George Packer’s Our Man is occasionally insightful, at times gossipy, and nearly always disturbing.
Packer argues that Holbrooke’s diplomatic accomplishments stemmed, in part, from his personal failings as father, friend, and husband. In other words, the traits that made Holbrooke so unlikable to so many – his ambition, arrogance, personal insecurity, self-absorption, deceitfulness, and shameless self-promotion – also made it possible for him to attain institutional stature and power. He then used his influence to do good, bringing peace to the Balkans, establishing an American cultural center in Berlin, and ensuring that the United States paid its overdue financial obligations to the U.N. According to Packer, only someone as shady and shifty as Holbrooke could have successfully negotiated a peace deal among the murderous warlords of Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia. And it was Holbrooke’s idealism, which was the ying to his narcissistic yang, that put the cultural center in the German capital and saved the U.N. from financial ruin and irrelevance.
There is no doubt that Holbrooke did some good in the world. But did he have to be such a contemptible person in order to accomplish his “great” deeds? Packer thinks so. I am not so sure.
U.S. history is full of examples of deeply flawed men who have attained the heights of power and done horrible things. Consider JFK. He believed he was entitled – to women, to wealth, to status, to power, and to the presidency. His outlandish sense of entitlement made him a serial philanderer and sexual predator. It also spurred him to steal the 1960 presidential election. But it didn’t stop there. Once he became president, JFK implemented a resettlement scheme in South Vietnam that forcibly relocated between eight and ten million South Vietnamese peasants. He believed, as president, that he had a right to displace those millions. He also believed the Strategic Hamlet Program would win the Vietnam War and thus enhance his re-election odds in 1964. In the decision-making process leading up to the Strategic Hamlet Program, Kennedy’s deeply-rooted sense of entitlement overrode humanitarian concerns, the known wishes of the South Vietnamese peasantry, and the warnings of his subordinates that the program might foster a peasant backlash. And when the program finally imploded in the summer and fall of 1963, Kennedy, more concerned about his own political future than anything else, blamed Ngo Dinh Diem for the worsening situation in South Vietnam. A personal flaw, in this case Kennedy’s sense of entitlement, had disastrous consequences.
Richard M. Nixon offers another example that challenges Packer’s thesis. Nixon, like Holbrooke, was insecure, ambitious, self-absorbed, and deceitful. In October 1968, Nixon scuttled the Paris Peace Talks by informing, through a back channel, South Vietnam’s President Nguyen Thieu that South Vietnam would get a better peace deal if Nixon won the upcoming presidential election. Thieu subsequently opted out of the talks, Nixon won the election, and the war continued for another four years. Nixon’s toxic ambition and self-interest drove him to engage in treason – and perpetuated a war that cost the lives of an additional 20,000 U.S. citizens – and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians between 1968 and the end of U.S. military operations in Indochina in August 1973.
Most recently, President Trump, seeking to advance his own personal political interests, undermined U.S. national security by withholding military aid to Ukraine.
As the above examples make clear, Packer’s thesis doesn’t hold water; flawed leaders all-too-often make flawed decisions that sometimes have horrible ramifications. JFK, Nixon, and Trump offer irrefutable proof that character counts.
The book would have been better had Packer examined the cultural and structural reasons a man like Holbrooke was able to rise so high within U.S. diplomatic circles. Specifically, how did such a shameless, self-promoting blowhard go so far? Packer seems to believe much of Holbrooke’s success rested on his brilliance, shrewdness, and innate ability to ingratiate himself with powerful people. Yes, all of those traits played a role in Holbrooke’s ascendancy, but so did systematic racism, sexism, his early connections to the Eastern Establishment, and especially his relationship to Dean Rusk. And what about a bureaucratic culture that valued showmanship over substance, encouraged group think, and promoted those who were masters at office politics? Our Man raises troubling questions about the white-male patriarchy, hierarchal governance, and American cultural norms. Yet, Packer fails to adequately address those issues.
Although the author believes the American century (actually a half century according to Packer) ended in the late 1990s, it is debatable when, or even if, the American century came to end.
Maybe America’s decline began with the Vietnam War, gained momentum with Watergate and the Arab Oil Embargo, slowed or was reversed during the 1980s and 1990s, accelerated with the military defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan, and reached hyper-sonic speed with the Great Financial Crisis, the divisive presidency of Obama, and the election of Donald Trump.
No one really knows when America went into decline, we just know that it did. There are just too many variables that come into play in the rise and fall of nations. It’s concievable America’s decline began at the beginning, when the founders established a republic based on two contradictory ideas – democracy and capitalism.
The book is at its best describing the inner workings of the State Department, National Security Council, and White House. Packer also does a fine job of detailing the moral bankruptcy of the Eastern Establishment, the lack of strategic vision at the highest levels of government in the post-Cold War era, and the condescending self-importance of so many American elites. Whether the author intended it or not, he reveals why so many in the Heartland have such an intense hatred for America’s self-appointed elites.
Our Man is an apt title, since Holbrooke was so representative of American culture and governance. He was overbearing, unreflective, frenetic, bullying, and status conscious. Even the circumstances surrounding his death serve as representations. In the weeks before he died, he ignored the physical warning signs of pending collapse, refused medical care, and continued to push himself hard. Always outward focused, Holbrooke’s lack of self-awareness and refusal to accept his own vulnerabilities (both physical and emotional) fostered in him a misplaced sense of invincibility. Not only that, Holbrooke had convinced others of his invincibility. And so, when Holbrooke died of a ruptured aerotic aneurism, all those who knew him were taken by surprise at the rapidity of his demise.
Packer is a good writer, and Our Man is worth a read, but of Packer’s many books, this one is his weakest. The book, like its protagonist, has the feel of having been hurried.