Once, not so long ago, Americans got in the habit of seeing their times as the American Century. It denoted the period from the end of World War II, when the U.S. emerged as a superpower, and was supposed to continue – right up until the present, although no one thinks that way anymore and we do not know when we stopped or why.
Those questions have occupied George Packer, who has written on foreign affairs as a staff writer for The New Yorker and is the author of “The Assassins’ Gate,” about the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq; and “The Unwinding,” about how the U.S. changed from 1978 to 2012, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Now Packer has published “Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and The End of The American Century,” a freewheeling and highly readable biography of the diplomat, which argues that it was really an American half-century and it probably ended not long after 9/11 – not because America was attacked by al-Qaida but because of how it responded and is still responding.
Holbrooke had a habit of annoying the powerful, including Barack Obama, who could not stand to be in his presence when Holbrooke was the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan under Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Yet he has never been as interesting as he is in Packer’s sympathetic hands.
“This is the saddest story I have ever heard” is how Ford Madox Ford famously began his novel “The Good Soldier.”
Packer: “Holbrooke? Yes, I knew him. I can’t get his voice out of my head.”
Packer begins in Vietnam, where Holbrooke was a young Foreign Service officer, losing some of his illusions about Americans alone being able to do hard things like thwarting the spread of Communism, simply because they were good people.
Holbrooke and his best friend, Anthony Lake (who would go on to serve President Bill Clinton as the national security advisor), were part of a generation who entered government “in what seemed like the late morning of American power,” Packer writes.
“Then the dark came down early and they spent a decade trying to find their way through. They went in as true believers, and Vietnam upset every one of their assumptions about what it meant to serve the United States.”
Yet they stayed in government, hooked on power. That is why Holbrooke, Packer says, “lets us ogle ambition in the nude.” He is brilliant, can be a sycophant when that is what is called for and often is unaware of the effect on others of his bluster and self-pity. The same mix of ego and idealism guide his greatest achievement: As a special envoy to the Balkans under President Clinton, he prevailed in the Dayton Peace accords and ended the Bosnian civil war. How many people do you know who have ended a war?
Holbrooke seemed to have done it by battering the warring parties. He was not awarded the Nobel Peace Prize probably because he lobbied too hard for it. He was just “too big, too noisy, too American.”
Afghanistan was Holbrooke’s last assignment, in 2010, the same year he died; and its intractability is what bookends America’s half-century. Nine years in, Holbrooke accurately predicts that it will be America’s longest war. Obama wanted out but he could not hold off Secretary Clinton and the generals, who thought they could end it with more troops.
Talking to “the odious” Taliban was the only way: Holbrooke was convinced. You do not make peace with your friends. But it was politically unrealistic.
“Good people imagine that their government should also be good and do good in the world – especially Americans,” Packer writes, “but it’s not what governments are for.” Reading “Our Man,” you wonder if Americans will ever take this to heart while knowing the answer is never.