This story originally appeared at Truthdig. Robert Scheer is the author of The Great American Stickup: How Reagan Republicans and Clinton Democrats Enriched Wall Street While Mugging Main Street (Nation Books).
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 US wars.
Holbrooke not only failed to learn from the US 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 US 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 US 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 US military.