Diplomat Richard Holbrooke was at the heart of America's greatest foreign policy challenges in the latter 20th century—and represented the end of a national eraby Tom Fletcher / June 10, 2019 / Leave a comment
“Above all, not too much zeal,” Talleyrand famously counselled his fellow diplomats. Richard Holbrooke was a keen student of history, but he never got the memo.
This giant of American diplomacy—who worked for Democratic presidents from Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama, and who helped broker peace in the former Yugoslavia—was certainly undiplomatic. Holbrooke sought to bend history with his self-belief. He earned the grudging respect of Slobodan Milošević, and his name became a Serbian verb—holbrukciti—to get your way through brute force. Needy, offensive, mischievous, sceptical, abrasive, he combined physical courage, moral passion, boundless energy and a sense of fun. He elbowed into other people’s cars, lifts, meetings, portfolios, peace processes, offices, even bathrooms—anything to further his agenda, and his career. He rarely paid for the lunch, cab, apartment, failed marriage or failed policy. “If Richard asks you for something, just say yes,” Henry Kissinger once said. “If you say no, you’ll eventually get to yes, but the journey will be very painful.”
Holbrooke became the embodiment of an outward-looking, muscular US foreign policy. But was he swimming against the tide of history? And does he deserve a central place in that history? George Packer’s unsparing new biography tries to find the answers. Packer has had great access to Holbrooke’s papers and friends. But this is no hagiography—he gives his subject more credit than that.
Holbrooke’s Jewish parents fled Europe and he was born in New York in 1941, the year Henry Luce defined the American century. They buried their own history by giving him as many non-Jewish names (Richard Charles Albert) as they could cram on a passport; his father had already changed his own surname from Goldbraich. He was marked by his father’s early death, when Richard was 15. “Throughout his life, the person whose approval he needed most was no longer there to be impressed,” writes Packer. He carried with him the memory of their visit to the construction site of the new United Nations building in 1949, aged eight. His father told him the postwar world could be different. Holbrooke took it as a mission…