foreseeable future. Any alternative, the argument goes, will only make the world a more dangerous, less moral place. This is what passes for idealism in Washington these days.

The point Packer is trying to drive home in this section of the book is that, in 1995, the accords Holbrooke brokered at Dayton, Ohio, to end the Bosnian War seemed to “mark a path onward and upward in the American story,” even though it would prove to be a false dawn. But this is pure special pleading: it is simply not serious for Packer to claim that Holbrooke was “that rare American in the treetops who actually gave a shit about the dark places of the earth.” In reality, one of the most striking things about Holbrooke’s career is just how many parts of the world—­light, dark, or otherwise—­he does not seem to have given a shit about, the most important of which was Latin America. Packer’s book makes no mention of Mexico, while Cuba is only referenced in terms of the Missile Crisis of 1962. Nor do the decision by Henry Kissinger to green-light General Augusto Pinochet’s coup d’état in Chile in 1973, the dirty wars in Central America in the mid-1980s, or Plan Colombia in the 1990s figure in Packer’s account, presumably because they didn’t figure in Holbrooke’s imagination.

When he climbs down from his hagiographic plinth, or takes a break from chronicling the ways in which Holbrooke was a sadistic egomaniac, Packer accomplishes the more modest task of showing in convincing detail that, contrary to popular opinion, Holbrooke’s real forte throughout his career was not bullying but diplo­macy. Holbrooke might not have been a grand theorist, but he was a consummate practitioner, and he saw clearly that this required paying special attention to global institutions. Long before Holbrooke served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, his standard reply to critics of the body was that it worked best when the United States led it. The permanent representative post fit Holbrooke’s talents to perfection. Indeed, despite Packer’s determined effort to portray Holbrooke as the ablest American diplomat of his time, the stark truth is that, apart from brokering the Dayton Peace Accords, his successful renegotiation of the country’s United Nations dues was Holbrooke’s only other consequential achievement during his almost half-century of government service.1

Holbrooke was far too intelligent not to have realized the comparative paucity of his accomplishments. He appears to have blamed this not on his own failures of character—the human grossness (to put it charitably) that Packer’s book documents and at times even seems to wallow in, to little or no useful purpose2—but on a lack of opportunity: Holbrooke thought that the sole context in which he could have shown his true greatness was as secretary of state.

Ironically, the moment when Warren Christopher decided to step down from that post, following President Clinton’s reelection in 1996, was not only Holbrooke’s best chance but also the one occasion when he exhibited any degree of self-understanding. As Packer tells it, the night before Holbrooke was to be interviewed for the job, first by Vice President Al Gore and then by Clinton, he was being prepped by his old friend and supporter, the then deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott. “You and others,” he told Talbott, “have wondered whether, if I achieve this goal of a lifetime . . . I would change, soften, whatever.” The answer was yes, Holbrooke said, for in the past his actions had sometimes “left a bad taste or a bad impression,” and while some had been necessary, others had been “very dumb.”

Would Holbrooke, in fact, have changed? It’s highly unlikely, and Packer certainly doesn’t seem to think so. “We bring ourselves wherever we go,” he writes. In my view, Packer is correct about that. But his portrait of Holbrooke as the tragic hero with feet of clay depends for its coherence on demonstrating that, however badly he behaved toward his children, his friends, his romantic partners, and even his colleagues, Holbrooke was a man of principle. For that is the issue: not character, principle. Yet in Packer’s own account there were few principles Holbrooke was not willing to traduce, if by doing so he advanced his own interests or the interests of those whose advancements were likely to lead to his own. In 2002, when John Kerry was contemplating running for president the following year, Holbrooke gave a dinner party at which he instructed the Massachusetts senator that he had to vote in favor of the Iraq War if he didn’t want to be seen as “weak on national security.” As Packer remarks: “Holbrooke didn’t add that the same was true for him in his quest to become Kerry’s secretary of state.”

“Paris is worth a mass,” the Protestant king of Navarre, Henry IV, is said to have remarked about his conversion to Catholicism in 1593, which solidified his authority after he was crowned king of France. It is difficult to imagine that Holbrooke was even capable of understanding the ethical problem here. Packer does not refer to a single instance during Holbrooke’s long career in which the man took a position that might exclude him from the inner circles of power, whether that power resided in Washington or on Wall Street. It is inconceivable, for example, that Holbrooke would have resigned from government over a matter of principle, as did one of his mentors, Cyrus Vance, when he opposed the 1980 operation to try to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran by force. To the contrary, with the signal exceptions of Bosnia and ­Rwanda, it was not the morality of U.S. policies that Holbrooke challenged but the strategies chosen to successfully implement them. This was true from the beginning of Holbrooke’s career as a young diplomat in Vietnam to his final post as President Barack Obama’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is hardly the stuff of an updated Profiles in Courage.

Somewhat grudgingly, Packer concedes that Holbrooke “wasn’t a grand strategist,” but he still talks about a Holbrooke Doctrine, which to Packer apparently constituted “an updated version of the liberal internationalism of Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy.” There is considerably less here than meets the eye. Constructing a set of straw men with whom Holbrooke’s “doctrine” did righteous battle, Packer writes sneeringly that Kissinger would not have understood that the new enemy America faced was the world of “murky civil wars, second-­rank tyrants, mass atrocities, failed states.” For good measure, Packer throws in the Republican hawks who believed Holbrooke’s vision “turned national security into social work,” and the “anti-war, blame-America model of the left.” But even Packer admits that Kissinger was right to warn that NATO expansion to the border of Russia would inflame Russian “paranoia.”

In an aside that is difficult to reconcile with his admiration for Holbrooke as the “embodiment of certain ideas in action” that, at least at the time, Packer thought were “best about us” (that us again!), Packer adds that “one virtue of realpolitik is it gives you a feel for the interests of other people.” Indeed. And might this not suggest that Holbrooke’s lack of concern (again, one struggles to put it mildly) for the wishes, feelings, or interests of others in his private life was in turn related to the reason that no Democratic presidential candidate, whether defeated or victorious, from Bill Clinton through Al Gore and John Kerry to Barack Obama, ever wanted to make Holbrooke secretary of state? The problem, as Clinton recognized (this is one story that does not appear in Packer’s book), was, to use a basketball analogy, that Holbrooke was more Dennis Rodman than Michael Jordan, and one would not want Dennis Rodman to anchor one’s team on the court any more than one would want Holbrooke to run one’s foreign policy.

This is not to say that Holbrooke’s wild-man side wasn’t useful to him at times, notably during his efforts to bring about a negotiated end to the war in Bosnia in the mid-1990s. As a French general put it to me at the time, his hyperbole mixed with admiration, “Of course he can negotiate with Miloševic: he is Miloševic!” But similar tactics failed utterly when Holbrooke tried to employ them in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009, and actually caused the Indian government to demand that India be excluded from Holbrooke’s remit, which it was. Nor would those tactics have worked in Northern Ireland, where former Senator George Mitchell, taking the opposite approach from the one Holbrooke specialized in, achieved just as much if not more. Mitchell also came closer to brokering a settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians than Holbrooke ever did between the Afghans and Pakistanis. Indeed, a strong argument can be made that the solid, reticent Mitchell and not the diva-like Holbrooke was the premier American diplomatic negotiator of the past four decades, though to be sure Holbrooke makes far better copy.3

There is nothing necessarily inappropriate about a biographer being in profound sympathy with his or her subject, to the exclusion of that person’s contemporaries. But when Packer says, as he did in a talk he gave at an Asia Society meeting when the book came out, that he misses the Holbrooke era because “the alternative is Trump’s America,” he is being disingenuous. Forget Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-­Cortez, and the possibility that, for the first time since the socialist congressman Vito Marcantonio lost his House seat in 1950, a political left worthy of the name will be competitive in U.S. electoral politics. For an alternative to these two choices, one need look no further than Barack Obama, who looms like Nemesis over the last part of Packer’s book. Obama mistrusted and disliked Holbrooke. Packer acknowledges the numerous faux pas that Holbrooke made in his interactions with Obama—during their first meeting, Holbrooke demanded that the president-­elect address him as Richard, not Dick—but his view of the president drips with dislike. He even takes Obama to task over his choice of which poem to read at Holbrooke’s memorial service. Though he offers no source in his book’s notes to support the claim, Packer asserts that at the time, Obama privately “expressed exasperation with the notion going around that he had killed Richard Holbrooke.” As if this were not dubious enough, Packer portrays Obama as having sat through the full two hours of Holbrooke’s memorial service as “a form of respect or penance.” Unless Packer has a second job as a mind reader, his suggestion that Obama might have felt a need to repent for his treatment of Holbrooke is pure Freudian projection.

This is a fascinating book, but in moral terms it is a pro­foundly unserious one. It is not Packer’s reporting that is at fault; to the contrary, much of it is exemplary. But Packer makes enormous claims for Holbrooke, and these seem quite unjustifiable on the basis of precisely the picture Packer himself paints of the man, what he emphasizes and what he ignores.

Particularly mistaken, I think, is Packer’s decision to devote only a few pages at various points in the book to the fact that, during the periods when Holbrooke was out of government, he joined various banks and brokerage houses—notably Lehman Brothers, Credit Suisse First Boston, and the private-­equity firm Perseus—where he made tens of millions of dollars thanks to his ability to connect his employers with powerful people outside the United States whom he had gotten to know as a diplomat. As Packer puts it, investment banks kept hiring Holbrooke because “he had great access in Seoul and Stockholm.” Holbrooke also earned fees in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for giving ­speeches to business groups, including, Packer adds almost as an afterthought, at least one made up of Ukrainian oligarchs. With the proceeds from this work, Holbrooke and his wife eventually acquired nine houses, including two in the Colorado resort town of Telluride, and maintained a private plane. Their pur­chases were made easier by discounted loans from Countrywide Financial and their good friend Angelo Mozilo, Countrywide’s CEO—­at least until the firm became the face of the subprime mortgage scandal and Mozilo was barred from ever again serving as the head of a public company.

Noting all this, as Packer does, is simply not enough. A more serious version of this book would have teased out the question of Holbrooke’s corruption with at least as much attention as Parker devotes to whether Holbrooke behaved pro­perly when several of his aides were killed during one of his trips to Sarajevo. Packer more or less restricts himself to saying that this is the way the game was played in the “treetops” of Washington and New York. One looks in vain in Our Man for the American tragedy Packer described so eloquently in his book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. There he chronicled what he described as the moment when

the norms that made the old institutions [of American life] useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts . . . [and the] void was filled by the default force in American life, organized money.

The Packer of that book would have questioned in depth whether Holbrooke was a worthy successor of the generation of diplomats who shaped the post–World War II international order or a comparatively minor epi­gone of America’s New Gilded Age, a man who alternated between doing some useful diplomatic work and getting rich on dodgy deals, sweetheart loans, and influence peddling.

Packer is content to sum up Holbrooke by deploying the fuzzy category of “almost great”—which, despite Packer’s attempts to flesh it out, ultimately obscures more than it clarifies. Holbrooke was not just an appalling human being but a diplomat whose accomplishments were actually quite modest. Packer has said that he worried about this. At his Asia Society book launch, he confessed to having wondered who would want to read a biography of “a middle-level diplomat whose reputation is fading.” Holbrooke’s great friend Leslie Gelb, to whom Packer’s biography is dedicated (along with Gelb’s wife and Frank Wisner), told Packer that the best way to portray Holbrooke would be to write a novel about him. Ghosts of that unwritten novel haunt Packer’s biography in the form of its clever but ultimately exasperating stylistic tics, above all Packer’s decision to insert himself into the narrative at critical moments and to address the reader in the second person. Holbrooke was a Shakespearean figure, Packer told his Asia Society audience, and “the most interesting man I’ve ever known,” and the book was meant to be read “as if the reader is listening to a tale.”

That is certainly one way to read the book. Given how simultaneously conventional and underpowered Packer’s justifications are for making Holbrooke the exemplary figure of the Pax Americana, not to mention the cloaca that was Holbrooke’s character, it is probably the best approach on offer. But there are tales and tales, and too often the life of Richard Holbrooke, at least as recounted by George Packer, is indeed that proverbial Shakespearean one of sound and fury that signifies far less than Packer seems to imagine. There are not just more truthful but also more interesting ways of writing an obituary for the American Empire.

‘s books include Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Future of the Left, A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis, and In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies.

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