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Our Kind of Diplomat

In his biography of the late American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, George Packer tells a broader story of what he sees as "the end of the American century." But while there is some truth to that historical framing, the fact is that while America has sometimes overextended itself, it has always continued to stumble forward.

STOCKHOLM – Our Man, the American journalist George Packer’s new 600-page biography of Richard Holbrooke, is a masterful book, not just for what it says about the late US diplomat himself, but also for how it portrays the evolution of US diplomacy more broadly.

Of Holbrooke, Packer tells us that he “devoted three years of his life to a small war in an obscure place with no consequences in the long run beyond itself.” Here, I must confess some bias. While working to bring an end to that dreadful war in Bosnia (Packer’s “obscure place”) in the 1990s, I came to know Holbrooke fairly well. And, after that, we bumped into each other periodically, particularly in the context of the war in Afghanistan, which has lingered on nearly a decade after Holbrooke’s passing.

Holbrooke’s life in public service began in the rice fields of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta in the early 1960s, when the United States got itself into a war it obviously didn’t understand. As a young, extremely ambitious foreign-service officer working in rural development, Holbrooke could see that the realities on the ground were far messier than decision-makers in Washington, DC, were willing to acknowledge.

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