Promoter of “Liberal Imperialism”. Review of Richard Packard´s “Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century” by Guenter Langer

As a high school student Richard Holbrooke developed the desire to become the Secretary of State. As it turned out he came close to that but he never got the real deal. His biography is centered around three different areas in the world: Vietnam, the Balkans, and Afghanistan. His interlude as ambassador in Germany was characterized by the author, George Packer, as uneventful and unimportant, thus hardly mentioned. However, his last mistress was a German woman from Munich, who even attended his funeral.

First part: Vietnam
As a young man he volunteered in 1962 to go to Vietnam, not for combat but for civil projects. In Vietnam he realized the follies of that war. He realized the illusions by the US-ambassador, who believed that the South-Vietnamese dictator, Ngo Dinh Diem, was popular with his people (p. 39). Thus, the US, including President JFK, were surprised about the unrest led by Buddhist monks, and Diem’s murder (p. 76). Diem’s successor, General “Big” Minh, expressed his willingness to negotiate with Hanoi, but was opposed in this desire by JFK and then by LBJ (p. 79). Consequently, Minh was replaced soon. Packer makes us believe that Holbrooke learned that George F. Kennan’s policy of containing communism in SE Asia was mistaken because “the enemy were nationalists” (p. 83), and that not the infiltration from the North was the problem in 1965 but “the threat came from the South Vietnamese people. A negotiated withdrawal was the only sane policy” (p. 99). Of course, that didn’t happen. Instead “Westmoreland’s killing machine” took its place (p. 102), the US “had taken the place of the French” as being the colonial power (p. 104). Packer reminds the reader that already “Dean Acheson persuaded Truman to fund the French war in Indochina, the beginning of America’s involvement in Vietnam” (p. 119). Holbrooke understood and told Dean Rusk that “this was a civil war in the South, not just an aggression from the North” (p. 131).
In the meantime Holbrooke tried to perform his private life, chasing women, playing tennis and smoking pot with his friend Anthony (“Tony”) Lake, the later head of national security (p. 120). Packer presents some other information as well, like Nixon’s collusion in 1968 with a foreign power, the South Vietnamese regime. His aim was to torpedo the negotiations with Hanoi to help him win the upcoming elections. LBJ and his Vice, Hubert Humphrey found out about this scheme but kept quiet (p. 138).
Of course, the war went on and the last American had to leave Saigon in 1975. The incursions by the Khmer Rouge regime into Vietnamese territory triggered the Vietnamese led ouster of this brutal regime from Pnom Penh in 1979. This went counter to Chinese interests who were aligned with the Khmer Rouge and started “a lesson” to the Vietnamese by waging a war against the northern frontier of Vietnam resulting in tens of thousands of death. Packer doesn’t forget to remind us that the then Democratic advisor to President Carter, Zbigniev Brzezinski, praised the Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, for this “lesson” (p. 193). Brzezinski even encouraged the Thai authorities to funnel Chinese weapons to the Khmer Rouge fighters in the refugee camps. The US continued to recognize the genocidal regime for its seat in the UN and refused to apply the term genocide for the murder of one sixth of the Khmer population (p. 198).
Under Reagan US policies changed: “Roll back communism through dirty little wars…. If you wanted to send troops into combat, do it in a country the size of Grenada” (p. 210), referring to Reagan’s intervention on this tiny Caribbean island.
During Republican administrations Holbrooke was employed by big banks who used his knowledge for their lobbying purposes. Holbrooke earned millions this way without any real work. His political convictions turned somewhat to the right. He thought Democratic activists were pulling the party too far to the left. Instead he criticized Reagan from the right by supporting to arm anti-Communists in Afghanistan and Nicaragua (p.210). Packer defines him as an “American exceptionalist, somewhere trying to position himself between the hawks and the doves” (p.211).

Part Two: Bosnia
In the early nineties with Bill Clinton in office, Holbrooke gets a new assignment oversees: Bosnia. In the internecine war in the former Yugoslavia Holbrooke takes the side of the Muslims and opposes the arms embargo endorsed by the UN. He wants the Bosnian Muslims being able “to defend themselves” (p. 298), asking for “NATO airpower and American ground troops” to intervene on the side of the Muslims (p. 302). That’s in line with his general support of NATO’s expansion into the former eastern bloc (p. 309), this despite his admiration for Kissinger who objected to the Eastern expansion fearing to provoke “old Russian paranoia” (p. 399). Packer concludes Holbrooke’s “doctrine risked becoming a kind of liberal imperialism” (p. 399).
For the Balkans Holbrooke favors “a wider war” in 1994 (p. 323). He sees his job as ending the war on mainly the Muslim terms. He meets all three presidents (Izetbegovic, Tudjman, Milosevic) and declares Milosevic, who he calls Slobo, “by far the most fun” (p. 327), although Packer describes Milosevic and his wife, Mira, as “monsters” (p.328). Izetbegovic, who Holbrooke calls Izzy, is described as a “moderate Islamist” (p. 353). Tudjman is described as a descendent of the Ustashe, the Croat fascists of the thirties aligned with the German Nazis.
Holbrooke’s hawkish advise finally convinced Bill Clinton “to punish the Serbs” (p. 354), and Milosevic relinquished, who disliked the Bosnian Serb leaders Karadcic and Mladic anyway: “They are not my friends. They are shit” (p. 356). Holbrooke had to deceive all three presidents “but he bluffed Milosevic more than the others” (p. 357).
Other details: Holbrooke had some favorite journalists he could leak information to, Roger Cohen of the Times and Christiane Amanpour of CNN. Bill Clinton disliked Madeleine Albright who he thought was “not up to the job. She’ll fuck me every time she can” (p. 403). Holbrooke liked Hillary Clinton because she was tougher than Bill, “more comfortable with military force” (p. 430), but he didn’t get along with Susan Rice, only with Samantha Power (p. 431). Holbrooke suffered from afib and had to be cardioverted several times (p. 423).

Part Three: Afghanistan
Holbrooke’s final assignment, now under President Obama, was the conflict in Afghanistan. One of his more dovish aids there was a former member of the leftist Students for Democratic Society (SDS), Barney Rubin, now a professor who once had been arrested while protesting Vietnam (p. 460). Rubin believed that peace required a settlement with the Taliban (p. 461). Both men believed that the experience of Vietnam should be applied to Afghanistan but neither Obama, who didn’t like competitive personalities, nor Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, wanted to listen. For Obama Vietnam was “ancient history” (p. 472). Hillary explained that “they don’t think they have anything to learn from Vietnam” (p. 473). Packer continues that Hillary “didn’t want to hear of peace talks, neither did the military, neither did the White House” (p. 498).
Holbrooke tried to work against the corruption of the Kabul regime under Karzai but to no avail, and in Washington he got nowhere either. He tried to establish a contact with a Taliban leader but in the middle of his efforts he suffered an aortic dissection. The ripped aorta triggered the force of his heart pounding blood under immense pressure through the stressed and weakened aneurysm tearing a whole in the aorta’s inner layer, and as blood streamed between the layers the torn flaps blocked the flow to the spinal arteries, and his lower half was cut off (p. 549). He was buried in December 2010.

The book is worthwhile reading despite its length of almost 600 pages. It reminds us of the follies with regard to the illegitimate war against Vietnam, the “liberal imperialist” involvement in the former Yugoslavia, and the failed attempt to pacify Afghanistan. It provides us with a lot of details of these conflicts, lets us understand the motivations of the acting politicians, including their love lives. Politically, the author seems to go along with his object’s course that led him to be Hillary Clinton’s best friend.