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Opinion ‘Our Man’ captures Richard Holbrooke in all his brilliance and arrogance

Richard Holbrooke in Washington in May 2009.
Richard Holbrooke in Washington in May 2009. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
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The late Richard Holbrooke was a liar. He was often disingenuous, betraying his friends as well as his lovers, flattering political gargoyles — Jesse Helms, for instance — and went everywhere protected by a posse of his own formidable ego. He could be thoroughly dislikable, but he failed in that regard with me. I liked him. He was a friend.

Holbrooke in all his capacious brilliance and arrogance has been captured by George Packer in a new biography called, appropriately enough, “Our Man.” The book has been praised both for its writing and its reporting. It is, I strongly feel, a classic. Read it, but bear in mind that it is wrong. It confirms Holbrooke’s view of Holbrooke.

Richard Holbrooke considered himself a failure. He had wanted to be secretary of state; indeed he considered himself uniquely qualified for that position, but he never quite made it. He was twice an assistant secretary of state, once the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and once the U.S. ambassador to Germany. His last diplomatic position was as President Barack Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan — a thankless task, especially for a president who could not abide him. Holbrooke was his own worst diplomat.

But he did bring peace to Bosnia in 1995 — a minor country, but no minor achievement. Countless lives were saved, and while Holbrooke never made it to the top of the State Department, some of those who did left without accomplishing anything as significant. Holbrooke brandished the power and ingenuity of U.S. diplomacy. It stands in sad contrast to the endless diplomatic pratfalls currently emanating from the Trump administration.

Of greater consequence in the long run — and Holbrooke’s enduring achievement — was his idea to establish the American Academy in Berlin. He made that announcement in 1994 right after the last American troops had left that city. His concept was to ensure that the United States remain relevant to Germany and vice versa. The relationship is not merely important. It is vital. U.S. troops were gone. History remained.

This is no minor point. Holbrooke appreciated William Faulkner’s observation that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” We are mired in it. The past is our weather. It is our traffic conditions. It is the air we breathe and the food we eat and the clothes we wear. When it comes to Germany, the past is like a dark depression that came out of nowhere and could come again.

So Holbrooke planted the U.S. flag in Berlin. He did so in a donated mansion located on the shore of the Wannsee. Across the lake is another mansion, the one where top Nazis met in 1942 to plan the systematic murder of Europe’s Jews. The area is bucolic, serene on lovely days, the homes stately. Jews once lived in many of them. They had no idea of what was coming.

Culture is like a stream that is sometimes on the surface, sometimes subterranean. Culture is what accounts for Germany’s postwar economic revival. It has no oil. It has only a culture of industriousness, of craft and of seriousness of purpose. It is once again mighty, Europe’s dominant economic power. The culture that has made the new Germany could carry some aspects of the old. Every thoughtful German knows that.

The right is resurgent in Germany. Anti-Semitism is now more obvious, if not more prevalent. After a slow start, Germany was impeccable in facing its Nazi history. It has museums and memorials aplenty. It honors the memory of Count Claus von Stauffenberg, who attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler and was executed along with other conspirators in 1944. As with Beethoven, Stauffenberg is now a common street name in Germany. This is a country that confronts its past. Still, this is a country that has one.

Holbrooke appreciated Germany’s importance. He also appreciated the United States’ importance — to Germany and all of Europe. He thought the United States was a force for good, that it had both the strength and the obligation to make the world a better place. He had worked for the State Department in Vietnam and so he understood the limits of U.S. power and, on occasion, the folly of our intentions. Still, we could do what no other nation could. In Bosnia, Holbrooke did precisely that.

The headline of a recent review of Packer’s book in The Post said “Richard Holbrooke was a jerk — and a talented diplomat.” I quibble. What mattered was that he personified the now passe American diplomat of enormous reach. He knew what President Trump and his acolytes do not: The future is only the past by another name.

Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.

Read more:

Adam B. Kushner: Richard Holbrooke was a jerk — and a talented diplomat. Which matters more?

Max Boot: Why presidents should listen to troublemakers and truth tellers