The Hagiography of Mr. Holbrooke

The Hagiography of Mr. Holbrooke

Mini Teaser: Richard “The Bulldozer” Holbrooke left a deep mark on U.S. foreign policy. Yet this collection of essays by his friends and admirers, which gushes with praise, leaves out significant elements of the story.

by Author(s): Ted Galen Carpenter

Derek Chollet and Samantha Power , eds., The Unquiet American: Richard Holbrooke in the World (New York: PublicAffairs, 2011), 400 pp., $29.99.

[amazon 1610390784 full]WHEN RICHARD Holbrooke died unexpectedly in December 2010, he left behind a large contingent of friends and admirers who revered the man, his contributions in the realm of foreign policy and his geopolitical outlook. This memorial volume gives testament to that esteem by presenting essays by friends and colleagues as well as Holbrooke’s own writings over the decades. Editors Derek Chollet and Samantha Power succeed in providing a reasonably insightful portrait of Holbrooke the man as well as the foreign policy that he both shaped and embodied.

But a corrective is in order. Holbrooke’s actions and philosophy were problematic in many ways. It does no great service to Holbrooke, and certainly not to his country, to modulate or ignore the controversy generated by his particular geopolitical views—or, for that matter, by the brash, impatient and often bullying demeanor he projected in the course of his official duties. Whatever one thinks of his philosophy or his personal style, it can’t be denied that Holbrooke was a powerful figure who left a large mark, for good and ill, on American foreign policy.

In providing a window into Holbrooke’s foreign-policy views and objectives, The Unquiet American also sheds light on the foreign policy of the Democratic Party’s liberal establishment. Holbrooke was in many respects a poster boy for that faction of America’s foreign-policy elite. His career highlights both the strengths and weaknesses, mostly the latter, of that elevated element of officialdom. Gordon M. Goldstein observes in his contribution to the book that the younger generation of policy makers and scholars emerging from the Vietnam War (the group that the late New York Times columnist William Safire aptly dubbed “the new-boy network”) “remained central to Holbrooke’s life in the decades that followed. And to a remarkable degree, Holbrooke’s circle of intimate colleagues from that chapter would go on to shape the U.S. foreign policy establishment in the post-Vietnam era.”

The role of Holbrooke and other liberal foreign-policy figures is not just a matter of academic or historical interest. Obama administration officials obtain their views from that same intellectual wellspring and embody similar values and prejudices. Thus, the worldview of the Democratic establishment is likely to guide Washington’s foreign policy as long as the current administration remains in power—and in any other Democratic administration in the foreseeable future. One can almost sense Holbrooke’s ghost hovering. And it is a ghost with some hard and sharp edges.

Several essays in this book confirm what many people in Washington already knew: Richard Holbrooke was not an easy man to like. Although Strobe Talbott argues in his contribution that Holbrooke did not fit the stereotype of either the “Quiet American” or the “Ugly American,” he was closer to the latter than the former. One of his nicknames, “The Bulldozer,” captured his utter lack of subtlety and finesse. This bulldozer approach proved particularly damaging when he served President Obama as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He alienated rather than intimidated the prickly government and tribal leaders in those countries.

A Holbrooke trait described by Power illustrates his rampantly egotistical persona. “Richard Holbrooke could be crushingly blunt,” she writes:

When he came over for dinner, he would take up the whole meal venting about the inanities of the bureaucracy he served, but then yawn ostentatiously when it took his dinner companions longer than a couple of sentences to get to the point.

Yet he did possess some redeeming qualities. During one of the periods when his Democratic Party was out of power and he did not hold appointive office, Holbrooke worked tirelessly to focus greater attention on the aids epidemic in Africa, even though he received little notice or credit for his efforts. The same was true of his actions to secure the release of journalist David Rohde and others who found themselves held hostage in perilous situations.

A unique feature of Holbrooke’s career is that he served both as assistant secretary of state for East Asia (in the Carter administration) and for Europe (in the Clinton administration). His early career prepared him far more for the former post than the latter. His initial assignment was as a young Foreign Service officer in South Vietnam, where he loyally attempted to execute Washington’s counterinsurgency and nation-building strategy. That experience sobered Holbrooke to some extent, and as the chapter that he wrote for the Pentagon Papers revealed, he had concluded by the late 1960s that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable. Goldstein’s chapter on that phase of his life is one of the stronger contributions to The Unquiet American .

But, typically, even the valid lessons that Holbrooke learned from Vietnam tended to be limited. To the end of his days, he remained committed to the concept of nation building, as evidenced by his April 2002 article in the Washington Post , “Rebuilding Nations.” His criticism of the Vietnam venture was not that the policy of U.S. paternalistic meddling and imperial social engineering was fatally flawed but only that a better strategy—and especially better execution—was needed. His enthusiasm for the nation-building crusades in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan demonstrated all too well the narrow extent of the lessons he took away from the Vietnam debacle.

Pullquote: Whatever one thinks of his philosophy or his personal style, it can’t be denied that Holbrooke was a powerful figure who left a large mark, for good and ill, on American foreign policy.Image: Essay Types: Book Review