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A History Maker For All His Flaws
By Nayan Chanda

ONE autumn afternoon in 1979 in Bangkok, I had just come out of the walled US embassy compound on Wireless Road. I crossed the road to hail a cab when I noticed the siren and flashing lights. The embassy’s iron gates had opened to let out the limousine of US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, accompanied by the noise and commotion of the usual police escorts. I knew who was in the tinted-glass limo, because I had just spent the past half hour in the embassy talking with Holbrooke about developments in Indochina. Suddenly, his limo swerved towards the pavement where I was standing and came to a halt, causing confusion among the police cars in the motorcade. The door swung open, revealing Holbrooke’s six-foot frame. He leaned out and called me to come close. “Nayan, I forgot to ask you, what’s happening to your Pakistan correspondent?” He was asking about Salamat Ali, my late colleague, the Pakistan correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review. I said he had been sentenced to one year in jail. Anything you can do to get him out would be highly appreciated, I told him. He simply said, “OK, I’ll see what we can do,” and, to the relief of the police who had rushed out of their cars to see what was happening, the limo took off. I never knew if Holbrooke had any hand in it, but Salamat was released halfway through his sentence.


That gesture of friendship towards a newsman, even if it meant breaking convention, was typical of Holbrooke. Apart from his deep interest in journalism and journalists, whom he continually cultivated, he had a soft spot for the Far Eastern Economic Review, which he called “the Bible of Asia.” He began his career by wangling a job as a gofer at the New York Times bureau in Paris while studying at Brown University. The traffic-stopping episode in Bangkok and memories of many such episodes of Holbrooke’s colorful career that I personally witnessed (though they do not appear in this book) came rushing back to me as I read this page-turner of a biography, running to 600-plus pages. George Packer, one of the New Yorker’s star writers, now with the Atlantic, was a lifelong friend and has written an unusual biography of a brilliant but flawed man. His outsized ambition, take-no-prisoners arrogance, boundless energy to achieve success and maverick moves made him a larger-than-life character in Washington. It was only to his female friends that the macho man revealed his vulnerabilities, told through Holbrooke’s own diaries and others’ recollections and adding an unusual dimension to this portrait.


Packer’s fast-paced narrative, with vivid portrayals of the milieu Holbrooke inhabited, replete with ample quotations from his unfinished memoirs and notes, tracks his life through three main trajectories of his diplomatic career — Vietnam, Bosnia and Afghanistan. As a young foreign service officer beginning his career in Vietnam, his ambition was to open a new chapter by normalizing relations with Vietnam. He failed. His hope of avoiding the disaster of Vietnam in Afghanistan as President Barack Obama’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan remained unfulfilled, because he failed to win Obama’s approval. The 1995 Dayton Accord where he knocked Bosnian and Serbian heads together to end the crisis in former Yugoslavia remains his only, if shaky, success. At the age of 69, he died of heart failure.


Packer captures the drama of Holbrooke’s Vietnam failure with a vivid account. In 1977, Holbrooke met Phan Hien in Paris in his first round of talks. Hien showed him a secret letter from US President Richard Nixon pledging almost US$5 billion in reconstruction aid and wanted that to be met before normalization. Holbrooke said, “Mr. Minister, let’s leave aside the issues that divide us. Let us go outside and jointly declare to the press that we have decided to normalize relations.” Hien refused what effectively was a bluff. Holbrooke was gambling, because he had no authority to offer unconditional relations. But as history would show, that lost opportunity would not come again for nearly two decades. When at a dramatic meeting in New York in late September the Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach agreed to normalization without aid, it was blocked by the White House. His nemesis, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, made sure that in the race to normalize relations with China, he would win. He maneuvered to keep Holbrooke out of important meetings, freezing him out of the cable traffic and finally persuading US President Jimmy Carter that relations with China would bring more benefits than relations with Vietnam, a marginal country, a puppet of the Soviets. In a scene from a B-grade movie, Brzezinski is described as walking through a restaurant in Beijing holding an imaginary platter over his head, telling his wife and her breakfast partner, “I have Richard Holbrooke’s head on my platter and I am going to serve it to the Chinese.” Barely 10 days after Sino-US normalization, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, overthrowing Pol Pot, and two weeks after the normalization, China launched an invasion to “teach Vietnam a lesson.” That would end in disaster for Beijing.


Packer writes, “He loved history — so much that he wanted to make it.” Holbrooke did make history and plenty of irony to accompany it. After having drafted countless campaign speeches by Jimmy Carter calling for human rights, in 1980, as Carter’s principal official for Asia, Holbrooke led the drive to recognize the murderous Khmer Rouge as the legitimate representatives of Cambodia at the UN. He said it was the “single most difficult thing” he had ever done, “but as a public official, I had to swallow hard.”


This unconventional biography, written like a novel without notes or index, is a joy to read. The book is a singular achievement, bringing alive the last decades when America counted characters such as Holbrooke in the halls of policy-making. Perhaps with a bit of hyperbole that biographers are allowed, Packer made Holbrooke’s life a metaphor for brash, ambitious America. “He was our man,” he writes. “Our confidence and energy, our reach and grasp, our excess and blindness — they were not so different from Holbrooke’s.”


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