The Smartest Man In the Room

I’ve been a Holbrooke skeptic for years, unimpressed with his public responses to Bosnia-Herzegovina’s persistent failure to thrive. He faced years of criticism for the General Framework Agreement for Peace, an imperfect document that may have been the least bad of several possible outcomes of Yugoslavia’s disintegration. The GFAP, more colloquially known by the name  of one of the two places – Dayton (the other was a little town in France called Paris – you may have heard of it) – where it came into being, according to Holbrooke, was a sound plan. The failure, he repeated on several occasions, was in the implementation, a process during which he was conspicuously absent and for which he showed no sense of personal responsibility.

George Packer’s profile of Holbrooke in last week’s New Yorker is a fascinating exercise in contextualization, painting the career diplomat as a creature of privilege, ambition, and drive shaped not just by his role in the Balkans during the 1990s and now Afghanistan, but principally in Vietnam in the 1960s, where he cut his then junior teeth on the problems of state and war. I’m no less skeptical of the man now than before I read the profile – an inherent distrust of queue-jumpers and privilege, maybe – but it does put things into perspective, and I can certainly admire his intellect and dedication to service. 

There was a line in Packer’s article  – a Holbrooke quote – along the lines of the smartest man in the room not always being the rightest about things. That struck me as a pretty profound observation in its own right. Harper’s has now dredged up from its archives a Holbrooke essay on the subject originally published in 1975. In it, he took a hard swipe at the tyranny of quantification that held sway in McNamara’s Washington. It’s still relevant today. No matter how often or loudly politicians and generals deny that they’re focused on numbers as measures of success, it’s still what they demand in practice. The thirst for native-knowing advisors is strong these days, too, so one would hope that that’s an indication of progress in how we do things… but – to take one example – given how cultural knowledge has been reduced to a “human terrain” of digital cartography and data points, my reflex is to think there’s a pathology at work that insists on cybernetizing common sense and knowledge, a condition that runs counter to intuitive, gut level insight. 

Hobrooke, c. 1975:

…the smartest man in the room is not always right. The truism may have seemed all too obvious to some people, while others may have seen in it a logical contradiction: the rightest man in the room, they might say, is by definition smart. Regardless of semantics, I think that there is a real point to all this: Vietnam was not a special case, and in Washington smart men tend to put down people whom they regard as less smart with little regard for the substance of those people’s views. The way the government works, speed gets rewarded more than deliberation, brilliance more than depth.

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