What “The New Yorker” Doesn’t Say About Richard Holbrooke

George Packer’s recent profile of Richard Holbrooke in The New Yorker is, as I’ve come to expect of Packer, very well written with thorough analysis of the conventional wisdom in foreign policy. But, as I’ve also come to expect of journalists in Packer’s position, it ignores anything outside conventional wisdom—e.g., broader questions of strategy, morality, or international law—and ignores all the questionable (to put it lightly)—and perhaps the most telling—aspects of Holbrooke’s career. So I went to my bookshelf and paged through Robert Scheer’s indispensable The Pornography of Power. Scheer has been covering American foreign policy for over 40 years. Legendary writer Joan Didion calls him “one of the best reporters of our time.” He kindly allowed me to reproduce this passage about Richard Holbrooke:  

Let me confess to having had one very unpleasant encounter with Holbrooke relating to the aftermath of the Vietnam War that is worth recounting because it reveals much of the double standard on human rights that informs the foreign policy claims of the neoliberals. The occasion, in 1979, was a small dinner party of about eight people at the Los Angeles home of television producer Norman Lear, at which Holbrooke and sixties folksinger Joan Baez were the guests of honor. They had just returned from a trip to Thailand in the company of First Lady Rosalynn Carter and were bubbling with enthusiasm for a coalition of Cambodian exiles formed in 1979 to overthrow the Vietnamese-backed government in Phnom Penh that had routed the genocidal Pol Pot regime. Holbrooke was assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the Carter administration, which was supporting the Cambodian exile coalition. The only problem, as I insisted on pointing out at the dinner, was that the coalition included the bloody butcher Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge army.

This was after Pol Pot had committed genocide, killing at least a million Cambodians, for such crimes as wearing glasses, as well as many Vietnamese living along the border of the two countries. Finally the Vietnamese had intervened, and in the wake of their successful invasion, they had installed a Cambodian ally, Hun Sen, in power. The human rights implications were clear, and from that point of view, the Vietnamese had done the right thing, but the wounds of the U.S. defeat in the war with that country were still raw, and the Carter administration seized upon this as a way to show resolution. It also allowed the United States to cozy up to the Chinese communists, who were at odds with the Soviets and backers of Pol Pot. To its everlasting shame, the U.S. under President Carter and then Reagan, supported the exiled Pol Pot group in keeping its seat at the United Nations. The perpetrators of one of the world’s gravest genocides were thus legitimatized as representatives of the Cambodian people.

The fact that Holbrooke embraced such a strategy tells a great deal about the neoliberal mind-set: Human rights violations only occur on someone else’s watch. Neoliberals insist most of all that foreign policy be prohuman rights, but rarely does that translate into concern about human rights violations committed by their own government, and certainly not those of an administration that employs them. Holbrooke, for example, has never referred to the carpet bombing and other attacks on Indochina as genocidal. Yet that war, in which former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara concedes 3.4 million Indochinese died, could not then or now be justified as having any logical connection with U.S. national security issues. (In a rather bizarre plan to further the cause of human rights in the Balkans, in 1995 Holbrooke reportedly favored NATO dropping “bombs for peace” on Bosnia as a way to pressure Bosnian Serb leader Slobodan Milošević to negotiate.)

I have nothing to add, except to say that Packer betrayed his own biases by not including this stunningly relevant piece of history. I hope that taste tempted you to read more of Scheer’s work, and I ask you to keep these all-too-often forgotten, ignored, or censored parts of our past in your mind as you consider current debates. It is our duty to the brave men and women who went before us and the ones who will go after us.