At first glance, it is not immediately apparent that the life of Richard Holbrooke, the longtime Democratic foreign-policy hand, merits a major work of biography. His highest governmental rank was that of assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, which he attained at the (then) record age of 35 and held for the duration of the Carter administration. For the ensuing dozen years of Republican rule, Holbrooke worked on Wall Street and ghostwrote the memoirs of Clark Clifford, one of the postwar foreign policy “wise men” who led the sort of legendary career to which Holbrooke aspired. As ambassador to the United Nations for 17 months in the late 1990s, Holbrooke did serviceable work but hardly distinguished himself as did his predecessors Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jeane Kirkpatrick. In the final years of his life, he assumed the unenviable task of being President Barack Obama’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, in which capacity he was constantly stymied and whose stresses killed him at the age of 69.

George Packer, long of the New Yorker and now the Atlantic, argues for the epochal significance of Holbrooke’s life in the subtitle of Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century. Beginning his diplomatic career as a precocious and extremely ambitious young foreign-service officer posted to Vietnam, Holbrooke, unlike many men of his generation and political leaning, did not lose faith in American power. “Vietnam sorted most foreign policy types into extreme hawks and doves,” writes Packer. “Few came out of the war, as Holbrooke did, speaking the liberal internationalism of his heroes from the Truman years.” That sense of purpose propelled Holbrooke throughout his career, culminating in his crucial role negotiating a peaceful end to the Bosnian war of the 1990s, which was also, Packer argues, the high-water mark of American power.  


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