Richard Holbrooke was a brilliant, ambitious, egotistical, annoying bully — and one of our most effective post World War II diplomats, whose life and career reveal much about the United States of his time.
That’s what author and journalist George Packer, whose new book is “Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century,” told a UCLA audience on Jan. 28. Packer’s appearance was sponsored by UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations.
In his talk, Packer, a 2013 National Book Award winner for his New York Times-best seller, “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America,” focused on the career diplomat and adviser who served in every Democratic administration from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama.
Holbrooke was the American diplomat who was instrumental in ending the war in Bosnia and was the force behind the 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the Balkan wars — arguably the United States’ greatest diplomatic achievement in the post-Cold War era. Holbrooke’s widow gave his papers and diaries to Packer.
During his talk, Packer acknowledged he’s not a biographer, finds many biographies boring and had no interest in writing a cradle-to-grave biography of Holbrooke, who died in 2010. But he finds Holbrooke fascinating — a man of enormous achievements and perhaps equally enormous flaws.
As a young diplomat in Vietnam, Holbrooke saw early on that the U.S. was losing the war and “we were lying to ourselves” about it, Packer said. Holbrooke saw the U.S. strategy would not work in Vietnam’s civil war and that the United States needed to negotiate its way out of the war.
Holbrooke was extraordinary, brilliant and had enormous energy, but was utterly self-absorbed, cruel and offensive, Packer said. He lobbied for the Nobel Peace Prize (that he did not win).
“His defects of character cost him his dream job of secretary of state,” for which he was highly qualified, Packer said.
Obama couldn’t stand to be around him, said Packer, who noted that Holbrooke made three mistakes within one minute of meeting him, and who also lectured Obama in front of his cabinet. Packer noted the president’s nickname. “No drama Obama” and said, “Holbrooke was drama all the time.”
Packer said he does not believe in mixing fact and fiction, but does believe there is ample room in non-fiction for creativity. In his new book, Packer uses the voice of a narrator who is not himself, as he would in a novel. At one point, the narrator says Holbrooke told him, “Gotta go. Hillary’s on the line.”
Packer covers some parts of Holbrooke’s life in cinematic detail, while skipping others or covering them only briefly.
Holbrooke cared deeply about America’s role in helping to solve international crises, and advocated a muscular, generous foreign policy. Packer said. Donald Trump’s world view is the opposite of Holbrooke’s, seeing all foreign policy disputes as “transactional,” he told the audience.
Holbrooke embodied the post-world War II American impulse to take the lead on the global stage, Packer said.
“But his sharp elbows and tireless self-promotion ensured that he never rose to the highest levels in government that he so desperately coveted,” Packer said. “His story is the story of America during its era of supremacy: its strength, drive, and sense of possibility, as well as its penchant for overreach and heedless self-confidence.”