Review — OUR MAN: RICHARD HOLBROOKE by George Packer (Togo)



 Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and The End of the American Century
by George Packer (Togo 1982-83)
Knopf Publisher
592 pages
May 2019
$30.00 (Hardcover);  $20.49 (Paperback); $14.99(Kindle)

 Review by Jeremiah Norris (Colombia 1963–65)

He had come a long way . . . and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him.” The Great Gatsby — F. Scott Fitzgerald


The Ego Has Landed

The author, George Packer, has a thoroughly beguiling style of writing in which the reader is being told a story rather than reading one, as with the opening line to Moby Dick: “Call me Ishmael;” Packer writes “you have heard that he is a monstrous egotist. It’s true. It’s even worse than you’ve heard — I’ll explain as we go on”.

Full Disclosure
There are two central protagonists in this book: Richard Holbrooke and Tony Lake, both graduates of the 1962 Foreign Service Class. I was familiar with Holbrooke as his name was being passed around PC/W Hq as a potential country director when I was on staff (more on that later). I knew Lake as we first met when he was Director of the International Voluntary Service (IVS). Our children went to the same public school, and our contacts continued up and to the time he served as the Director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in the Carter Administration. Thereafter, our career paths diverged.

In the Beginning
Holbrooke was the youngest in the 1962 Foreign Service Class — just 21 years of age.  Dean Rusk invited the class to the Secretary’s office and said: “This is probably the closest any of you will ever get to a secretary of state.”

Holbrooke had other ideas. He would attribute his choice of career to Kennedy’s generational call to service — “Ask not what your country can do for you,” and that visit spawned the birthplace of his wildest dream . . . to one day sit in the same chair as Dean Rusk.

Along with his close friend, Tony Lake, they were assigned to South Vietnam in 1963. Holbrooke had “wanted to see a war, to find out what war was and who he would be in it, ” Packer writes, and the only war available in 1963 was in South Vietnam. He read every book he could find on the subject of “counterinsurgency,” then a big item with the Kennedy Administration. Holbrooke declared his intention “to become the State Department’s leading lay expert in the whole goddamn free world.” The State Department detailed Holbrooke to USAID, which assigned him to the U. S. Operations Mission (USOM). Within USOM, there was a small unit called Rural Affairs. This catapulted Holbrooke to work among the peasants “in Vietcong strongholds, where the war was being fought,” Packer writes, and where aid workers could distribute items like food and cement to community development workers. Here the catchwords were “of self help; civic action; people-first approach; hearts and minds; and pacification” which became the way to win a revolutionary war.

It was a posting that introduced Holbrooke to young journalists like Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam who soon exposed the mountain of mendacities that justified our involvement in Vietnam via  their books A Bright Shining Lie and The Best and the Brightest. And it provided him with an introduction to the art of leaking privilege — often classified information to the press — when it served his ends.

After only a few months in Rural Affairs, Holbrooke, at age 22, saw a chance to become the US representative in a province called Ba Xuyen, then considered at the end of the earth. On paper, the province supposedly had 324 “strategic hamlets.” But when he wanted to visit any of them, he was told that “it was too dangerous.” Still, in both Saigon and Washington, they were 324 hamlets there, which meant that 61% of the population was under government control. But . . . at night, only the towns of this province belonged to the government, while the VC ran tax collections and schools during the day.

It was here in this obscure province, that Holbrooke came to believe that “I am seeing war in the least glorified light . . . when the fight doesn’t even seem worth it . . .. But there is no choice really, is there?” And he came to this understanding about our involvement in Vietnam: it was an unwinnable war; not one that was against communism, but rather against nationalism.

He and Lake had reached the level of FSO-5 [Foreign Service Officer] and Lake encouraged him to sit with a State Department personnel counselor to discuss his future. This meeting said a lot about Holbrooke’s self-image: His personnel file showed a recurring problem of getting along with others. The counselor tried to start there, but Holbrooke cut him off, saying “I’m not here for that . . . I just want to know what my promotion rate will be . . . I want to know at what age I can be an FSO-1.” When asked by the counselor “at what age do you think you should be?” Holbrooke answered: “thirty-five, the same age I expect to be an Assistant Secretary of State.”

This experience in Vietnam never left Holbrooke. All through his subsequent career, he would come back to it — much to the displeasure of future presidents like Barack Obama who wanted to hear nothing about its potential relevance to Afghanistan.

Richard C. Holbrooke at the gate of the Vietnamese Embassy in Paris, 1977. Credit: BettmannGetty-Images.jpg

He served for six years in Vietnam. Then, in 1970, the Peace Corps Personnel Office was instructed to interview Holbrooke for an appointment as Country Director. Although its staff was generally mum about the origins of this call, the rumor that gained the most currency was that the call had come from Holbrooke’s mentor, Ambassador Harriman. The Peace Corps called Holbrooke and invited him to Washington for interviews. He responded: ‘yes, I would be interested, but you will have to come here to interview me in New York City. Subsequently, he was appointed as Country Director for Morocco, where he served for some 12 months out of a normal 36 month tour.  At this time, Holbrooke was only 29 years old, one of its youngest Country Directors. Absent the call from Harriman, Holbrooke was probably more qualified for this post than many other Country Directors in 1996.

After Morocco, he became editor of Foreign Policy, served as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Carter Administration, and spent several years on Wall Street. We’ll skip over his multiple failed marriages, the befouling of his best friend’s marriage, his vigorous self-promotion for a Nobel Peace Prize, his shameless and constant positioning with incoming administrations to be appointed as Secretary of State, his, as Packer writes, “vast carelessness” and sometimes tendency to show up late for a meeting with the Secretary of State or a National Security Council (NSC) meeting with the President — disheveled in dress and person, his hauteur matching that of General MacArthur, but without the support of key Members of Congress — and we’ll simply get to that time of his life in which he will be best — and rightfully remembered.

History in the Making
In 1996 Holbrooke left his position as Ambassador to Germany after one year to become  the U. S. Envoy for Bosnia and the Balkans. It was a rolling pit of animosity among all parties — the Serbs, the Croats, the Bosnians, the Slovaks, NATO, and the Secretary-General of the UN, accompanied by Danish peacekeepers. In this seething cauldron there were ancient religious and political animosities, some going back to the 13th century. Of Holbrooke’s key negotiating team, one was from the Pentagon, another from the NSC and the White House, and State’s Ambassador Chris Hill (RPCV/Cameroon).  Holbrooke’s job: bring them to the peace table — though Bush’s Secretary of State Warren Christopher firmly believed that “we don’t have a dog in that fight.” The only hope was for a new American president.

That dog then appeared in the Clinton Administration. The new president, writes Packer, “had criticized President Bush’s passivity and promised action if he got the chance,” those comments turned out to be meaningless once he became President. It was up to Holbrooke to fulfill them.

Eventually, Clinton accepted a plan put together by Lake that “called for reaching a political deal in which Bosnia remained an intact state made up of two largely autonomous entities of roughly equal size, one Muslim-Croat, one Serb, after which a large American-led NATO force would deploy in Bosnia to enforce the peace.” If this plan failed, then “the U. S. would arm and train the Bosnian army and use air strikes to reverse the Serbs ethnic cleaning.

Although it was Lake’s plan, he was putting its implementation into Holbrooke’s portfolio — though he gave it less than a 20% chance of success. They met at the U. S. Embassy in London for the hand-off. Lake “thought back to their beginning, the days and nights in Saigon, their effort to find a better way to fight that war or else a way to end it. In a quiet voice, he said to Holbrooke: “This is what we once dreamed of doing together.” Both were moved by these words and shook hands. Subsequently, Holbrooke’s non-stop personal efforts succeeded in getting all of the fractious, warring parties to the peace table for the Dayton Accords.

It was Holbrook’s choice to host the Conference at the U. S. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio rather than in the usual venues of Geneva and Paris. There would be no distractions, with no temptations to linger — and there would be maximum American control.

Well, we all know the outcome of that conference, as it was well covered by every possible media outlet. As Packer writes: “Let’s give him his due. He ended a war. Well, he and others — but without Holbrooke, I don’t know who would have stepped forward to cajole and bully and outlast the Balkan war lords until they sat down together for the initiating ceremony in the B-29 Conference Room . . .  and the signing ceremony next month in Paris”.

In 2009 during the Obama Administration, he became the U. S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. One day in 2010, as he was giving a progress report to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, his face suddenly contorted and flushed a deep red to the point where everyone in her office took notice and was alarmed enough to call an ambulance. Holbrooke must have known then that, like Gatsby, “his dream was behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond” the Office he had so desperately sought for all of his professional life.  In the George Washington Hospital’s operating theater, as he was giving frantic instructions for friends to be contacted, its ER staff vainly tried to calm him down. True to his self-image, and in spite of being in the throes of a vivid clinical aorta dissection, Holbrooke gamely responded: “I can’t relax. I’m in charge of Afghanistan and Pakistan”.

The Ego has Landed
Who was “our man”? Obviously, in time, we became resigned in accepting that a hero and man, as Mario Vargas Llosa reminds us “is not an abstract prototype or a model of perfection but a human being made of contradictions and contrasts, weakness and greatness.” Or, as the Uruguayan novelist, Jose Enrique Rodo once wrote: “Since a man is many men, which means that angels and demons combine inextricably in his personality.”

Still, was Richard Holbrooke “our man” for the American century!   Others come to mind, such as Harry Truman, a man who learned about life from 12 years on the south end of a mule, plowing up rich Missouri soil before moving on to desegregate the military in 1948; or there is Eleanor Roosevelt, sole author of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights Agenda; or Center for Disease Control’s D. A. Henderson who led the global fight to eradicate smallpox, a disease that had ravaged billions of humankind since its recorded beginnings; or George C. Marshall, who after the detriment of WW II, set in place a plan that brought in three years an entire continent then in rags back into the community of nations;  or Lyndon Johnson, though carrying that dead-weight anchor of Vietnam, still managed to give us the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicare in 1965, and Medicaid in 1966;  and then there was Norman Borlaugh, an agronomist, who after other noted scientists of the era lamented the then-received wisdom that there would be mass starvation if the world of 3.3  billion didn’t control population growth, gave us the Green Revolution which now feeds a world of 7.5 billion — yes, there are others who could serve as “our man”—and the American Century is only half over.

It can be said of Richard Holbrook’s boundless enthusiasm for the potential of America that the only way his dreams could be kept from expression was with 6 feet of the Hamptons earth, tightly tramped to keep him down. Thus, if any reader wants to understand how sausage is made in Washington, then enshrined as public policy as it proceeds through a vituperous bureaucratic assembly line, George Packer’s informative primer will guide them well, thanks to Richard Holbrooke.

Following his tour in Colombia (1963-65) Jeremiah Norris went to work on the Peace Corps Staff at PC/HQ.  During the Administration of George H. W. Bush, he served as Director of Human Resources, Bureau for Europe, Department of State, managing the U. S. Government response for health in the former states of the USSR. He then worked for the Hudson Institute in Washington D. Director, Center for Science in Public Policy.



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    • Jerry Norris has given us an insightful and learned review of Packer ‘s book and a complex man. Far better than many of the reviews in the papers . Great job.

  • Anybody who came across Holbrooke in the Foreign Service never forgot it. (I am a retired FSO.) Being part of the bureaucratic staff who prepared occasional agendas for meetings Holbrooke attended, I was amazed at how he would take over meetings, ignore efforts to follow the agenda, and demand that everyone agree with his point of view about “next steps.” If you raised an objection, Holbrooke would either ignore you or imply that you were not smart enough to understand how he was strategizing six moves ahead in a chess game only he could see. There was no room for anyone else at a meeting Holbrooke commandeered. There were many prima donnas in the Foreign Service but I never encountered anyone who thought himself indispensable and everyone else disposable. Okay, give him the credit for The Dayton Accords, but he burned everyone around him.

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