Foreign Affairs Live with George Packer

Thursday, June 6, 2019
Vladimir Lehovich
George Packer

Staff Writer, Atlantic; Author, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century


Executive Editor, Foreign Affairs; Author, The China Mission: George Marshall’s Unfinished War, 1945-1947; @dankurtzphelan

One of the most celebrated diplomats of his generation, Richard Holbrooke helped normalize U.S. relations with China; served as U.S. ambassador to a newly unified Germany and then to the United Nations; and, most famously, negotiated the 1995 Dayton peace agreement that ended the war in Bosnia. But he began and ended his career struggling with how to resolve two American wars: first in Vietnam, then in Afghanistan. Daniel Kurtz-Phelan and George Packer discuss Packer's Foreign Affairs article “The Longest Wars: Richard Holbrooke and the Decline of American Power” and his new book Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the end of the American Century.

KURTZ-PHELAN: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. It’s a pleasure to have George Packer here for the somewhat belated launch of the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs. I’m sure most of you know George’s byline very well in the Atlantic now and the New Yorker before that for a decade or two. Fifteen years? 

PACKER: Fifteen years, yeah. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: You probably know his most recent books. The Assassins’ Gate is probably the most important chronicle of the early years of the Iraq War; The Unwinding, which won the National Book Award in 2014— 

PACKER: ’13. 


PACKER: Yeah. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: —and how his new book, which we’re here to talk to about today, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century. We were really thrilled to have an excerpt of it in Foreign Affairs, in this issue, focusing on two pieces of the book, Vietnam and Afghanistan, which we will talk about in the course of this conversation. I recommend the piece heartily to all of you, not as a substitute for the book but as a teaser. I’m confident, if you read the eight thousand words in Foreign Affairs you will go on to reach the entire five-hundred-or-so page in the hardcover edition. It is a really extraordinary and fascinating book, both as a kind of chronicle of and reflection on American foreign policy, and diplomacy, and war over the half-century or so in which Richard Holbrooke was a central player in those, but also in its portrait of this individual and almost-great man, as George puts it. And it is a really complicated, rich, novelistic portrait of Holbrooke, whom many of you in this room probably know. 

George, I want to start not with the foreign policy, and diplomacy, and war, but by asking you a question that is maybe not entirely fitting for the Council on Foreign Relations. And that’s about how you chose to write this book. It reads, in many ways, more like Joseph Conrad or Graham Greene than like the usual biographies of diplomats or statemen that many of us in this room are accustomed to reading. And— 

PACKER: That’s exactly what I wanted to hear, Dan. Thank you. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: You can put that on the paperback, if you’d like. 

PACKER: Please. (Laughter.) 

KURTZ-PHELAN: But you—you know, there’s so much to that. But there’s one really interesting choice that you make in the book, and that’s the narrative voice. You essentially invent a narrator that is not exactly George Packer, but is something slightly different, which is a risky choice in some ways for a book like this. And I say that because so many of the reviewers seem to have missed that entirely. 

PACKER: Maybe I was too subtle, I don’t know. I just want to emphasize this is not Edmund Morris’ Dutch. There are no inventions. There is no fantasized past for me or for Richard Holbrooke. It’s all as scrupulously factual as I could make it. But the voice—well, let me read the first paragraph, just to give the audience a little taste of it. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: So, yeah, if you could read and then talk about why you made that choice. 

PACKER: Yeah. Yeah. This will just—so that we’re not talking too abstractly. 

“Holbrooke, yes, I knew him. I can’t get his voice out of my head. I still hear it saying: You haven’t read that book? You really need to read it. Saying I feel, and I hope this doesn’t sound too self-satisfied, that in a very difficult situation where nobody has the answer, I at least know what the overall questions and moving parts are. Or saying, I got to go, Hillary’s on the line. That voice, calm, nasal, a trace of older New York, a sing-song cadence when he was being playful, but always doing something to you—cajoling, flattering, bullying, seducing, needling, analyzing, one-upping you, applying continuous pressure like a strong underwater current so that by the end of a conversation, even two minutes on the phone, you found yourself far out from where you’d started, unsure how you got there, and mysteriously exhausted.” 

So one day I was driving and heard this voice in my head, which is not a normal thing for me. I’m a pretty rational guy. And the voice said, Holbrooke, yes, I knew him. And it intrigued me because it was so much livelier and more energetic than the typical biographical narrative voice that I had been trying to work within and growing very frustrated with. Because I don’t know if all of you feel this way, but I find biographies are often boring. There are these long stretches where you just have to plod through passages of the life that the biographer has scrupulously unearthed every last detail of, and you just want to get on with it and get to the thing that you’re really interested in. So how do you handle that? 

And I thought, if I tried out the narrative—the narration in a voice that’s as sort of idiosyncratic and particular, as if it’s a person, not quite me, because that is not my voice. That’s someone a little older, someone who knew him better than I did, someone who might have been a colleague of his or just have been an eyewitness to his whole story. Then it could really have the life that a reader wants from a biography, rather than he was born on such-and-such a date and he went to such-and-such a high school. So once I tried that out, it liberated me to do all kinds of things with the narrative that I wouldn’t have done otherwise, to take risks with it. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: At what stage did you settle? Was this late in the process, or? 

PACKER: Yeah, I was sort of in a crisis, because I’d spent, like, two and a half years interviewing 250 people—including Rufus Phillips, who’s here today, who was Holbrooke’s boss in Saigon in 1963—and reading through hundreds and hundreds of pages of his personal papers, which his widow gave me after he died. I had all the usual biographical material, but I felt crushed by it. Like, how do I turn all of this material—and he lived this long, full life, and knew everyone and seemed to turn up everywhere. Hillary Clinton said to me he was the Zellig of American foreign policy. How do I turn it into a good book? 

And so I was in this sort of crisis of how to write it when that voice popped into my head. And it seemed like my salvation, because it would allow me to tell a story, a yarn, rather than build a monument, which I didn’t want to do. I wanted it to feel as if you’re listening to a particular person who just happens to somehow know the whole story, telling it to you over a very long night, without ever getting into who I interviewed and what documents I read and all the mechanics of research, which I thought would kill the book. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: And was there something about Holbrooke and his personality—his outsized personality—that made the voice work? Or would you use it for John Kerry or Madeleine Albright, if you were—if you were—(inaudible)? 

PACKER: Kerry? Kerry, yes, I knew him. It just don’t quite have the same—(laughter)—I mean Holbrooke, the name itself kind of has this energy surrounding it, both good and bad. He became a name. Like, when people said, have you heard what Holbrooke did, it’s like, everyone knows what that means. So the name already had—like, in the very beginning Holbrooke, yes, I knew him, assumes that a listener has just asked a question: Did you know Holbrooke? And why would someone want to know if I knew Holbrooke? Because people want to hear about Holbrooke. There’s something outsized and even mesmerizing about the sheer size of his personality, and of his ambitions, and his appetites, and his flaws that fit a big, capacious narrative voice. And that I think a more contained subject, like John Kerry, would not be well-served by— 

KURTZ-PHELAN: The book is also somewhat nontraditional, as you note, in the way you structure the narrative. You’re very happy to skip over large portions of his life. And you acknowledge that you’re doing it as it’s happening, in order to really focus on what you see as the events that really shaped him. And the three pillars of the book, as I read it, are Vietnam, Bosnia and Dayton, and then Afghanistan, where he ended his career, somewhat tragically, just before he died. 

PACKER: Right. So I had to ask myself, you know, how do I handle his ambassadorship in Germany? I mean, yes, he did things, including leaving behind the American Academy in Berlin. But, honestly, readers don’t really want to know very much about that. That’s more like a resume item than a core part of a story you’re telling about a man who’s sort of trying to get things done, and who embodies certain American attributes. So I have a line, like, he did other things as ambassador, but you don’t need to know about them. What matters is—and so there’s that direct address to the reader, which keeps coming back when my narrator is breaking convention. Or, do you mind if we hurry through the early years, is the first sentence of the first full chapter. And some readers have said, I just wanted to hug you when I read that line—(laughter)—because, yeah, I don’t mind at all. Please. I don’t need to know where he went to elementary school, yeah. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: Right, right. So I want to focus on the first of those pillars, Vietnam. I mean, it was really extraordinary for me, as someone who kind of studied Vietnam in retrospect as a tragedy and as a blunder, to go back to these early years of the war when people like Holbrooke, with this incredible ambition, but real idealism as you show, went to Vietnam, in his case, as a foreign service officer. But he was there with incredible cast of journalists, like David Halberstam and Frankie FitzGerald and others, and military officers. All of whom, at the point he arrives there in 1963, do have this kind of hope for the war. And the failure of those hopes, and his disillusionment with the war over the course of the next several years, really looms over his entire career and over the entire book. And I guess let me steal a question that you quote from my former boss, Jim Steinberg, who was somewhat younger and around Holbrooke hearing him talk about Vietnam endlessly, comes back and says: What happens to these guys in Vietnam? And why did this shape Holbrooke the way it did? 

PACKER: Well, he—yeah, he—Steinberg came back from a White House meeting on Bosnia, at which Holbrooke and his close friend turned enemy Anthony Lake were locked in some conflict. And there were others, Peter Tarnoff, you know, who were all part of that Vietnam generation. And the tension, and energy, and anger was so thick that Steinberg said: What the hell happened to those guys in Vietnam? Like, something must have happened. 

I wanted—first of all, I wanted to create the world of the young diplomats. It’s not a world that many writers have approached. We usually get Vietnam from the point of view of soldiers and Marines, or from the very top—from generals and ambassadors and policymakers back in Washington. But I found this world of young civilians in Saigon and in the provinces early in the war to be really compelling, because they were idealists. And they—Holbrooke saw the war in Vietnam as a kind of foreign equivalent of what was happening in Birmingham the same summer, in 1963. He wrote a letter to his brother saying: You’re home, so you should be marching and getting yourself locked up. If I were home, I would be doing that too. But instead, I’m here, fighting for freedom in the rice paddies. But he saw them as essentially the same American mission. 

And we forget how much of that was animated. Even Halberstam and Sheehan, who were these great skeptics of the war, they were not for withdrawal. They were for winning by fighting the war better, as John Paul Vann was instructing them to do. Holbrooke was part of that mindset. And because I have all his letters which he wrote to his fiancée, I could track the stages of doubt as they took over his very sharp mind. He was almost immediately sent to a province in the Mekong Delta by Rufus Phillips, which was where the war was most intense and where the Viet Cong were winning. Except that the high command in Saigon, the embassy, and the White House didn’t know that, and didn’t really want to know that. 

So at age twenty-two, Holbrooke was the senior American civilian in this entire province, essentially doing aid and counterinsurgency work on the civilian side, which kind of became his signature. And what he realized immediately was two things. One, the reports going up to Saigon and to Washington were misleading, if not outright false, because he could see that the strategic hamlets were collapsing and that there were not 324 of them functioning in his province. And yet, by the time that report got to Washington, no one questioned it. And the other thing he realized was out strength, our firepower, our technology was actually hurting us because we were going into hamlets with artillery and helicopter gunships and killing civilians and creating Viet Cong sympathizers. And he began to question both the assessments and the tactics right away, at age—and was not shy about telling his superiors. 

So you could see this kind of courage and this clear-eyedness when he was very young. But it took four more years for him to go through the final stages of disillusionment to reach the point by 1967 where he believed the war could not be won and we had to negotiate with the North Vietnamese. But it was—I wanted to short of watch a very bright young man right in the thick of the action go through the transformation through those stages of doubt. And Holbrooke did that. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: And it’s incredibly compelling for those of us, again, who saw this in retrospect, and it comes back in Afghanistan as you get to the end of the book. But let’s actually take a quick detour to Bosnia in the 1990s and Dayton, which was, I think you would agree, Holbrooke’s greatest accomplishment, or the thing he was most known for, this incredible energetic negotiation to end the war in Ohio in the 1990s. Sorry, the negotiation was in Ohio, the war was in Bosnia. You know, you do an incredible job in this chapter of showing Holbrooke’s relentlessness, but also the kind of tedium, and theatrics, and trivia that comes into diplomacy and foreign policy making as you go through negotiation.  

And you show, I think here probably as much as anywhere else in the book, what made Holbrooke an almost-great statesman. You know, this is where you see him at his best, at his shining best, in many ways. But you end with a somewhat less triumphant take on Dayton and that accomplishment and what it meant. So I wanted to ask you to read one more passage, which I thought was very compelling. 

PACKER: Let me first say something about Bosnia, and then I’ll read that—because that passage is sort of the end of the Bosnia part. You know, Holbrooke in that same spirit of young foreign service officer in Vietnam wanted to see for himself. That was always an animating impulse. So he went to Sarajevo as a private citizen New Year’s Eve ’92. He couldn’t get a job from Bill Clinton. He’d waited twelve years to get back into government and he couldn’t get a job when a Democrat was elected. Why? Because he’d alienated all the people around Bill Clinton. We haven’t discussed Holbrooke’s gargantuan faults, but they were many and they were in some ways fatal for him. By the time this—the sort of brass ring had come around again, Anthony Lake had become his enemy, and was at Bill Clinton’s side, and was keeping Holbrooke out, along with others keeping him out.  

So he couldn’t get a job. He went to Sarajevo in a sulk and did something I really admire. He found a way to get into this besieged city and to spend very little time, but enough time to feel what the war was, to get it under his skin. And what he felt was: This is a war of aggression—of Serb aggression against a multiethnic city. And the Europeans are standing by and are unable or unwilling to stop it. We have to be involved. He came back to Washington, animated with that idea—which no one in the Clinton administration wanted to hear. And for the next two and a half years Clinton dithered and became distracted and did not want to confront this bleeding wound in the middle of Europe. 

And I think Holbrooke had to take from Vietnam the right less. Clinton and so many around him took from Vietnam the less: Just don’t get involved. And for Holbrooke, that was not the lesson of Vietnam. It was, don’t get involved in a civil war of nationalism that we don’t understand, and that we can’t win. But Bosnia he saw differently. More like a kind of fascist war. And in that case, he thought we had to be involved. So others had been paralyzed by Vietnam. Holbrooke had not. He negotiated the end of the war at Dayton, which was a triumph and showed his amazing persistence and persuasive powers. People think of him as, like, a bully in diplomacy, but really he was just tenacious and a great student of the adversary. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: And could be very charming and charismatic. 

PACKER: And was willing to spend eight hours eating lamb and rice and pretending to drink Slivovitz with Milosevic. But Holbrooke didn’t drink because he wanted to stay sober, while Milosevic would get drink, and then sober up, and get drunk again, because it went on for so long. And Holbrooke just had the patience to wait him out until finally he said, you know, Mr. President, you have to end the siege of Sarajevo. So he had what—I didn’t understand how hard diplomacy was until I got into Holbrooke’s life, how much stamina it takes. I picture it like climbing a mountain and just begin able to breathe at the very high altitudes. 

So I’ll read this passage. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: Yeah. It is on 395. 

PACKER: Yeah. So Dayton was the great crown of his career. He thought it had earned him a Nobel Peace Prize. He went to Oslo to make his case, which you’re not supposed to do. (Laughs.) 

KURTZ-PHELAN: But is very Holbrooke, in its way. 

PACKER: Bill Clinton said to Strobe Talbott, you know, he probably would have got it if he hadn’t tried so hard. (Laughter.) But—and yet, you look back at Dayton, and it begins to recede. And so, anyway, here’s this passage. 

“History is efficiently brutal with our dreams. Dayton wasn’t the highest peak after all. It wasn’t the Marshall Plan or the opening to China. It solved a nasty problem, but it didn’t create something new and big. For those who lived through the war, who suffered on the inside or cared on the outside, Bosnia was immense. It was all that mattered. But Holbrooke devoted three years of his life to a small war in an obscure place with no consequences in the long run beyond itself. The disproportion between effort and significance, I respect him for it.” And here’s this verse from Ecclesiastes that I kind of associate with Holbrooke. “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might. But Dayton did not mark a new path onward and upward in the American story. It was closer to the end of something.” 

I don’t know if I need to go on, but that’s—yeah, I feel that Dayton in some ways was a false hope. It seemed at the time as if we now had—the way was clear for American values and interests to be perfectly married, because Russia was not a factor and China was not yet a factor, and we had a free hand. And we could use our diplomacy and our military and our ideals to solve these problems around the world—the chaos that followed the Cold War. And it turns out it was a one-off. And in retrospect, it was maybe the high-water mark of the post-Cold War period, rather than the beginning of a new era. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: I mean, you also note that skeptics of Dayton and of U.S. policies, or the lessons drawn from U.S. policy in Bosnia and from the Dayton experience, draw a line—I think I’m just stealing your language here—draw a line from Dayton to Iraq, in that Dayton is seen as the humanitarian face of American hubris, as you put it. What are the right lessons from Dayton? And what did Holbrooke take from it going into the 2000s? 

PACKER: I think it did lead to a certain over-confidence. And Kosovo maybe furthered it, even though Kosovo was a very messy war that took far longer than anyone expected. I think they bred an overconfidence in people like me, in liberals who suddenly fell in love with the idea that the American military could be a tool for humanitarianism. And that was kind of what Holbrooke embodied in that era. He was the insider who seemed most comfortable with the idea of humanitarian intervention. I would say Madeleine Albright was the other one. And after 9/11, it was a different playing field entirely. But he saw Iraq in some ways as an extension of the same—we have a terrible dictator here, we have the ability to get rid of him, we should work with the U.N. But if we can’t, we don’t need to, because the U.N. wasn’t there—was the problem in Bosnia, not the solution in Bosnia. And in Kosovo, the U.N. wasn’t involved. We didn’t go through the U.N. in the war in Kosovo.  

So it—I think it created ideas that were destructively misleading. So in some ways we’re always learning the lesson of the last war. Holbrooke grew up with the great generation that created the post-war institutions. And for him, World War II, and NATO, and the U.N. were what American foreign policy was about. And then Vietnam comes along, and it’s an application of that. And it’s the wrong place. Bosnia comes along, and a whole new generation tries to apply Vietnam, and it’s the wrong place. Iraq comes along, and the architects of Bosnia apply it to Iraq, and it’s the wrong place. And it seems like we’re—it’s a cycle that we don’t seem able—and then Syria you could say we applied some of the wrong lessons of Iraq. But that’s another story. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: But when you get to Afghanistan in the book, and it’s the last part of the book. It’s the last chapter in Holbrooke’s life. He desperately wants to be secretary of state. He wants a bigger job at this point. But does not have much rapport with President Obama. Had been a supporter of her opponent in the primary. 

PACKER: You’re being way too polite. (Laughter.) 

KURTZ-PHELAN: I’ll let you be less polite. But he becomes the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the State Department. And he seems to take different lessons—to apply different lessons to Afghanistan in this case. He’s a skeptic of the surge early in the Obama administration. He’s much more in favor of pushing peace talks with the Taliban earlier than others in the administration. But he also fails to apply the lessons of Vietnam in ways that really prove to be tragic for him, I think, in this final stage. And that he doesn’t—he never shares his unvarnished views those above him. 

PACKER: Well, I mean, Obama disliked him and did not really want to be around him. Holbrooke was longwinded. By the time he got to that last round in government, he had maybe begun to believe his own legend a bit. He was no longer as acutely able to read the room and to understand others and what they wanted. He was coming in like, here I am, I’m going to do this. He lectured Obama. He flattered Obama. All the things that someone more sensitive would have immediately realized were the wrong things to do. And Obama just had no time for him from the start, and in the end kind of humiliated him and cut him out. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: I mean, there was amazing—sorry to interrupt you—there was this amazing scene where Holbrooke is going on and on about Vietnam, and Obama says to someone at his side in the Situation Room: Who still talks like this? And you feel this incredible sympathy in some ways for this giant of American diplomacy being humiliated in some ways. 

PACKER: Yeah, I think it’s not Obama’s finest moment, but it’s not Holbrooke’s either. And it was almost predestined. I mean, these two men were from different generations, utterly different temperaments. Obama, crisp, no drama, wants the briefing, give it to me in a linear fashion. Holbrooke, everything has to be couched in historic terms. Mr. President, we are at the savage intersection of politics, policy and history. That’s the line I think that prompted Obama to—Holbrooke was on video conference from Kabul, so he couldn’t hear it. And Obama said around the table in the Situation Room: Who talks like that? And at that moment, the entire foreign policy team knew that Holbrooke was finished. And that was three weeks into the administration.  

So Holbrooke was a skeptic of the surge. I think Obama was a skeptic of the surge. Obama could not say no to his generals so early in his administration. He had campaigned on winning in Afghanistan. Holbrooke could not say no to Hillary Clinton, because she was the one who gave him that job and she was his only friend in the administration. And she wanted—she was a hawk on this. So he couldn’t afford to contradict her. And so he was quiet about this. He didn’t say much. After the strategy review was over in the fall of ’09, Obama called him and said, Richard, I didn’t get to hear your views. Like, imagine Holbrooke sitting around that table not speaking, but that’s what had happened, and he had lost his confidence. So he never opposed the surge publicly in the theater where it mattered, at the White House.  

He also, as you said, wanted to negotiate, because that was the other lesson he took from Vietnam. Not just that military force alone cannot win, but that if you are in a political war you must be willing to negotiate, and especially a political war that you are obviously losing. No one wanted to hear that in the first year and a half, neither the White House, nor the Pentagon, nor the CIA, nor Hillary Clinton. So Holbrooke kind of had to do it a little bit under the table. And by the time he began to make it—a case for it, his life was about to end. So there is a sort of tragedy at the end, that he had lost the ability to use the great experience and wisdom he’d gained form the whole of his career. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: Would we be in a different place in Afghanistan had Holbrooke had the influence he wanted in the administration? Can you imagine a different course? 

PACKER: I think it would all depend on whether the Taliban were really serious about negotiating. I think what Holbrooke argued to himself, and in his diary, and maybe in a few memos, was: You don’t negotiate when you’ve begun to withdraw. That’s what Nixon did in Vietnam. And as you are withdrawing, you are losing leverage, and so you are losing negotiating power. You negotiate when you’re at your top strength, which is—in the case of Afghanistan—basically the end of ’09 beginning of 2010, because Obama had announced: We’re starting to withdraw in July 2011. We’re going to wait till that moment to talk to them? I think there was any chance of some resolution of that war, it was during that period of the surge. But I don’t—I don’t think the Taliban were ready to come to the table. So I doubt if in the end it would have mattered. It just that we’ll never know. And that’s tragic by itself, because here we are ten years later trying to talk our way out of Afghanistan. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: Let me ask you one more question before we go to members for their questions. You know, you’re in your own way efficiently brutal with some of Holbrooke’s ambitions and dreams and flaws. But the book really does have a sort of elegiac tone in the end. And you talk about what we will miss from characters like Holbrooke, and from the kind of ambition and idealism that he did bring to the use of American power, whether diplomatic or military. What do you think we should salvage from that? What would we miss and what would we be better off without going forward? And what, as well—you know, there’s this fascinating interaction between Holbrooke and the kind of the American establishment that he wanted so much to be a part of, represented by places like this and rooms like this, in some ways. That establishment is, in many ways, gone as well. And you have an elegiac tone when it comes to that loss in some ways. 

PACKER: Yeah. I mean, I’m not uncritical of the establishment, the foreign policy establishment, but Holbrooke wanted so much to have a career like his heroes—Harriman, Kennan, Charles Bohlen, Dean Acheson. And it was no longer possible, because the world was not in the state of sort of openness of being remade by a few titanic statesmen, as it was after World War II. And the American establishment broke up after Vietnam. It was no—there was no longer a kind of single unifying voice of authority that presidents from both parties listened to and that had the—kind of the respect of the country and could speak for the country. That’s no longer true today. And if anything, the country is so skeptical of elites that when the foreign policy elites speak, the country says: No. We’re not interested anymore. We don’t want to keep sending our sons and daughters. Or, we don’t see the point in these alliances, or in spending all this money. 

But Holbrooke—so Holbrooke just assumed that we would be in the lead. It wasn’t, like, a worked out foreign policy. It was in his blood that we would lead because no one else could. And if we didn’t, problems would eventually become our problems, even if they seemed to begin in very far-away places. That was just his DNA. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: And this is the case he makes to Bill Clinton in the early years of Bosnia when he wants no part of it. 

PACKER: In the early years of Bosnia. And then after Bosnia, in so many—in East Timor, and in Kosovo, and so many places. And that while we were in the lead, he would be in the lead. Like, part of the deal was you needed an American, and what better American than Richard Holbrooke. And I just don’t think that’s the world we live in. There is no place for someone like that to just stride across the stage and say: I’m here. Everyone’s going to sit down, and we’re going to work it out. But I will be the one orchestrating it all. There’s no Dayton to—there will be—I don’t think there will be another Dayton in which a big American just takes over and forces these Balkan warlords to come to terms. 

But what I do think is worth—so, I was in Bosnia in January. And what I kept hearing from—even from some people in Banja Luka who were Serb, but also from people in Sarajevo and elsewhere, where are you, Americans? You basically created this country at Dayton. We resent the structure of the government terribly. It’s a bad structure. But you did end the war and create the country. And now you’re not here anymore. We never heard from your ambassadors. We—no senior foreign policy people in the administrations ever seem to—why aren’t you here? Because the Russians are now here. And they are filling the void. And my guess is you would hear that in a lot of places. And we are always acutely aware of being resented. But we’re not always as aware of being wanted.  

And there is a kind of—I think a quizzical, why have you lost your confidence to the point where you actually don’t think you should be here, even diplomatically? Even in the small work of NGOs and of working with local organizations? And I think Holbrooke cared about other people in other places. He really—it was not about exercising American power for its own sake. He really wanted to solve problems. And I think we shouldn’t forget how essentially we remain to so many people around the world as an example. We have—our example is no longer much of an example, so we will never be a good example to others until we’re one to ourselves again. But I think Holbrooke felt that deeply, and it’s something that in some ways it’s part of our eternal narcissism to forget—not only that we can be resented but that we can also be needed. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: Right. Right.  

Well, with that, let me hand it over to questions from members. Let me remind you that this meeting is both on the record and being televised. So know that anything you say will be on TV. Please wait for the microphone and speak directly into it, and then stand, state your name and affiliation. And please limit yourself to one question so we can get as many in as possible. 

We’ll start over here. There’s a mic right there. 

Q: Hi, how are you? Good morning. Terrific book, great presentation. Tom McDonald, partner of Vorys law firm in Washington, and was the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe in the second Clinton term. Met Richard first in Ohio, and I think before this trip you talk about in ’92. And he gave a sort of the tour of the world. And, you know, I said, Richard, you know, I think Bill Richardson’s got the U.N. job locked up. No, no, no. I’m kidding. 

But in any event, he came to Zimbabwe twice. And an enormously capable diplomat. But your stories, you know, putting his feet up on chairs, and taking over the concierge desk in the Meikles Hotel in Harare, and starting to call Strobe Talbot and everybody else until I said: Richard, you know, we’re going to dinner. So he did lead the Congo conference in 2000. And so my question really is, where does Africa, where does the U.N. job, fit into sort of the narrative you’ve so beautifully painted? Your writing is beautiful. And in the book, when I would content his nomination had been held up, as you know, to the United Nations. That was the most senior position he ever held, confirmed by the Senate. And so when he got to the—dance, everybody has sort of taken their part of the world. Africa was left. And I remember spending some time with him dealing with HIV/AIDS, which he really wanted to get involved in. So your comments about Africa and his U.N. service would be much appreciated. Thank you. 

PACKER: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, that was a hard chapter to write, because there was no organizing theme, and there was no war to give it dramatic coherence. So Vietnam, Bosnia, Afghanistan are the three pillars of the book. Bu that’s a really important period, because essentially it’s Holbrooke liberated. He no longer has to deal with Washington, with his rivals and enemies in the government. He’s pretty much put distance on them. He’s in New York, his hometown. And he’s really in his element. He had only, like, seventeen months, I think, as U.N. ambassador. He did an enormous number of things. I mean, the most important was to get the U.S. to pay the billion dollars in dues it owed so that we wouldn’t be kicked out of the General Assembly, which was about to happen. 

And to do that, to get every member state of the U.N. to agree to raise its dues while we lowered ours, which was a not an easy—so we had to get both the Republicans in Congress and every country in the world into one place. And that’s actually maybe the most—single most remarkable thing he ever did. He also saw Africa, as many U.N. ambassadors do, as a kind of open space in American diplomacy. Although, Susan Rice, who was the assistant secretary of state for Africa, didn’t necessarily want to cede all that terrain. And he and Rice became pretty bitter rivals during that period. And that remained so into the Obama— 

Q: (Off mic.) 

PACKER: Sure. He—you know, he did convene a conference on Congo. He also tried to end the war in Ethiopia-Eritrea. He kind of got his hands on everything, including HIV/AIDS which was Holbrooke at his most imaginative. Seeing that a disease had a place at the table that normally was reserved for national security and for world threats. And that was a major shift in the focus of the U.N., and maybe of the U.S. government, because he—again, he didn’t think like a normal diplomat. He had—he didn’t think about just relations between states. He thought about people. And in Africa, AIDS was at that point maybe the single most critical issue affecting the largest number of people. 

So you see Holbrooke at his sort of most unchained and flying high and doing so much. But he just didn’t have time to leave a big—you know, to do the one thing that maybe would have cemented his place in history, which he never quite—I think never quite got. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: Let’s go to just behind Nelson Cunningham, then Nelson Cunningham. 

Q: Hi. Peter Bass. And George, terrific. 

PACKER: Hi, Peter. 

Q: Hi. Terrific book. I’m curious that—I think the part of the book that would have driven Dick the craziest was the lack of an index. And I’m curious if that was your idea— 

PACKER: Did it drive—did it drive you crazy too? (Laughs.) 

Q: No, no, no. I loved it. I read it cover to cover. Curious if that was your idea or your publisher’s idea. 

PACKER: It was my idea, which the publisher had no problem with. I mean, I didn’t do it to torment people at all. I did it—I did it to emphasize that this is a—first and last, a reading experience. And the only way to read this book is from start to finish. If you start dipping into this or that section you will not have the right experience of the book. And I know it’s unusual. I don’t think, you know, every book should be read that way. But I worked really hard to make this book a continuous narrative arc that you can’t put down. That was my goal. And an index is exactly—would sabotage that. And I—you know, it’s sort of called the Washington read, where people look themselves up in the index. (Laughter.) And I’m already heard some complaints from Washington readers about that. And all I can say is I’m sorry. But read the damn book and then you can complain to me. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: It made it every hard to except as well. And we worked for a long time to come up with a way to take such a rich coherent story and put it in ten thousand words, but— 

PACKER: Yeah. I mean, maybe there should be some online index for people who want to just do research with the book. I really am sensitive to that; I could see the need for that. But I just felt if there’s an index at the back, it’s going to signal that this is just a book of facts that you can pick and dive into at will. And that’s not the kind of book it is. 


Q: Thanks. Nelson Cunningham, McLarty Associates. 

You paint such a vivid picture of a man whose skills were so outsized, and yet in his later years the problems he was solving felt small. You could imagine he would so relish how this moment—looking at Putin, the resurgence of Russia, looking at the rise of China, what frame do you think he would bring to the big questions that we’re facing right now? And these are very big questions, bigger than the ones that he had the chance to address in his later years. 

PACKER: Well, I would only take issue with—I don’t think Afghanistan was small. I think Afghanistan was immense. But you’re right. And yet, I think that’s where Holbrooke’s talent lay, not in sitting back and thinking through the structure of world order in ten or twenty years. That’s Kissinger. And Holbrooke had this lifelong fascinating with, contempt for, rivalry with Henry Kissinger. They said terrible things about each other. Kissinger called Holbrooke the most viperous man I know in this town—(laughter)—which is actually pretty remarkable coming from Henry Kissinger. (Laughter.) And Holbrooke said that Kissinger was, you know, utterly amoral and cynical. But they couldn’t ignore each other, and they had to kind of come to some détente as, like, we respect each other. 

But they were fundamentally different in their worldview and in the way they operated. And I don’t think Holbrooke had Kissinger’s strategic brilliance. He didn’t think about how to reorder the relation between superpowers. You know, that would not have been—Holbrooke wasn’t thinking about that. He was thinking about ending a war, saving refugees in Indochina after the Vietnam War, which he cared deeply about and hardly anyone else in the government did in the Carter years. And in calling attention to HIV/AIDS and in figuring out how to get Pakistan to stop destroying itself and us in Afghanistan, these were more his scale. Because he was an operator, I think. He was a guy who loved to go to the ground and talk to the sheiks, to the prisoners, to the refugees. That’s when he was at his most energized. I don’t think a great grand strategist necessarily functioned that way. 

So what would Holbrooke do today? I think he would be horrified by our foreign policy, which is the antithesis of everything he believed in. But he would also, I think, be flummoxed, because it’s a—it’s a different world. And the world has moved on. It’s no longer that era. The book kind of ends—it ends with his death, but really it ends with the election of 2016, because I think that’s when the era he embodied really did end. And I don’t—he may have written some essays for Foreign Affairs about China, et cetera. But that’s not—he would have done that in order to get a job in the next administration—(laughter)—not because that’s what really engaged his passions.  

Can we get Rufus Phillips? 

KURTZ-PHELAN: Rufus Phillips, yes.  

Q: George, I think you’ve done a hell of a job. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: There’s a mic right behind you. 

Q: I think you’ve done a hell of a job on an extraordinarily complex buy. 

PACKER: Thank you. 

Q: I just wanted to comment on one aspect of his character, which was that he was extraordinarily generous towards people who he thought had helped him. And I can recount that I went up to see him when he was at the U.N. with my wife Barbara and thank him for writing a forward to my book. And he took me around the office and introduced me to every person there. And he talked about me in such exalted terms that it was really moving. And when I think about it, of course, I’m moved at this moment. And so that was one interesting, and I think a very attractive aspect of his character, which was so multifaceted, as you point out in your book. 

PACKER: He had a talent for friendship and loyalty. And the deepest loyalty he had was to the Vietnam group, who remained his friends for the rest of his life—unless they became his enemies, like Tony Lake—because he felt that those ties were sort of the ones that made him. And as many enemies as he made, he kept as many friends. And it’s hard to convey in a book what it’s like just to be around someone. I tried to.  

From what I heard from so many people, including you, Rufus, he was just fun to be around. He was full of life. He couldn’t wait to tell you about the movie he’d just seen, the book he’d just read, the person he’d just talked to. He wanted to go to the next place. He just carried that lifeforce with him that was infectious and that made other people want to be around him. Even when they were pissed off at him, they still wanted just to see what he was going to do next. You couldn’t take your eyes off him. And he could be a very good friend. And I think he never forgot the opportunity you gave him in South Vietnam in 1963. That was the one that set him off on the rest of his career.  

KURTZ-PHELAN: And he—and he paid it forward to young staffers working for him in the future, who had an incredible loyalty and devotion. 

PACKER: They still have reunions. There was a party just a couple weeks ago for all the people who worked under him on Afghanistan. And they had pictures of him. How many government bureaucrats have their staffs celebrate—or honor them on the anniversary of their death, or at a party, at a reunion? And Holbrooke had this power to create disciples and make them lifelong loyalist, as well as to make rivals into enemies. I think the one place you didn’t want to be with Holbrooke was at the same level, because then you were a threat and he was going to take you out, because he couldn’t stand to be in competition. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: Let’s get a couple more in. We’ll go in the front row here and then the table to the left. 

Q: Hi. Kathy Roth-Douquet. Hi, Tom. 

I was twenty-something in the Clinton administration, in the beginning, the lead advance person for President Clinton. So I was in a lot of rooms with Richard Holbrooke. And then I later married a military officer. My husband was head of strategic planning for McChrystal and Petraeus during the surge in 2009. So it strikes me that—I love the title of your book—that Richard Holbrooke’s personality matched the twentieth-century American personality, right? We could be astride the world, and there was a certain joy in our activity. And then later in this century, so far, America’s more emmeshed in the world. And I wonder if you could comment on the way to which the man and his personality and the country and its time is reflected in his change. 

PACKER: Yeah, thank you for that. It’s a really nice point. I mean, you don’t want to draw it too far, but the way the world sees us is kind of the way Richard Holbrooke was—somewhat uncouth,, impatient with protocol and with tradition and with the way you’re supposed to do things, but tremendously energetic and confident, somewhat blind to ourselves and to our excesses, and yet always there. Like, sort of you can’t get rid of us. And that is the way in which Holbrooke embodied what I think of as this era of the American century, which kind of was the span of his life. I think the American century began in 1941, the year he was born, the year Henry Luce coined the phrase. And it ended sometime in the early twenty-first century, when Holbrooke was in decline. 

And I don’t want to make it too glib or too, you know, tight a connection, but I think if any—if you’re looking for an American who kind of contained all those multitudes, who was big enough to contain them, it was Holbrooke. Another thing Hillary Clinton said to me right after he died was, I picture him like Gulliver tied down by Lilliputians. Those Lilliputians were in the Obama White House, but they—it was also like life. Holbrooke, you know, was constantly trying to break the bonds, and life was constantly trying to push him back down. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: Let’s go right here. 

Q: Charlie Stevenson. I teach at SAIS. 

You had extraordinary access. You had love letters, his own diaries, he kept a diary. I don’t know that anyone would do that nowadays because of the risk of subpoenas. (Laughter.) Strobe Talbott’s diary. What advice would you have for anyone who might want to write a book, a biography, of some other statesman, public figure, when they don’t have all those things? 

PACKER: Yeah. I couldn’t have written it without his papers, which Kati Marton, his widow, gave me, with no conditions. And that was an extraordinary thing to have, because you’ve just listed all the best stuff.. Oh, and the one that—the diaries were often microcassette recordings, so I even have—you know, I heard his voice. I spent hours and hours listening to that voice.  

I think pick a subject who isn’t at the very top, because once they’re world famous and there’s sort of a settled account of why they’re important, and there’s layers and layers of protection in some ways against getting into the heart of the matter because they’re too important to reveal themselves fully. Holbrooke was at the level one or two steps down, where he was—there was something naked about his path through life. He was not trying to cover up his tracks. He was not important enough or cautious enough to do that. And I think you really do see something about how government works and the nature of power when you’re able to get inside the room with someone who’s not the most important person in the room. 

So maybe the best—try to get the diaries, if they exist. Hunt down the emails. Seize the emails, whatever it takes. But you’re right. People don’t leave a record anymore, and it’s terrible. It’s a terrible thing for historians and journalists. But try to find a character who isn’t too important to already be disappearing behind a mist of half-truths and euphemisms. That would be my advice. 

 KURTZ-PHELAN: Let’s go in the very back. 

Q: Thank you. The very back indeed. My name is Peter Rosenblatt, and— 


Q: I have the disadvantage of not yet having read the book, but I look forward to not being able to put it down. I worked with Dick in the White House in 1966 to ’68. He was Dick then. And I note your comment that he had decided that the war couldn’t be won in 1967. In fact, I think that was true every other day. But while he was working in what for him must have seemed to be the ideal job of overseeing, in a way, the conduct of the civilian side of the war, which he had learned about so well during the four years that he was there, when he was in the White House he was able to establish back channel contact with people in Vietnam from the provinces to the embassy, while at the same time he was cultivating, as only he could, senior officials in Washington. 

He came to be, at that time, perhaps the single person, together with our colleague Bob Montague, the best-informed person about what was actually happening in Vietnam. And I think he was recognized as such, certainly by our boss, Bob Komer, and by many others. And he devoted himself day and night to doing what, as you say, he did best, which his to be an operator. And he had a great deal of influence, but unfortunately whatever influence he had came to an end with the end of the Johnson administration. Then, of course, he was on a different track. But I think that if you understand how he operated ’66 to ’68, you understand what you need to know about the man, at least in his public face.  

PACKER: I totally agree. And it tells you something about what it’s like to be inside the government at the heart of the biggest problem facing the government, and to be working fourteen hours, sixteen hours a day on that problem, while at the same time having the detachment and the intelligence to see what was and wasn’t working. And it’s why sometimes it’s the most knowledgeable people who are the last ones to see what may seem obvious to someone who’s just reading about it in the paper, because they’re so close to it, and it’s so urgent, and it’s so much what they are committed to. I have a line in the book where it—you cannot decide that the war can’t be won while you’re in Vietnam. As soon as you reach that point, you should go to another war because you can’t function. And something I’ve seen in other venues, including in Iraq where the closer you are to it and the more you know about it in some ways, the less you might be able to see what’s obvious to the unschooled. 

So Holbrooke actually began to realize the war was not being—not only not being won, but unwinnable by, you know, the standard of what the American people were willing to do when he came back from Vietnam and suddenly saw what it was doing to American society. And by the end of ’67, he was writing a memo on—you know, on behalf of Nicolas Katzenbach, his boss at the State Department after he left the White House and Komer and your office. A brilliant memo explaining why North Vietnam was just going to wait us out, and so the whole focus of the administration had to change. And I’ve never read anything by a government official as well-written and keen as that. But it took a long—many, many years and many steps for someone was close and dedicated as he was to get to that point. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: Let’s go to Bernie Aronson. 

Q: Thank you. 

You know, one of the points that comes through the book either implicitly or explicitly is that it’s always a great disadvantage inside of government decision making, particularly in national security, to be the advocate of action. And the easiest position in government is the one to say: Mr. President, that sounds good, but here are all the risks. And it’s an election year and we shouldn’t try this. And Dick always wanted to solve a problem, which often meant you had to make a judgement and go ahead and do something. And so some of his problems were not just his outsized personality, it was that there’s a bias always against the one who wants to go and do something risky. And the risks of inaction are not as explicit, and the risks of action always are. And since he wanted to do—he wanted to act, he always had that defense that he had to get something done. And he was an easy target for those who accumulate power by frustrating the action of others. But I think it’s another way in which the book, which I thought was a great read, you know, illustrates the way diplomacy actually is not only carried out, but how it’s formulated, so. 

PACKER: I think that’s a great point.  

KURTZ-PHELAN: Let’s go to one final question here. 

Q: Walter Pincus. I teach at Stanford. 

I worked Fulbright in the ‘60s. And Dick was part of the administration, had a terrible habit of disliking Congress getting involved, even though, as you say, he was on the same side. At the time we were passing limitations on what Congress—on what the administration could do. So the question is: He represented this idea he didn’t want Congress interfering, even when he was on the same side. And it’s—the arguments I used to have with him were not based on facts and issues, really. Fulbright really didn’t know the full story. 

PACKER: I think he learned a lesson from that, Mr. Pincus, because in later years he would talk about the need to have Congress and the public behind you if you were going to succeed in diplomacy. You couldn’t do it in secret and cut off from the need to explain and persuade the public, and especially Congress. So the time he got to Bosnia and the U.N., he spent enormous amounts of time on the Hill and cultivating those—and even before that under Carter. His first moves when he became assistant secretary of state for East Asia at the tender age of thirty-five was to go the Hill and start making friend with people there. And that continued in the ’90s. And it culminated at the U.N., when he spent as much time on Capitol Hill and he did in Turtle Bay, because he needed Congress to release the money. 

And I think if he convinced Jesse Helms to approve his appointment, which was not an easy thing to do, it was because he convinced Jesse Helms that he would listen to Congress. So I think maybe he learned that lesson from—(laughs)—from the Fulbright years in Vietnam. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: There are—there are shiny new copies of the book for sale outside. This is my battered, well-loved copy. For those of you who have not read it, cannot recommend it highly enough. For those of you who have read it, it’s a great graduation gift, Father’s Day, birthdays, whatever. 

PACKER: Father’s Day. Father’s Day. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: George, thank you so much for speaking with us and congratulations on the book. 

PACKER: Thank you, Dan. Thank you. (Applause.) 


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