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Review: George Packer, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century Alfred A. Knopf, 2019

Richard Holbrooke’s diplomatic career, in this nearly Aesopian tale, forms a dismaying answer for those hardy true believers who reckon that working within a system is the best way to change it.  Of course, Holbrooke was no real rebel, but rather a razor sharp and mostly honest assessor of the international events he craved but usually lacked the institutional leverage to shape to the best interest of the nation, as he saw it. 

Indeed, the U. S. government that this immensely ambitious man served showed itself steadily to be either losing leverage over, or lacking the ability to handle, complicated events in a wisely advantageous way.  The story George Packer tells is one of intertwined ebbings of peak power for both the United States abroad and for Holbrooke personally, who was a talented political player who, despite all his misgivings, doggedly believed in the system to the end. Packer’s storyteller instinct is on the mark in choosing Holbrooke as a flawed but illuminating guide through the last half century of American foreign policy.

Holbrooke was nothing if not ambitious, but unlike many deliriously driven people in his professional cohort he tried to yoke naked ambition to a concern for a ‘bigger picture’ of ethical concerns and realistic goals, and he even had his limits as to how to go about achieving some ends.  The infernal crucible was, of course, Vietnam, which in the early 1960s as a brand new Foreign Service officer he wound up as an USAID aide, and head-spinningly soon was in charge of an entire province. His enthusiasm was no match for the enormity of the task of counterinsurgent suppression of what really was a nationalist uprising in the countryside. The portraits of Vietnam circulating among his bosses struck him as deranged and ignorant, which they manifestly were. This sound administrator also learned that there were things you keep from ‘higher-ups” if you want to retain your post. The larger problem is that honchos like Robert McNamara were easy to deceive if you told them what they wanted to hear. This institutional syndrome hardly comes as news, but it is interesting when confirmed by an agitated insider.

“Foreign policy makes no sense” his erstwhile pal Leslie Gelb congenially remarked later about (not only) Vietnam, because “people make decisions based on the politics of the moment, or on an ideology that bears little relation to human reality, or by sheer ignorance compounded by wishful thinking. Or they don’t make a decision at all . . . just stumbling along and calling the result policy.” Which actually might be better than adhering adamantly to a misconceived scheme, as many did during the Vietnam war – but not much better.  You see, given the consensus hard-ass Cold warrior atmosphere in higher circles, “not to interfere was out of the question” regarding Vietnam.  Everything in his career is marked by the few lessons learned by authorities from Vietnam and the many others they insistently ignored as new crises appeared.

Packer rightly praises the blunt in-country notes Holbrooke kept, describing the turnstile South Vietnamese regime as “totally bankrupt and disgusting,” of the silly pride of bestowing wheat on rice-eating people who did not want it, of corrupt village chiefs, of lawless lawmen, of an unmotivated ramshackle South Vietnamese Army, of air strikes that create more enemies than they eliminate, and of haughty compatriots barreling around the place recklessly. “The country is so sad.” Holbrooke grasped quickly that the National Liberation Front could not to be crushed militarily. The US Army, he found, nonetheless “makes of men complainers who respect only rank, and consider their own rank as a mark of intelligence,’ and who want to “kill, kill, kill, not fuss around with hearts and minds.” In sum: “Reports lie, they lie.”

Were there, for a teeny-weeny example, 324 strategic hamlets in Ba Xuyen? “On paper, maybe, in reality  most of them were flimsy death traps.” As aghast as Holbrooke was at what was unfolding cluelessly around him, he never considered joining hundreds of Foreign Service Officers who resigned to take their dissent outside to forums where they might generate public pressure for withdrawal. (Holbrooke’s ambivalent friend Tony Lake would resign over the Cambodia ‘incursion’ in 1970.) Instead, looking for the ever elusive “better way” (like John Paul Vann, whom he knew) Holbrooke championed French ‘oil drop’ pacification techniques, and was miffed at the ascent of General Westmorland’s attrition strategy instead, even though ‘oil spot’ had been a dismal flop.  More out of politesse than disagreement, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge declined to send Holbrooke’s deeply pessimistic assessment of the war to Washington D.C.

Why do Americans fall in love with counterinsurgency?” Packer wonders.

“I ask, because obviously we’re no good at it.”  Yet the US consolingly does murder, maim and displace plenty of wrongly hued people in this holy quest. Packers gets it in a nut shell: officials behave “as if the solution to another country’s internal conflict is to get our bureaucracy right.” After likewise failing to transform the effete South Vietnamese leadership into main street populists, the last flailing resort was full-scale militarization and a takeover of the war, since LBJ feared  the right wing “more the growing anti-war critics.” The vaunted ‘action intellectuals’ of the Kennedy years fell into line or dropped out. Holbrooke toughed it out on the inside, because in no small part, of his “drive to be a great man,” to become Secretary of State some fine bright day.

“You cant be a good counterinsurgent unless you’ve wrecked your marriage,” according to State Department lore and Holbrooke complied.  Back home again Holbrooke played the glittery Georgetown dinner party games and circulated with all the right sets, even as he fretted about the war. He became a dab hand in bureaucratic struggles but never quite concealed his actual feelings well enough to truly excel at it.  “If you look close enough, and are in a bad mood,” Packer observes. “public service seems to be composed of paperwork and personal feuds.” Still, In D.C. in the mid- to late 1960s he worked for Robert “Blowtorch” Komer, met LBJ, and hobnobbed with diplomats, journalists and lots of other men’s wives but got too many unsatisfactory answers as to when he would be appointed an assistant secretary of state. Here Packer muses on the “effectiveness trap,” of staying on the inside in vain hope of swaying significant  things.  Yet, for all his evident career obsessiveness, Holbrooke clearly was a capable and responsible civil servant, which makes his personal plight all the more interesting and almost but not quite tragic.

For, despite the “hard , gemlike flame” that Packer justly makes a joke of, Holbrooke, and others like him, was  self-snared in a milieu where “foolish certainty usually eats fragile wisdom,” where, therefore, pea-brained hawks rule the roost.  Holbrooke’s pal (up to a point) Tony Lake was likewise distressed by reports of American atrocities, yet none of these aspirant new mandarins could risk contemplating withdrawal.  Their dissent didn’t mean, get out of Vietnam.

It meant , what the hell do we do know? That was about as far as skepticism could take you while you were still inside. The process was still excruciatingly slow.  Later on, people would backdate their moment of truth, their long-deferred encounter with the glaringly obvious. This was often inadvertent — they honestly couldn’t believe that they were so wrong for so many years. And when they finally began to lose faith, they kept it to themselves . . . . No one wanted to be called a dove.

A band of high level diplomats gathered for pointless clandestine meetings  to discuss looming doubts about Vietnam. The Pentagon Papers began to be compiled, “a record of voluminous lies,” that McNamara, who launched the study, later refused to read, and Daniel Ellsberg, who Holbrooke sniffed at as an ’emotional exhibitionist’, risked his life and liberty to disclose. Holbrooke did co-author a hefty dissenting memo on the war, but LBJ trashed it.  Holbrooke during the 1968 Tet Offensive tellingly found Westmoreland and Komer in shock for swallowing their own press release propaganda. LBJ, after the ‘wise men” tell him in March to get out of Vietnam, announced he would not run for reelection. The Georgetown dinners paid off when Holbrooke was assigned to the  America delegation to negotiate with Hanoi and the NLF, which did not, to say the least, go well. Interestingly, Packer reports that even Averill Harriman and new Defense Secretary Clark Clifford suspected that LBJ dragged his heels on negotiations to hurt Hubert Humphrey. Better known now is that Nixon sabotaged peace negotiations to augment his own electoral chances. Still, LBJ only announced a total bombing halt on North Vietnam on October 31st, much too late for a consequent surge to put Humphrey in office. Holbrooke, to his credit, could not stomach working for Nixon. However, his blithe boudoir admission that he wanted to be the next Kissinger did lose him a discerning lover.

Holbrooke worked in the Peace Corps and then as the editor of Foreign Policy during the Nixonian interim. A lot of people couldn’t stand Holbrooke. but, as Packer proves, as if it needs proving, “ambition is not  pretty thing up close.” How chastened Holbrooke was by Vietnam, which “upset every expectation” that his generation of young foreign officers had “about what it meant to serve the United States,” is hard to say since, after all, he thought he was on the side of the pragmatic angels. For all that, Packer accurately surmises, “Vietnam fixed them with the dreaded label “softy”. and it didn’t matter that the hawks were dead wrong — in government that label could destroy you.” While former colleagues like Tony Lake and Roger Morris argued during  scholarly sojourns for the recognition of the human factor in statecraft and lamented callous disregard for human consequences of U.S. decisions, Holbrooke finally snags a brass ring, becoming assistant  secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under Jimmy Carter.

His storied career then hurtles along in a medley of desperate switches between headline-grabbing government posts and get-rich-quick spells of obscenely well-paid sinecures in the odious likes of Lehman Brother, AIG, and Countrywide Financial. The Vietnam war over, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, under Jimmy Carter, considered the State Department a “Convalescent Home for wounded Vietnam Veterans,” and accordingly had scant use for Holbrooke.  You need quite a capacious scorecard to follow ensuing intricacies of bureaucratic warfare over normalization with China and arms control with Russia. Human rights are especially a chore to champion when peddling weapons to Indonesia during the East Timor massacres, keeping Marcos appeased in the Philippines for the sake of US bases, and dainty tiptoeing around Cambodia because the wrong power (Vietnam) rescued it from the Khmer Rouge. Holbrooke, though, was instrumental in opening immigration quota and helping South East Asian refugees. It’s sort of the least we could do afterward.  Carter, in Packer’s reckoning, loses office because “he couldn’t lead and that’s what voters wanted, even if it meant being lied to.”

Until recalled to public service by Clinton, as a special envoy and then UN Ambassador, and later by a mistrustful Obama (a “technocrat disguised as a visionary”), as a Special Representative on Afghanistan and Iraq, Holbrooke spends his extracurricular time getting better acquainted with Eros and Mammon, having hordes of affairs, starting a consulting firm, helping write D.C. arch-fixer Clark Clifford’s memoirs as well as a book of his own, and doing indefatigable power networking.  The 1995 Dayton Accords are the summit for his reputation. Ironically, under Obama, he encountered only irritation when raising Vietnam parallels especially over Afghanistan, still our longest war.  The Bush Junior White House earlier had no use for his advice about genuine nation-building in Afghanistan either. On the other, hand, his sagacity deserted him when he urged Democrats in September 2002 to vote for the Iraq resolution, largely out of fear of appearing weak. He also dismissed concerns about Russian reactions of NATO’s push to its borders.  What does the whole story amount to?  Well it remains morbidly fascinating to study a public spirited figure who campaigned on his own behalf for the Nobel Peace Prize at the same time as he really tried to represent an America that aimed for power for something more than its own sake.

Kurt Jacobsen is book review editor at Logos.