One of “the best and the brightest” died last week, and in Richard Holbrooke we had a perfect example of the dark mischief to which David Halberstam referred when he authored that ironic label. Holbrooke’s life marks the propensity of our elite institutions to turn out alpha leaders with simplistic world-ordering ambitions unrestrained by moral conscience or intellectual humility.
Fresh from Brown University, Holbrooke marched off as a foreign service officer to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese, who were not buying it. He quickly became involved with the pacification program that herded peasants off their land into barbed-wire encampments while we bombed the surrounding areas.
Holbrooke was later so successful in the infamous CIA Phoenix program to kill Vietnamese civilians thought to be sympathetic to the Viet Cong that at the age of 24 he was brought back to Washington to work under the head of that program, R.W. Komer, on a top-level White House command to save Vietnam from the Vietnamese.
While in Washington, Holbrooke came to write a chapter of the secret Pentagon Papers study that exposed the falsehoods justifying the war. Shades of the WikiLeaks disclosures—when Daniel Ellsberg, who also worked on that report, revealed it to the world, the lies stood exposed. As Defense Secretary Robert McNamara acknowledged decades after commissioning the study, 3.5 million Indochinese died in a war that had little if anything to do with our national security. He concluded that he could indeed be judged a “war criminal,” except that appellation is reserved for leaders of lesser states, like the Serbian and Iraqi leaders whose war crimes Holbrooke would later trumpet as excuses for other U.S. wars.
Holbrooke not only failed to learn from the U.S. mistakes in Vietnam; he repeated them in working for every Democratic president to follow. When Jimmy Carter was elected, there was Holbrooke as an assistant secretary of state supporting the Islamic mujahedeen in Afghanistan, a group fighting the Soviet-backed secular government in Kabul.
Indefatigable in his hubris, Holbrooke also got Carter to support a Cambodian exile coalition based in Thailand to attempt to overthrow the Vietnamese-backed government in Cambodia that had ousted the mass murderer Pol Pot. The fact that the coalition included this man who had killed millions of his own people did not perturb Holbrooke. I have written elsewhere of Holbrooke’s arrogance in defending the U.S. backing of the coalition at a dinner at the home of legendary television producer Norman Lear; on that evening Holbrooke went off about the critical importance that a regime change in tiny Cambodia would hold for the future of civilization.
In recent years Holbrooke was influential in getting the Obama administration to commit to the folly of the U.S. surge in Afghanistan. Once again he was all about winning the hearts and minds of people who, as it appears from the WikiLeaks diplomatic memos, thought he was bonkers—as did quite a few in the U.S. military.
Throughout Holbrooke’s career, and this is the persistent theme in his fawning obituaries, there was the apologia that whatever he did, his motives could not be questioned, for after all his was a life largely of public service. But here too the elite notion of public service is on sordid display if one follows Holbrooke through the revolving platinum door from public power to business greed. After messing up Cambodia and Afghanistan during the Carter years, Holbrooke teamed up with another Democratic Party operative, James Johnson, to form the business consulting firm Public Strategies while at the same time serving as an adviser at Lehman Brothers. The two proved quite successful in the business world, selling their company to Lehman Brothers, where Holbrooke became a managing director. Johnson went on to head Fannie Mae, presiding over its reckless expansion into the subprime and Alt-A housing market.
From 2001 to 2008 Holbrooke teamed up again with Johnson to head Perseus LLC, a private equity firm. During that same period, Holbrooke became a director of AIG, the insurance company whose credit default swaps almost brought down the economy and which required a $170 billion bailout from the taxpayers.
In the New York Times obituary on the “brilliant” Mr. Holbrooke, only a single short paragraph out of 32 refers to his career in the now-troubled financial markets: “Mr. Holbrooke also made millions as an investment banker on Wall Street. … At various times he was a managing director of Lehman Brothers, vice chairman of Credit Suisse First Boston and a director of the American International Group.”
The Times did not mention that Holbrooke left AIG, where he had been paid $268,000 a year plus stock options, two months before the insurer imploded. Further evidence that “the best and the brightest” had the same success with our banking system as they did in foreign policy.