The Tragedy of Richard Holbrooke
The mismatch between an old foreign-policy hand and a new president: An excerpt from James Mann’s The Obamians.
Afterward, they sat and talked. Holbrooke said he was in despair over his role in the administration. He simply could not establish a relationship with Obama, Holbrooke said. The president seemed remote and cold-blooded, at least in Holbrooke’s presence. And, as if that weren’t enough, Holbrooke’s problem wasn’t just with Obama: Holbrooke thought many in the White House were against him, especially McDonough, who had been with Obama since the earliest stages of his 2008 campaign.
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images.
Still, Holbrooke hoped somehow to leverage his many connections into a wider role in the administration. He was an old friend of Tom Donilon, who had a few weeks earlier become Obama’s national security adviser. Maybe things will improve, Holbrooke told Drozdiak.
The following Friday, Holbrooke was at a meeting in Hillary Clinton’s State Department office when he suddenly became flushed and stricken with pain. He was taken to the State Department medical office, but collapsed and went by ambulance to George Washington University Hospital. He died there three days later of a ruptured aorta.
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Holbrooke’s death represented, in many ways, a passing of the old guard in American foreign policy. He was the link to the Democratic Party of the Vietnam era. His ideas and career reflected the party’s prolonged ambivalence about what to say and do in the aftermath of that disaster.
In the 1970s, Holbrooke had been among the Democrats’ intellectual leaders in trying to define America’s role in the world after the elder statesmen from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations—the Rusks and McNamaras, Bundys and Rostows—had been discredited.
On the one hand, Holbrooke could sound passionately liberal as he attacked the Republicans during general elections and the periods when the Democrats were out of office. He embraced important causes such as stopping the spread of AIDS. He thought of Vietnam as a terrible mistake, one the United States should never repeat.
Yet within the Democratic Party and during Democratic primaries, Holbrooke was definitely not a man of the political left. He did not ally himself with antiwar movements or candidates, whether George McGovern in 1972 or Obama in 2008. A year after the end of the Vietnam War, he specifically denounced “the guilt-ridden anguish of the left.”
Instead, Holbrooke invariably placed himself close to the Democratic Party’s center of gravity, alongside established forces and elites rather than insurgent movements. To a considerable extent, this reflected his ambition and his fascination with power, his perpetual urge to be on the inside, his sense that those in antiwar movements or insurgencies didn’t know the way things really worked (and also didn’t know the right people, the ones on his long contact list).
Yet along with these personal factors, Holbrooke’s determined centrism reflected a set of underlying beliefs. He was not opposed to the use of force, especially not for humanitarian purposes in places like Bosnia and Kosovo. He did not believe America was inherently malign. He argued repeatedly that the United States should continue to play a powerful role in the world.
The great irony was that Barack Obama, the president with whom Holbrooke did not get along, eventually embraced many of these same centrist views himself. After he became president, Obama made clear through his actions that despite his opposition to the Iraq War, he was no pacifist. On the contrary, he was quite willing to wield military power (ground troops in Afghanistan, SEAL teams on killing missions in Pakistan) and technology (drones in country after country) on behalf of America’s interests and values. If Holbrooke was respectful of money, comfortable with financial power and the world of Wall Street, Obama was hardly a populist on economic issues himself.
James Mann is author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and author of The Obamians.