George Packer has written an incredible and interesting biography of Richard Holbrooke, an American diplomat. Also, this biography is a dissection of American power, of its strengths and failures, and the embodiment of that is Holbrooke. Three days before his death in 2010, he had been to the White House, seeking a meeting with President Obama, which he did not get, in the main because the President did not like him.
Holbrooke answered President John F. Kennedy’s call to serve the nation when he graduated from Brown University and underwent Vietnamese language training, which was useful for his work in Vietnam. He came to realise that the war was a disaster. He may have worked under various presidents, but the job he wanted, Secretary of State, would be the one job that would allude him.
What comes through in the biography is that he was the embodiment of American diplomacy, that he could be bombastic, over-bearing, unfaithful, lie like a cheap perfume, and fail to recognise when his powers had reached their peak. It was all downhill after the 1990s, when by the end Obama disliked him intensely and his Secretary of State could not stand him. Sometimes, some people do not know when to exit stage left; he was one of those people.
During his rise to near the top of American diplomacy, he would come to epitomise the American liberal’s struggle between the ‘national interest’ and the importance of human rights. Packer tells us that during the Carter presidential campaign it was Holbrooke who wrote all the passages that concerned human rights.
While Holbrooke believed that ‘power brought responsibilities’ I am not sure his message, however well meaning, would be listened to in the twenty-first century, and not just by the president.
An excellent biography, an interesting read and an advert for the best and worst aspects of American foreign policy.
Paul Diggett 5/5
Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century by George Packer
Jonathan Cape 9781910702925 hbk May 2019