But there’s another reason I felt a pang of familiarity while devouring “Our Man”: Packer’s description of Holbrooke reminded me of the protagonist of my book “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.” Lansdale was a legendary covert operative who, while working for the CIA, masterminded the defeat of the Hukbalahap rebellion, a communist insurgency in the Philippines, in the early 1950s, and then moved to Saigon, where in 1954 he helped create the state of South Vietnam.
There were, to be sure, many differences between them. Lansdale was never as ambitious or egotistical as Holbrooke, who once told a girlfriend, “I’m going to be the next Henry Kissinger.” (“That was the end of her fling with Holbrooke,” Packer writes.) Nor was he a social climber like Holbrooke, who cultivated powerful older men such as W. Averell Harriman and romanced successful women such as TV journalist Diane Sawyer. Lansdale’s ambition was to advance the cause of democracy in Asia, not himself. He even hesitated to accept an offer from President John F. Kennedy to become the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam. Holbrooke, by contrast, was incessantly scheming for self-advancement. The only jobs he refused were the ones he judged beneath his exalted status. Holbrooke’s epic womanizing also put Lansdale to shame. Lansdale had only one mistress — Pat Kelly, the great love of his life — and he eventually married her after the death of his first wife.
But despite the many differences, I detected a strong resemblance between Holbrooke and Lansdale. Both were unconventional, strong-willed, occasionally ruthless characters. Both were animated by a powerful, perhaps excessive, faith in the United States as a force for good. Both played by their own rules. And both could not hide their disdain for deskbound, risk-averse bureaucrats.
The similarities were not coincidental. Holbrooke’s first job as a tyro diplomat in 1963 was working in Saigon for the U.S. Embassy’s Office of Rural Affairs. Its head was Rufus Phillips, a courtly Virginian, late of Yale University and the CIA, who was a protege of Lansdale’s. He taught the young Holbrooke the tenets of “Lansdalism”: To win a war among the people, you had to win over the people rather than blow them to smithereens. This was a simple yet powerful insight, later labeled “population-centric counterinsurgency,” that Holbrooke imbibed long before it became fashionable.
Phillips also reflected Lansdale’s informal and idealistic approach. Rural Affairs was a “shirtsleeves” outfit where no one stood on protocol and everyone was encouraged to get close to the Vietnamese people. Before long, Holbrooke was a provincial representative far from the comforts of Saigon. Decades later, when Holbrooke was appointed special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Packer writes, he modeled his office on Rural Affairs — “the freedom and openness, the hostility to bureaucratic convention, the sense of excitement and risk.”
That Holbrooke ended his career working for the secretary of state, rather than being secretary of state himself, was a source of endless frustration to him. So, too, was the fact that his advice was constantly ignored. Lansdale suffered a similar, agonizing fate: He was sidelined from Vietnam policy in the Kennedy administration as the United States was drawing closer to a quagmire that he saw more clearly than most. When Lansdale went back to Vietnam in 1965 to work on winning “hearts and minds,” he was as ineffectual as Holbrooke proved to be on Afghanistan policy in 2009-2010.
Both Holbrooke and Lansdale blamed others for their downfall, but ultimately both sabotaged themselves through a lack of self-awareness. While interviewing for a job in the Obama administration, Holbrooke corrected President-elect Barack Obama when Obama referred to him as “Dick.” “Would you do me a favor, Mr. President?” Holbrooke said. “It’s important to my wife that you call me ‘Richard.'” Little wonder Obama had an instant aversion to him. Lansdale was similarly clueless in his dealings with Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. He would lecture on how to fight the Viet Cong while failing to notice the secretary’s eyes glaze over. “He was turning McNamara off,” a subordinate told me, “but waxing more and more enthusiastic, speaking more rapidly.”
The tragedy of Holbrooke’s and Lansdale’s lives is that if they had attained higher office, they might have changed U.S. foreign policy for the better, perhaps avoiding costly mistakes in Vietnam and Afghanistan. They certainly could have done better than many of the inoffensive nonentities who supplanted them. As it was, they achieved a great deal — Lansdale in defeating communism in the Philippines, Holbrooke in negotiating peace in Bosnia. But their maverick ways ultimately caused them to be rejected by the system. Presidents in the future would be well-advised to show greater tolerance for troublemakers and truth tellers.