Journalist George Packer takes a look at U.S. foreign policy through the lens of Richard Holbrooke’s life, a controversial figure who helped shape the power of the U.S. on a global scale for decades. He reveals all in his latest novel “Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and The End Of The American Century”.
Richard Holbrooke’s life coexists with the most powerful era of U.S. foreign policy and its inevitable decline. At least, that is what George Packer argues, a U.S. journalist, novelist, and writer who focuses on foreign policy. Packer, through years of examination of Holbrooke’s personal letters, audio diaries, documents, etc., given to him by Holbrooke’s widow, Kati Marton, wrote his most recent novel on the life of Holbrooke, “Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century”. He gave a presentation on the novel during a virtual talk to The Yale Club of NYC this Wednesday. He spoke about his research into Holbrooke’s professional and personal lives as an important figure in U.S. foreign policy.
For Packer, Holbrook’s life represents the beginning and end of an era, where the U.S. was the global superpower, and then the inevitable decline; from 1941 when Holbrook was born and the year the U.S. joined WWII until Holbrook’s death in 2010 serving under the Obama administration as the U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Holbrooke’s life spanned the age of U.S. domination of global politics, but right under his nose, that domination ended. In an audio diary that Packer would share during the virtual talk, Holbrooke himself, upon watching the movie South Pacific a couple of months before his death, would comment that the U.S. experienced a “lack of confidence in our ability to lead compared to where we were in 1949”. With the Trump era now in full swing, Packer made it clear during the virtual talk that the decline of global confidence in U.S. authority is now worse than it ever was when Holbrooke was alive.
“Richard Holbrooke. Yes, I knew him”.
Those are the opening lines from the prologue of a novel that would go on to win The Los Angeles Times Prize for Biography and the 2019 Hitchens Prize.
Holbrook: The U.S. Worldwide Decline Over Time
Packer spoke about Holbrooke with reverence, awe as he told his story, a story that fell into his lap, or more accurately covered his office space with stacks of drawers and shelves that once belonged to Holbrooke. Holbrooke’s career began in Vietnam at the age of twenty-two as a U.S. civilian representative with the State Department, where he would work for the rest of his career in government. He was one of the men who realized what a colossal mistake the U.S. made by entering the Vietnam War and continuing to fight. He remained in government, serving under every Democratic administration from JFK to Obama. Despite Obama’s dislike and distrust of Holbrooke, he remained a part of the administration until his death in 2010 primarily due to his friendship and working relationship with Hillary Clinton. He would die when his aorta tore in her office while he briefed her on Afghanistan. According to Packer, Clinton would describe Holbrooke as “Zelig” of U.S. foreign policy.
Packer does not paint a wholly positive picture of Holbrook, to do so would be to paint a dishonest portrait, regardless of the subject. He was sexist, egotistical, idealistic, unable to self-critique (which cost him what could have been a huge rise in the U.S. political landscape), he thought he was one-upping you when you could see right through him, and, like many politicians, desired to climb the ladder of political life more than anything. He wanted to sit next to all the most powerful, influential people, always, and no matter the cost, even if it was not his place. Thus, at times, he made an ass of himself.
Holbrooke was not a good man, nor was he a bad one. Like all people, he was complicated, but not so complicated that he created chaos at every turn, nor were his motives hard to understand. Despite questions about his character, he wanted to leave the world a better place than he found it. Opinion about whether he succeeded or not probably depends more on political identity than on a deep, personal dive into what Holbrooke did and how he succeeded, or not. However, no one can argue that Holbrooke was not influential, he helped shape foreign policy for grandparents and their grandchildren alike.
The decline that Holbrooke witnessed in the power of the U.S. on the global field is real, and it is what Packer focuses on in his portrayal of Holbrooke. Holbrooke is the beginning and end of an era that started with the U.S. saving Europe during and post-WWII, fighting for capitalism across the globe in the Cold War, and surging in military power to where the U.S. is today. People debate about when the decline began but many feel it is linked to the never-ending war on terror that began after the 9/11 attack and continues to interfere with U.S. foreign policy today. Others argue the decline began earlier, but Packer would argue it started around the time of Holbrooke’s death. Of course, U.S. international prowess has been rapidly decaying in recent years due to the current administration’s failures around the globe.
Where We Are Now
It would be hard to say that Holbrooke would be a fan of Donald Trump, who represents the current dismal state of U.S. authority on a global scale. Packer said during the talk that Donald Trump presents a question on U.S. foreign policy, “Why the hell should we get involved? What’s in it for us? What’s in it for you, the American people?” He is unsure of Holbrooke’s answer because Holbrooke is such a man of his era; he could not fully realize the decline even as it happened in front of him. Holbrook had such faith in the power of the U.S. on a global scale, frequently not bothering to question what the U.S. should or should not do with that power, or the costs of that power, whether any nation should have that power at all. He could not fathom a world where the U.S. was not the leader of the free world.
Holbrooke’s legacy is the legacy of the U.S., a past that is unredeemable but more complex than many realize today. As Packer put so wonderfully in his presentation “like Holbrooke himself, The American Century combined heroic and destructive impulses of nobility and hubris, the sense that we could do anything, the impulse to do everything . . . in 2016 . . . I suddenly realized that the era [Holbrooke] embodied was over. We were entering something new, something diminished . . . What I was writing was now history”. Power comes at a cost, but so does a lack of power. What the world becomes upon the ending of this era is something to look forward to, look beyond, and analyze in the future, but right now the world does not look to the U.S. for leadership anymore.
In response to a question on where Packer sees the U.S. now and in the future, Packer says that “something I’ve heard from people who’ve been reading my work around the world is a quality of just sadness, and I hate to say this but even pity that Americans are living in this terrible time under leadership that makes a virtue of ignorance and of division and hatred and looks for enemies and looks for people to blame and doesn’t look for cooperation in order to solve a problem . . . this pandemic [COVID-19} is a human problem but instead, our leaders have made it into a national problem or a nationalist problem and that’s tragic because first, we cannot fight it that way, and second, we’ve lost so much of our prestige”.
Packer highlights Trump as a person who, perhaps permanently, will damage the credibility of the U.S. on the world stage; “If Donald Trump loses in the fall, we’ll never go back to being the country [Holbrooke] thought we were, that era is over. But we can restore some of our credit and the goodwill of the world. But if he wins a second term I think that becomes a permanent condition and we will never really recover”.
It is an interesting thought experiment to wonder what Holbrooke would think about the US response to the current pandemic, what he would suggest in the face of it, and how he would position the U.S. on the world stage. Most likely, he would want the U.S. to lead the world and not shy away from what he believes is its global responsibility.