Book Review: Our Man by George Packer

I wasn’t expecting to read a 600 page biography of the late American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, but after reading Walter Isaacson’s excellent review of George Packer’s biography, I one-clicked the Kindle purchase of Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century.

It’s extraordinary. On several nights the past couple weeks, I climbed into bed exhausted by the day and expecting to read for just a few minutes before falling asleep. Instead I stayed up past my bedtime, riveted by the historical sketches of far-flung places, the complex shades of grey of each of the Beltway cast of characters, and the compelling portrait of the man at the center of this biography: Holbrooke.

I learned a lot about Vietnam, Bosnia, and Afghanistan — and America’s foreign policy record in each place. I learned about the “American century” of foreign policy, as Packer calls it, the 50-60 years after WWII when Pax Americana ruled and there was a sense that no humanitarian or democratic cause was too small for America — that American diplomatic, cultural, and military might could right wrongs in every corner of the earth. And most of all, I learned a lot about one man — Holbrooke — who embodied the idealistic values of his generation, and who became a one-man wrecking ball whose energy and intellect and doggedness and arrogance and unapologetic ambition really did change the world in several concrete ways.

Holbrooke was of a class: “These were unsentimental, supremely self-assured white Protestant men—privileged, you could say—born around the turn of the century, who all knew one another and knew how to get things done. They didn’t take a piss without a strategy.”

He set his ambitions high from the outset of his career, where, shortly after joining the Foreign Service and heading to Vietnam, he openly predicted that he’d one day become Secretary of State. Packer’s description of how Holbrooke manifested his ambition — so sweatily transparent it was repulsive even to those inclined to affection for the man — reminded me of Caro’s description of Lyndon Johnson’s early political years. “Ambition is not a pretty thing up close, Packer writes. “It’s wild and crass, and mortifying in the details. It brings a noticeable smell into the room.”

LBJ of course achieved his ultimate ambition (the White House) whereas Holbrooke never quite did. He served key roles throughout the State Department and ultimately was named Ambassador to the UN by Bill Clinton, but never reached Secretary of State. In this sense Packer suggests Holbrooke was “almost great”– and the “almost” ate at Holbrooke till the day he died. Packer writes, about himself, “As a member of the class of lesser beings who aspire to a good life but not a great one—who find the very notion both daunting and distasteful—I can barely fathom the agony of that ‘almost.’ ”

One corollary to Holbrooke’s ambition and frenetic workaholism was a complete lack of an inner life. Packer suggests that whatever introspecting Holbrooke engaged in served his ambition more so than a search for truth or identity. “So much thought, so little inwardness. He could not be alone—he might have had to think about himself,” Packer writes. Packer elaborates:

Except in fiction, the only inner life you can ever really know is your own. With others we might get flickers, intimations of the continuous parallel hidden experience that’s just as alive and rich in contours as the visible, audible person. Some of us have a talent for projecting it outward—detailed dreams and memories, Tourette’s-like eruptions, self-analysis. Holbrooke was not among these translucent souls. For most of his life, in almost every situation, he kept the parallel experience under heavy guard.

After romping through Vietnam and Bosnia — the Dayton peace accord being Holbrooke’s signature diplomatic achievement, of course — the final fifth of the book takes place in Obama’s White House. We see Holbrooke fail miserably to connect with Barack Obama or the inner circle of the Obama foreign policy team, a team very self-conscious about breaking from the foreign policy establishment and which had little interest in lessons from Vietnam. Packer suggests Obama saw his role as “managing America’s decline wisely” — from the sole superpower with an ambitious idealistic agenda — to that of a more humble player on an increasingly crowded global stage, chastened by the catastrophe of the Iraq war. Of course, the Obama philosophy of restraint and humility cut against Holbrooke’s more idealistic instincts and revealed the generational divide between the two: one who came of age during a time of American greatness and the other rose to power during the clear decline of American power. Nonetheless, Obama and Holbrooke should have gotten along more than they did: Holbrooke actually shared Obama’s perspective on America’s involvement in Afghanistan, which was to send fewer troops than the generals were requesting. But interpersonally, they clashed, and Holbrooke was sidelined.

Packer was granted exclusive access to Holbrooke’s diary entries, Holbrooke kept dutifully throughout his career, ever attentive to his legacy. The entries are wonderfully written. Certain chapters in Packer’s book are entirely Holbrooke’s diary. He’s a wonderful writer; indeed, Holbrooke spent considerable time as a writer/journalist/ghostwriter. So you can really see his mind come alive. For example, here’s Holbrooke’s private diary entry on Bob Woodward’s book on Afghanistan decision making in the Obama White House:

It’s a very poor book in terms of explaining how policy is made. It’s full of meaningless and trivial little factoids and anecdotes that are irrelevant to the larger theme. Woodward would argue that those illustrate the personality of the president, and in that sense he’s right. But he doesn’t have the ability to distinguish between what matters and what doesn’t matter, and because he writes as he gets the information, the information is out of context. A minor dispute that was resolved quickly but with great intensity might take precedence over a major policy dispute which is resolved in a different, more orderly way.

By the end of this biography, you get a sense of a man so rich in strengths and yet so hobbled by weakness. So beloved, and yet so hated by so many people. Packer writes: “I used to think that if Holbrooke could just be fixed—a dose of self-restraint, a flash of inward light—he could have done anything. But that’s an illusion. We are wholly ourselves. If you cut out the destructive element, you would kill the thing that made him almost great.”

Below are some other highlighted sentences from Our Man from my Kindle. Here’s my report from traveling to Bosnia that includes highlights from Kaplan’s the Balkan Ghosts. Here are my notes from Joseph Epstein’s book Ambition. George Packer is a gifted writer. Here’s a previous post on George Packer commenting on Andrew Sullivan; here’s my quick recap of Packer’s earlier book.


[Holbrooke would say:] “I feel, and I hope this doesn’t sound too self-satisfied, that in a very difficult situation where nobody has the answer, I at least know what the overall questions and moving parts are.”

The only problems worth his time were the biggest, hardest ones.

How he lobbied for the Nobel Peace Prize—that kind of thing, all the time, as if he needed to discharge a surplus of self every few hours to maintain his equilibrium.

Holbrooke had invoked his father and it nearly undid him. If those few words were enough to break his formidable public control, imagine what else lay breathing in his depths. Throughout his life, the person whose approval he needed most was no longer there to be impressed. If you want analysis, that’s the best I can give you.

Today it’s impossible to imagine someone his age, aglow with molten ambition, choosing the Foreign Service. But in those days it was different. Business wasn’t entrepreneurial and heroic—it was corporate and dull.

Years later, when his students at Georgetown would ask him how to become secretary of state, he would answer: “If you eat turds for the rest of your life to become someone, either 1) you’ll achieve it and discover you’re not happy, or 2) because you’re eating turds and your ambition is so obvious, you won’t get it.”

[In his youth] His ambition still had a clean smell, and youth was working in his favor—physical courage, moral passion, the boundless energy and enthusiasm and sheer sense of fun, the skepticism, the readiness to talk straight to ambassadors and generals.

After the evacuation of dependents and the arrival of ground troops in 1965, South Vietnam became a vast brothel. But even before there were half a million Americans, sex was an elemental part of the war. “I have the theory that if the women of Vietnam had big copper spoons through their noses and looked like Ubangis,” a reporter once said, “this war wouldn’t have lasted half as long, and maybe wouldn’t have even started.”

Inaction, inactivity is as much an action as action itself; it is as much of a decision to do nothing as it is to do something.

“You have a brilliant future ahead of you,” an administrator at the embassy told Holbrooke, “but you will move faster if you slow down.”

The process of disenchantment was excruciatingly slow. Later on, people would backdate their moment of truth, their long-deferred encounter with the glaringly obvious. [On Vietnam]

She was an intelligent woman, Phi Beta Kappa at Brown, but his brilliance sapped her self-confidence. There was nothing in her life she could be proud of, except the boys and the occasional canard à l’orange. She felt that she bored her husband when she tried to confide in him, and so she was lonely even when they were together.

While she slept, there had been a revolution in the lives of American women. In 1964 she was expected to be her husband’s helpmeet. In 1971 she was a loser for having no career of her own.

If Holbrooke found you interesting but not threatening, he could be the best company in the world.

So there’s a mystery. And maybe there should be. We like to think that truth lies in details, the more details the clearer the truth, like the cumulative pages of a trial transcript, but this piling up of facts only gives us the false assurance that we’ve gotten to the heart of the matter when in fact we understand almost nothing. There’s a kind of injustice that goes by the name of thoroughness. Who could hold up under trial by biography? None of us. I’ll try to stay clear of testimony, verdict, and sentence.

Deng’s sixteen-day “lesson” in February 1979 killed twenty thousand people—ten thousand Vietnamese soldiers and civilians and an equal number of Chinese soldiers—while destroying a large swath of northern Vietnam that had been spared American bombing.
Blythe couldn’t stand Washington. Her reasons weren’t original—it was full of self-important bores who made no distinction between work and personal life—but you can imagine her particular frustration as a young woman.

But it wasn’t enough to rescue people at sea—they had to be given permanent homes somewhere. Neighboring countries announced that they were full up, tugging boats back out to sea and even threatening to shoot the desperate passengers. In June 1979, Holbrooke flew on Air Force One to Japan for the G7 summit meeting, and during the flight across the Pacific he badgered first Vance and then Carter to double the number of Southeast Asian refugees admitted into the United States from seven to fourteen thousand. It was not a priority issue.

The next year—the last of his presidency—Carter signed the Refugee Act of 1980, which tripled the annual number of refugees allowed into the country. By 1982 the United States had admitted half a million Indochinese, by far the most of any country in the world. The number eventually reached one and a half million. Holbrooke had a lot to do with it.

It’s strange to remember that there were no bigger celebrities in the eighties than the men and women who read news scripts on TV. Everything about them—their seven-figure salaries, their rivalries, their haircuts—was a story, often bigger than the news itself, as when ABC and NBC tried to steal Sawyer away from CBS (ABC finally got her).

Not because he ever closed a deal—he didn’t—but because bankers who knew their own deficiencies were as dazzled by his political intelligence and worldliness as he was by their money. No matter how rich and successful, bankers tend to be narrow and gray, and Holbrooke was polychromatic company.

Ever since the acquisition of Lehman by Shearson/American Express, Holbrooke had been star-fucking the CEO of AmEx, James Robinson (in spite of finding him intellectually incurious and self-absorbed),

Ghostwriters are a tolerated literary scandal, but their presence lingers like the echo of another voice that confuses the sense of true verisimilitude.

Holbrooke considered the scandals a late-life lapse that didn’t lay a glove on the great man.

His shameless hunger made him more vulnerable than his heroes, and, to me at least, more human.

Something went wrong. The speakers were improvising and trying to top one another, paying back the high cost of being in his life. They didn’t know how to be witty, the jokes cut too deep and true, and the smell of blood turned the play savage. Holbrooke, who could never laugh at himself because he didn’t know himself, was laughing now from his table by the podium because it was the only way to survive the disaster, and he kept looking around for others to join him. But no one else was laughing.

SHE WAS INDISPUTABLY BEAUTIFUL, with the middle coloring he liked. Magyar cheekbones. Brown eyes keenly, you could say acquisitively, fixed from earliest childhood photos on the object of their desire. European style of elegance—she could get away with a trench coat and foulard. Breasts larger than he expected—he liked that too. Her beauty wasn’t the kind that sat back and waited to be unveiled. It was acutely conscious of its power, and when she walked into a room not only did every man think, She looks great, but they felt, in some subtle way that they didn’t understand, compelled to tell her, as if the price of not doing so would be too high. She elicited admiration and fear, leading men and women alike to cast themselves as obliging extras in the drama she created.

And in fact you could easily imagine her as the passionate and calculating Comtesse de Marton in a novel by Stendhal—the quick wit, the love of books and talk, the shrewdness about other people, the machinations.

[Diary entries:] I talked to Les Gelb tonight, who said that he had had the worst conversation of his life with Tony Lake, a thirty-minute screaming match which had basically torn what was left of their friendship. … Entering the Oval Office for the “pre-brief” with Christopher, Berger, and Gore, I was startled when the president looked up from his desk at me and said, “I didn’t know that you were dating Peter Jennings’s ex-wife.” Then, looking right at me, he said, “She’s lovely—really lovely.” I said I agreed and thanked him, and he said, “Shows good taste on your part, but I don’t know about the women.” I wanted to say, “I’ll tell you my secrets later, Mr. President,” but looking at his watch Sandy pulled the discussion back to the reason for the meeting.

If Holbrooke had told Clinton that a certain Lieutenant Colonel Randall Banky—not a Rhodes Scholar, not on the call, not on the president’s peace mission—had gone down the mountain, rescued the wounded, and found the remains of the dead, there would have been a subtle deflation over the line, and the origin myth might have never been born, and with it the American drive for peace. Holbrooke, who loved history, told the kind of story that history loves.

Banky knew that this wouldn’t happen, and it didn’t happen, and in 2002, having been passed over for promotion, he retired as a lieutenant colonel, unable to lay to rest the suspicion that his army career ended because “Colonel Banky had disappeared.”

They were cut from similar Foreign Service cloth—cerebral and mordantly witty.

As for Izetbegovic, Clark was more his kind of American—solid, respectful. Holbrooke’s intensity seemed to bring out the madness in Bosnian leaders, and Izetbegovic didn’t trust him. He and Holbrooke talked by paying each other false compliments—“Mr. President, you are absolutely right, but…”—so they could never become partners like Holbrooke and Milosevic.

But she knew many Serbs who helped Muslims, including the man who dragged her sister over a bridge across the siege line to safety. When her neighbors on the rooftop cheered the air strikes, the woman pointed out that innocent people would also be killed.

Holbrooke let him go on, enjoying the parley, and then always brought them back to the war. He would step out to take calls—taking calls during meals was one of his favorite shows of status—and come back to say that it was the White House on the phone, though Hill and the others thought the calls were probably from Kati.

And yet this mix of the outsized and drab—this American, specifically midwestern atmosphere, at once banal and imposing and earnest—it told the gilded palaces of Europe: you have the history and the beauty, but you failed to end this war on your continent. Nothing happened until the Americans got involved—until the uncouth, sleepless Holbrooke barged in.

Washington, which has an animate and collective mind, considered Madeleine Albright more solid than brilliant, a politically savvy tactician rather than a serious strategist.

Pax Americana began to decay at its very height. If you ask me when the long decline began, I might point to 1998. We were flabby, smug, and self-absorbed. Imagine a president careless enough to stumble into his enemies’ trap and expend his power on a blue dress. Imagine a superpower so confident of perpetual peace and prosperity that it felt able to waste a whole year on Oval Office cocksucking.

Holbrooke met one-on-one with more than a hundred members of Congress. Most of them had never sat down with a cabinet member and were flattered by the attention of a diplomatic star.

And they were happily married. At least he was, and in his case an affair didn’t disprove it. The younger woman merely aroused an appetite in a class where affairs were practically expected. He was still gone on Kati.

Holbrooke didn’t quite fall in love with Afghanistan. He was too American to go native anywhere. The only foreign language he ever learned was French, which he spoke fluently with a heavy New York accent, and when he bought local artifacts it was to give them away as gifts, not to furnish his own houses. He fell for problems, not countries, and it was the problem of Afghanistan that began to consume him.

They called themselves Taliban—“students.”

Karzai began to sound like a nationalist—not an aggressive one like Milosevic, but more like Diem, proud and resentful, with the humiliated anger that a poor man feels toward a rich man whose help he sought.

“I am deeply torn about this,” he wrote in his diary. “An undefined job is like entering a room in which all the seats are taken, then insisting that everyone move to make room…Everyone says I must take this job, and I probably will. But with no great enthusiasm or hope I can make much of it, given its difficulties.—My ability to get something done will depend on H + BO willingness to listen to my views—and I am worried on that score.”

Haqqani would set about to teach Holbrooke how to see through Pakistan’s deceptions and self-deceptions.

“Your problem is you care about substance,” Holbrooke warned Rubin. “Government is all about process.” And he told Nasr, “I want you to learn nothing from government. This place is dead intellectually. It does not produce any ideas—it’s all about turf battles and checking the box. Your job is to break through all this. Anybody gives you trouble, come to me.” Once their security clearances came through, Nasr would advise Holbrooke on Pakistan and Rubin—who knew Karzai well—on Afghanistan.

But if Rubin condescended in any way to Clinton, she wouldn’t listen to a thing he said. Holbrooke had noticed Rubin’s habit of speaking arrogantly to people he thought knew less than he did. “Okay, I get it,” Rubin said. “Funny, I heard exactly the same thing about you.” “See—that’s just what I’m talking about.”

He wasted no time on greetings or small talk. He was, Holbrooke thought, the opposite of Bill Clinton—disciplined like a corporate boss, comfortable giving orders, impatient, sometimes cold. Obama had the remoteness of an introvert who didn’t pretend affection any more than he’d lie about having read your book. His sense of integrity depended on refusing to backslap. He saved his warmth for the few who really generated it—his family, his old friends. The distance he kept from his advisors gave him a power Clinton never had. Still, Holbrooke wished he’d smile or laugh now and then.

But in fact Obama had a distaste for Holbrooke, almost a physical repulsion that made him go cold.

Government had grown specialized, compartmentalized, and that suited Obama, who was a stickler for orderly process—a technocrat disguised as a visionary.

Every president needs a loyalist who doesn’t care what anyone else thinks as long as the boss has his back, which gives his actions a higher blessing than ordinary morality.

If his interlocutor is another American not in his chain of command, his lack of patience when he isn’t speaking is palpable.

One Response to Book Review: Our Man by George Packer

  1. Chris Yeh says:

    This is one of your most elegantly-written book reviews. I really enjoyed its lyricism.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *