Richard Holbrooke was a rare creature — a figure from Greek tragedy contained within America’s foreign policy bureaucracy. The late diplomat possessed heroic talents, achieved feats of strength and rose high. But his own flaws undid him.

Holbrooke’s early promise propelled a rapid ascent in his first Foreign Service posts in Vietnam. His sense of strategy moved him to try normalizing relations with that country during the Carter years as the youngest-ever assistant secretary of state (for East Asia), an effort that failed. His hyperactive bullying brought the mini-despots of the former Yugoslavia into a peace that ended Bosnia’s ethnic cleansing. (This, his greatest achievement, was a fleeting one; Slobodan Milosevic soon launched another genocide in Kosovo.) And he assembled one of the most brilliant, iconoclastic teams in diplomatic history as President Barack Obama’s envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan — a catastrophic performance in which he elicited, through no fault of his staff, the enmity of Afghanistan’s president. Behind all of it was a desperate, gnawing ambition that drove him to behave monstrously toward both his colleagues and the people he ostensibly loved.

George Packer tells this parable in his strange new biography, “Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century.” In some ways, the author hero-worships the world-bestriding personality who, at times, bent huge forces to his will. Packer exhorts us not to judge Holbrooke for his manifold sins. “If, while following him, you ever feel a cluck rise to your palate, as I sometimes do,” he writes, “don’t forget that inside most people you read about in history books is a child who fiercely resisted toilet training. Suppose the mess they leave is inseparable from their reach and grasp? Then our judgment depends on what they’re ambitious for — the saving glimmer of wanting something worthy.” Hate the artist, love the art.

Yet, to his enormous credit, Packer then dwells on those sins, equipping us to condemn Holbrooke if we so desire. (And I do. I must.) Holbrooke “was an absent husband and an indifferent father.” He cheated frequently over his three marriages and propositioned his best friend’s wife. After his son Anthony was born, he kept a lunch appointment with George Kennan before going to visit his wife and meet the baby in the hospital. Holbrooke pushed away his mother, brother and children because his third wife didn’t like them.

It was even worse inside government, where he fought constantly for status and recognition, leaked (and lied about it) to hurt rivals, kowtowed to bosses, terrorized subordinates, and elbowed his way into meetings where he wasn’t needed or wanted. “He is the most viperous character I know around this town,” Henry Kissinger, the greatest operator of them all, once said of Holbrooke.

What does government service look like when it’s so self-serving? When Holbrooke became assistant secretary of state, he told the deputies he’d inherited that their offices needed repainting — and then replaced them while they were out. (“Maybe they deserved it,” Packer offers.) He crashed so many of Secretary of State Cyrus Vance’s meetings and motorcades that Vance’s secretary sent a memo: “You may not insert yourself as a passenger in the Secretary’s car unless this office has specifically approved your request to accompany him.” When national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski wanted him fired for chatting “warmly” with the Vietnamese ambassador in Laos before Washington restored relations with Hanoi, he lied and said the report of the meeting was just an act of Soviet disinformation. When a mentor, Averell Harriman, died, Holbrooke harangued his widow into letting him give a eulogy; then he shuffled the name cards at a meal after the service so he could “chat up the right dinner guest.” Packer thinks Holbrooke never interested himself in Middle East peace because “it was too easy to piss off American Jewish organizations and hurt himself on his climb.” Holbrooke begged Pakistan’s foreign minister to tell Secretary of State Hillary Clinton what a good job he was doing. “You will have heard that he was a monstrous egotist. It’s true. It’s even worse than you’ve heard,” Packer summarizes. “He lets us ogle ambition in the nude.”

Packer believes one needn’t be good to do good things, and he is openly romantic about it. “The phrase ‘great man’ now sounds anachronistic, but as an inspiration for human striving maybe we shouldn’t throw out the whole idea.” And, sure, let’s give Holbrooke his due: He apprehended the folly of Vietnam at an absurdly early date. (“He believed that he knew more than any American official in Vietnam,” Packer writes. Perhaps he did.) He “was the first American official to denounce the crimes of the Khmer Rouge,” though it didn’t change U.S. policy. These conflicts “sorted most foreign policy types into extreme hawks and doves,” but they turned Holbrooke into a liberal internationalist. So when Serbs and Croats and Bosnians began killing each other in the early ’90s, Holbrooke was among the first to agitate for intervention — a policy that eventually saved tens of thousands of lives. He was “brilliant and curious and widely read,” Packer kvells in one ovation, but he was also “unafraid to face the truth, cared enough to act on it, and was willing to take the consequences.”

This is a plausible position, maybe. Egotism and idealism “need each other to do any good. Idealism without egotism is feckless; egotism without idealism is destructive,” Packer argues, riffing on Conrad. “Sometimes the two instincts got out of whack.” But they combined beautifully when President Bill Clinton sent Holbrooke to end the Bosnian war, a task at which nobody else could have succeeded. He had to persuade the U.S. armed forces to bomb Serb troops at a time when Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell was advancing his eponymous doctrine: Use only overwhelming force, including ground troops, or else stand down. Holbrooke had to make Milosevic halt Serbia’s military advance and, even harder, take responsibility for the Bosnian Serbs slaughtering people in Serbia’s name — war criminals whom Milosevic claimed he didn’t control. And Holbrooke had to get the Croat and Bosnian leaders to accept the loss of some prewar territory after their people had been massacred. He did it by cajoling, drinking with, shouting at and threatening all of them. (He strategized so often with his deputy in the nearest men’s room that “the Croatians finally switched off all the lights in the bathroom except one above the urinals, which illuminated a sign that said, ‘Welcome, Mr. Ambassador.’ ”) The result was the Dayton Accords. Holbrooke’s name became a Serbian verb: holbrukciti, “to get your way through brute force.”

On the other hand, Packer’s brilliant reporting shows that Holbrooke also used a tragic car accident during those negotiations to dramatize his own importance. When several diplomats in his retinue died on a treacherous mountain road they’d taken to evade Serb snipers, Holbrooke cast himself as the hero of the aftermath, coordinating the rescue effort. The fable elevated his stature and helped create the political will for airstrikes, which allowed him to wrangle Milsoevic into talks. But in truth, he’d done nothing. Others handled the wreckage as troops squirreled Holbrooke to the nearest U.S. Embassy.

Packer — the gifted author of several other books, including “The Unwinding,” a National Book Award-winning tale of American decay — is a pleasant guide with a conversational tone. He endeavors to see his subject from the same distance as his readers, beginning with his refreshing first line: “Do you mind if we hurry through the early years?” Not at all!

Sometimes, though, Packer can’t help but draw too close. He is outraged that Bill Clinton appointed Madeleine Albright secretary of state instead of Holbrooke (the president didn’t think he’d be a loyal lieutenant, for good reason), and Packer quotes other people venting misogynistic complaints about her “emotionalism,” concluding: “It was unfair, grossly unfair, because Albright was no thinker, she was merely cunning.” Packer refers to Holbrooke’s wives by their given names, while every other adult is known by surname, and he sometimes describes women — and only women — in evocative, physical terms. These are usually Holbrooke’s sexual conquests, but still. We don’t need to leer at everything through Holbrooke’s eyes.

Writers are supposed to show, not tell. Packer tells us constantly how great Holbrooke was. This guy’s virtuosity is supposed to be self-evident — or clear from his journals, some of which we read here. His genius is an article of faith. But, redeemingly, Packer truly shows Holbrooke’s ugliness. It is everywhere, and it’s revolting. If that was an authorial choice, it was a brave and intellectually honest one.

Holbrooke spent his career accruing enemies, and his comeuppance arrived in spurts. (“I’m going to be the next Henry Kissinger,” he said in his early 30s to a lover who actually knew Kissinger “and found him to be a pompous asshole.” She dumped him.) But the real reckoning finally landed during the Obama years, when the new president’s “no drama” credo seemed to hold Holbrooke as its human antithesis. The striver began jockeying for a position during the transition — and instantly alienated Obama. During a meeting about possible jobs, he handed the president-elect an inscribed copy of his own book, corrected him (asking to be called Richard, not Dick) and averred, to a politician who dislikes emotional displays, that “you don’t have to be African American to cry” about the election of a black man. “If Holbrooke had tried to repel him in their first minute together he couldn’t have done a better job,” Packer writes.

Hillary Clinton helped him become the Af-Pak envoy, but in White House meetings, which Obama preferred to move through efficiently, Holbrooke rattled off irrelevant lectures about Vietnam. “Is that the way people used to talk in the Johnson administration?” Obama asked, incredulously. One young official, who actually liked the old windbag, “imagined Holbrooke as a diplomat from a foreign country — the past — who thought he was speaking eloquently when he was barely fluent in the local language.”

Eventually, Holbrooke torpedoed Washington’s relationship with Kabul. Despite his colleagues’ warnings to desist, he recruited candidates to run against the corrupt President Hamid Karzai, who found out, won reelection and never again accepted Holbrooke as an interlocutor. (Holbrooke told Karzai that the British were the ones who wanted to get rid of him.) The diplomat had the courageous and ultimately correct idea to begin talking to the Taliban — they would have to be part of any peace deal — but he was having heart trouble. He told friends he’d stay on the job “as long as I can make a difference,” even though it wasn’t clear he was making one. He died in office, trying to get the negotiations started.

This is the kind of biography (massive, detailed) by the kind of author (respected, experienced) reserved for great books on great men. Packer doesn’t show that Holbrooke’s life is an allegory for the “end of the American century” — the title oversells — but he does make a case for Holbrooke’s place in the pantheon, showing that there was real idealism and skill buried beneath the layers of self-regard. Holbrooke helped author a new doctrine, because “he was that rare American in the treetops who actually gave a s--- about the dark places of the earth,” Packer says. In Bosnia, he “devoted three years of his life to a small war in an obscure place with no consequences in the long run beyond itself.” No wonder mourners descended on Holbrooke’s funeral service and eulogists blanketed the op-ed pages. This is how we bid farewell to Important People.

But his toxic, bridge-burning path kept him from the highest summit. “His defects of character cost him his dream job as secretary of state, the position for which his strengths of character eminently qualified him.” (Debatable.) Supposedly, this is the Holbrooke tragedy. “If you cut out the destructive element, you would kill the thing that made him almost great,” Packer argues. I disagree. The real tragedy of greatness is the myth that it turns decency and efficacy into enemies.


Our Man

Richard Holbrooke and the end of the American Century

By George Packer. Knopf. 608 pp. $30