They Meant Well

Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century BY George Packer. New York: Knopf. 608 pages. $30.
The Education of an Idealist BY Samantha Power. New York: Dey Street Books. 592 pages. $30.
The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory BY Andrew J. Bacevich. New York: Metropolitan Books. 256 pages. $27.

As we enter what feels like the second or third decade of the 2020 presidential campaign, a question hovers menacingly over American politics: Can liberals get a grip? Three years into the Trump era, it cannot have escaped anyone that the country’s political system is in the throes of a major crisis. Yet the mainstream of the Democratic Party remains bogged down, lurching back and forth between melancholy and hysteria. “The Republic is in danger!” the Rachel Maddows of the world intone, but aside from a Trump impeachment that has no hope of actually removing him from office, the solutions on offer stay the same as they were three, ten, fifteen years ago: means-tested tweaks to what little remains of the welfare state, limp appeals to civility and tolerance for (meaning accommodation to) opposing political views, and a “muscular” but gloomy foreign policy that envisions our forever wars stretching on for decades. For more than half a century, the political program that is now called American liberal centrism remade much of the world in its own image and turned the US into the preeminent military and economic power. Today, centrists’ best idea for a bold, young candidate is a millennial Harvard robot who worked for the odious consulting firm McKinsey before, as a midwestern mayor, apparently alienating every single black resident of South Bend. This is an ideology suffering from a failure of imagination.

Can liberalism diagnose its own ills? George Packer tries in Our Man, his biography of the diplomat Richard Holbrooke. Packer, until recently a New Yorker staff writer, won the National Book Award for The Unwinding, a kind of phenomenology of American decline that zoomed across the contemporary landscape and found loneliness, alienation, and greed everywhere it looked. This new book is a history of the same phenomenon, from the perspective of foreign policy. Holbrooke’s career started in Vietnam, where he worked for the Foreign Service; reached its peak in the Balkans, where Holbrooke led the negotiations that produced the Dayton Accords; and ended in the Middle East, where he tried and failed to help Hamid Karzai build a stable government in Afghanistan. All the while, he worked tirelessly to become secretary of state, a position he never achieved. Packer decided to chronicle Holbrooke’s life because, he writes, “we want to see and feel what happened to America during Holbrooke’s life, and we can see and feel more clearly by following someone who was almost great.”

Our Man exhaustively documents Holbrooke’s not-quite-greatness, from his egotism and striving to his failed relationships to his inability to understand himself. In addition, the book unintentionally documents that Holbrooke, in addition to being not quite great, was not quite interesting. So he didn’t get to be secretary of state. Well, that’s what happens to almost everyone who wants to become secretary of state, and Holbrooke didn’t do much along the way to distinguish himself from the competition. He was perceptive and intelligent but made no brave political stands, confining his youthful criticisms of Vietnam to his private letters and supporting the invasion of Iraq because he thought Democrats shouldn’t look weak on foreign policy. In the 1980s, when Republican presidents meant he couldn’t work in government, he soaked up money working at investment banks, including Lehman Brothers, and helping American corporations to expand their operations in Asia. (“The work smelled enough like corruption to leave him uneasy,” Packer writes, providing no evidence of his uneasiness.) Biding his time, Holbrooke climbed the ladder, courted the media, and swam with the tide. As an assistant secretary of state under the Clinton administration, he did help bring a brutal war to a close by leading the negotiations that produced the Dayton Accords, but the most important legacy of America’s involvement in the Balkans was to routinize the use of military force for humanitarian purposes, a practice that has had mixed results since, to say the least. He was ineffectual as Barack Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Detail from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, April 6, 1963. From The Complete Peanuts 1963–1964 Vol. 7 (Fantagraphics, 2007), © Peanuts Worldwide, LLC
Detail from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, April 6, 1963. From The Complete Peanuts 1963–1964 Vol. 7 (Fantagraphics, 2007), © Peanuts Worldwide, LLC

Packer opens the book by writing, of Holbrooke, “I can’t get his voice out of my head.” Five hundred and fifty pages later, I still couldn’t figure out why. The interesting voice in Our Man belongs to Packer, not Holbrooke. Packer constantly asserts his authorial presence, not just as narrator, but as witness, moralist, one-man Greek chorus, and mourner. He is anguished over the breakdown of the post–World War II consensus, and Our Man is a long attempt to explain that breakdown and give it meaning. There is a boyish quality to his writing. Analogies to sports or adventuring proliferate, with Packer writing that Holbrooke’s own account of his experiences in the Balkans “left out the broken plays and fakes, the hail Marys and sideline brawls.” And later, of Holbrooke’s staff as he worked on Afghanistan: “It was like the loyalty of young players toward their aging, intense, big-hearted coach.” Also boyish, as in adolescent, are his descriptions of women. In the early 1990s, Holbrooke fell in love with Kati Marton, who was married to Peter Jennings. “Breasts larger than he expected,” Packer writes of Holbrooke’s infatuation—“he liked that too.” How Packer knew of Holbrooke’s expectations with respect to Marton’s breasts is unexplained in the book’s notes. Maybe it’s better that way.

The boyishness persists in Packer’s efforts to diagnose the decline of American greatness since the end of the Cold War. He often interjects with sage asides or explanations meant to undercut our allegedly cherished beliefs about America’s role in the world, but I can’t see who these interjections would actually surprise, aside from very credulous high schoolers in a civics class. “We like firepower more than we want to admit,” he observes, writing at a time when there’s an SUV for sale called the “Armada.” We’re not good at imperialism because “we’re too chaotic and distracted—too democratic,” a charitable reading that both undersells America’s talent for imperialism and oversells Americans’ enthusiasm for practicing democracy (check the voter turnout figures). He criticizes a lot about American foreign policy over the past fifty years—the wrong people get put in charge, institutions fail to cooperate with one another, and “maybe,” he allows, “we don’t take the politics of other people seriously”—but he cannot bring himself to question America’s motives. And when it comes to explaining what, exactly, went wrong, this is as good as we get, as Packer glosses the ’90s: “Slowly, imperceptibly at first, we lost that essential faith in ourselves.” Thus is geopolitics reduced to metaphysics.

Can Samantha Power succeed where Packer failed? Barack Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations was mentored by Holbrooke early in her career, and like Packer, she decided to write a book—a memoir, The Education of an Idealist—as a way of addressing her anxieties about the state of the country. Power immigrated to the US from Ireland when she was a child, worked as a journalist in Bosnia during the Balkan wars, and then wrote the book that made her famous, “A Problem from Hell,which upbraided the US government for its inadequate response to genocides around the world and advocated a much more proactive posture. Then she went to work in the Obama administration and tried to put her theories into practice. Most of the book is focused on the Obama years.

Richard Holbrooke kept his mouth shut in public when he disagreed with government policy, and it would have been fair to wonder whether Power, who had made her name criticizing American inaction, would do the same when she became a member of the Obama administration. She was then and remains today the country’s most prominent advocate for humanitarian intervention, dividing the world into “bystanders,” those who sit around and allow atrocities to unfold, and “upstanders,” those who do something. What, exactly, you’re supposed to do when the atrocities are happening in a sovereign state that’s not your own has caused Power trouble over the years. In practice, the favored option has been military intervention, and the rationale for action at the heart of Power’s book was frequently and cynically invoked by Bush administration officials making their case for invading Afghanistan and Iraq. The humanitarian case for war was probably decisive in persuading many from the center left to support the invasions, including George Packer. This still rankles Power, and in her memoir she notes that she actually argued the US “should not frame its policy options in terms of doing nothing or unilaterally sending in the Marines.” There are many kinds of diplomatic and economic pressure, she says, that can be usefully applied before deciding to use military force.

But Power still bears responsibility for the misuse of her work, and not because she didn’t do enough to remind government officials about the use of diplomatic pressure. Her basic error, both in “A Problem from Hell” and in her career as a whole, was to conceive of America’s defense of human rights as something that could transcend national interests, because in a world governed by alternately cooperating and competing nation-states, nothing transcends national interests. As Hannah Arendt argued after World War II in her studies of stateless people, human rights quite literally do not exist unless backed by state sovereignty, and by convincing herself and many others that the US both could and should shoulder the moral responsibility of enforcing human rights everywhere, Power unintentionally provided ideological cover for the most powerful sovereign state in the world to do whatever it wanted. It’s not a coincidence that America’s first large-scale military humanitarian intervention took place in the Balkans less than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. For half a century, the US had justified its foreign adventures as vital to the fight against communism. Then that fight ended. Human rights discourse, with Power as its most effective exponent, furnished the US with a new justification for its imperialism.

Power isn’t a cynic herself. She just made a mistake based on sincerely held beliefs. But it is worth dwelling on this mistake. The belief that America’s national interests harmonize in some way with the interests of people everywhere, that America is a global beacon of hope, that an ideal world would be one in which most countries were more like America, is fundamental to the liberal worldview. Packer mentions a Peanuts cartoon that circulated among Holbrooke and the other American administrators in Vietnam when things weren’t going well. Charlie Brown and his friends are losing a baseball game 184–0, and Charlie wonders, “How can we lose when we’re so sincere?” Packer himself assumes that America’s intentions in Vietnam were basically good, writing of a diplomat and his wife that “like all the other Americans who went to Vietnam . . . they went as innocents.” For her part, Power ends her book with nothing bad to say about America’s goals, only about its “mistakes.” The country bears responsibility for these mistakes, she writes, “irrespective of American intentions,” but for her it goes without saying that the intentions were pure.

This belief in both the universality and the benevolence of US interests is false, and it is blinding Packer, Power, and most of the Democratic presidential field to reality. But Andrew Bacevich is not a liberal—he is a Catholic conservative, a former Army officer who became a leading critic of American military policy in the early 2000s and whose son died fighting in Iraq in 2007. He is also a more searching and less self-exculpating thinker than either Packer or Power. His new book, The Age of Illusions, is less than half as long as either of these other two works, but it is the only one that has a clue as to what’s going on. He opens the book with a question asked by John Updike’s character Rabbit Angstrom—“Without the Cold War, what’s the point of being an American?”—and then describes a doomed, twenty-five-year attempt to find out. Without the Soviet Union to structure and temper America’s ambitions, Bacevich writes, “everything seemed possible.” Drunk on their own success, US policy makers embarked on a project of “unconstrained corporate capitalism operating on a planetary scale,” backed by “unchallengeable military might [that] would enable the United States to manage and police a postcolonial yet implicitly imperial order favorable to American interests and values,” with the president “accorded quasi-monarchical prerogatives and granted quasi-monarchical status” in order to carry out the plan. But instead of “enshrining the American way of life as the ultimate destiny of humankind,” America’s actions during this post–Cold War moment gave us political upheaval around the world, unprecedented levels of wealth inequality, and Trump. I don’t find much to argue with in this outline of the situation.

I do find things to argue with in Bacevich’s cultural analysis, which is where he makes his Catholicism felt. He writes that along with globalization and military supremacy, the US adopted a “new conception of freedom . . . with traditional moral prohibitions declared obsolete and the removal of constraints maximizing choice.” He sees Hillary Clinton (as first lady) and Pat Buchanan as the first major combatants in this culture war, and Barack Obama’s presidency as its decisive period—it was his time in office that saw “patriarchy thrown on the defensive and heteronormativity forfeiting whatever vestiges of moral authority it retained.” Near the end of the book, Bacevich includes a two-page bullet-point index of American despair, noting, among other things, the increase in the suicide rate, the growth of “cellphone addiction” and “compulsive buying syndrome,” the divorce rate (which he fails to note has been declining since the ’90s), and the fact that “American women were terminating over 650,000 unwanted pregnancies each year, despite the widespread availability of contraceptives.” He writes that “what Americans need is not more freedom but truer freedom, grounded in something other than the reiteration of comforting clichés.” But “the reiteration of comforting clichés” exactly describes my experiences of attending Mass as a child.

As a leftist myself, I find this kind of nostalgia for a simpler time, with its very Catholic conception of almost anything relating to the experience of personal pleasure as ipso facto harmful, unpersuasive. (He even mentions tattoos as an example of “the obsessively narcissistic turn in the American understanding of liberty.”) Yet I didn’t find that it diminished what’s powerful about Bacevich’s book, because Bacevich doesn’t intend for his nostalgia to be actionable. Bill Clinton’s feckless routinization of military force, Bush the Younger’s arrogance, and Barack Obama’s failure to even attempt to chart a new course for American politics have left the system broken, and Bacevich is not advocating any kind of return to the past. His prescription, in fact, is almost Marxist: “In a country as deeply divided as the United States, the proximate aim should not be to obscure differences but to sharpen them further and thereby give them meaning.” Heighten the contradictions! “Real debate conducive to genuine change is unlikely to come from above,” he writes. If slavery and the abuses of late-nineteenth-century industrial capitalism provided opportunities for mass mobilization and debate in the past, climate change can provide a similar opportunity now.

“To an extent still not fully appreciated,” Bacevich writes, “the animating spirit of the post–Cold War era centered on the prospect of exploitation, taking advantage of the favorable circumstances in which the United States found itself—and which Americans claimed credit for creating.” The question facing many of us now is whether an economy and society organized around exploitation both at home and abroad can be replaced with something better. If liberals like Packer and Power remain unwilling to participate in the debate on these terms, they will have no constructive role to play going forward.

Richard Beck is a staff writer at n+1.