The riveting life of a deeply flawed diplomat whose chief shortcoming seems to have been the need to be more recognized than he was.
New Yorker staff writer Packer (The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, 2013, etc.), winner of the National Book Award, was a friend of the diplomat and foreign policy specialist Richard Holbrooke (1941-2010), one of whose signal accomplishments was navigating through the endless difficulties of Balkan ethnic politics to negotiate peace in the former Yugoslavia. When it came to national interest versus universal principles of human rights and the like, “Holbrooke favored the former while making gestures toward the latter.” Still, faced with the ugly realities of such things as the Cambodian genocide, which, as one of the “best and the brightest” of the American technocrats in Vietnam, he bore some responsibility for, he stretched to accommodate justice. Serving one administration after another, Holbrooke accumulated friends and favors; he also made powerful enemies, and it was not always easy to tell one from the other. As a sometime outsider—he was descended from a Jewish immigrant named Golbraich—he desperately longed for power, wanting especially to rule over Foggy Bottom as Secretary of State. Alas, he did not achieve his aim, though Packer supposes he was worthy enough. Instead, he served other leaders, such as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the latter of whom considered him disruptive. The author notes Holbrooke’s real accomplishments along the way, including founding an American cultural center in Germany and achieving delicate balancing acts in the intractable mess of Afghanistan. As Packer notes, he also had a “huge appetite for details [and] need to understand from the ground up," attributes that not every American diplomat shares. In the end, though egotistical and quick to be insulted, Holbrooke was also, by Packer’s absorbing account, highly capable.
Students of recent world history and of American power, hard and soft, will find this an endlessly fascinating study of character and events.