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A Man of Many Parts
The Unquiet American: Richard
Holbrooke in the World
Derek Chollet and Samantha Power,
Public Affairs Books, 2011, $30,
hardcover, 353 pages.
R
EVIEWED BY
D
AVID
C
ASAVIS
Everyone has a Richard Holbrooke
story, for he seems to have crossed
nearly everyone’s path: Foreign Service
officers, reporters, foreign diplomats,
politicians and many others. That is
certainly true of this compilation of
reminiscences and vignettes, which
brilliantly illuminates the life of this
feisty, brash and highly successful
diplomat.
Adding to the already considerable
value of these essays by people who
knew and worked with “the Bulldozer”
(just one of many nicknames he col-
lected over the years), editors Derek
Chollet and Samantha Power have in-
terspersed various articles written by
Dick Holbrooke himself over the years,
reprinted from major publications.
The Unquiet American
reminds us
that the young Holbrooke had several
huge strokes of luck, such as when
Averell Harriman took him to Paris for
the Vietnam Peace Talks and when
Jimmy Carter and Cyrus Vance named
him assistant secretary of State for East
Asian and Pacific affairs, at the tender
age of 36. Yet his trademark combina-
tion of brilliance and bluster did not
dictate a career of inevitable triumphs.
As several of these essayists note,
Holbrooke lived “life on the edge.” He
barged into meetings and offices on
Capitol Hill, and constantly worked the
telephone, keeping each call under 10
minutes so he could fit more of them
into his already jam-packed days and
nights.
In the same spirit, he took diplo-
matic risks no one else would take. As
U.S. ambassador to the United Na-
tions, he got Senator Jesse Helms, R-
N.C., an implacable foe of diplomacy,
an invitation to address the body. That
initiative was mainly responsible for
settling the contentious issue of Amer-
ican dues. And as assistant secretary of
State for Europe, he took on the issue
of Bosnia and peace in the former Yu-
goslavia, famously packing up his bags
inDayton to shock the participants into
serious negotiations. Such victories
were the product of audacity, determi-
nation and gambler’s luck.
For all these reasons, any history of
late 20th-century diplomacy will treat
Holbrooke kindly. Yet as the book’s ex-
cerpts from his voluminous writings
make clear, Holbrooke also deserves to
be remembered as a keen journalist.
Assessing a centenarian George
Kennan, Holbrooke calls him an elo-
quent skeptic. Writing in
Foreign Pol-
icy
magazine, he criticizes FSOs as
experts not in any specific area or func-
tional area, but in “surviving bureau-
cracy.” And even during his first
posting, in Vietnam, he immediately
gravitated to the press corps.
Allow me to end this review with
my own Holbrooke story. After he’d
concluded a speech to Foreign Serv-
ice candidates at the New School in
New York City, the dean asked him
what jobs he had been offered upon
graduation. It was the only time I ever
witnessed Holbrooke brought up
short. He said, “None.” Unlike all his
friends, he had not secured a position
until he passed the Foreign Service
Oral Exam.
He confessed to being particularly
displeased that he had failed to land the
job he most desired at the time: re-
porting for the
New York Times
. For
all his successes, that rejection both-
ered him for the rest of his life.
David Casavis teaches at the State Uni-
versity of New York at Old Westbury.
He is writing a book about the 1971
murder of Foreign Service officer Don-
ald Leahy in Equatorial Guinea.
56
F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / J U N E 2 0 1 2
B
OOKS
This tribute reminds
us that any history
of late 20th-century
diplomacy will treat
Holbrooke kindly.