A World in Peaces

Thirty years after Vietnam, David Halberstam misses the best and the brightest.


War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton and the Generals, by David Halberstam, New York: Scribner, 543 pages, $28

"For a brief, glorious, almost Olympian moment it appeared that the presidency itself could serve as the campaign. Rarely had an American president seemed so sure of reelection." And rarely could such an Olympian phrase, describing, of all people, the nondescript George Herbert Walker Bush, be penned by anyone other than David Halberstam.

Halberstam, author of several lofty and influential tomes on modern American history, has returned, armed with a laudatory blurb from Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations. Gelb calls War in a Time of Peace "Halberstam's most important book, more ambitious and revealing than The Best and the Brightest, in what it tells of politics and decision making in America during the nineties….What Halberstam has written is nothing less than a War and Peace for our generation."

Such are the strophes exchanged between America's intellectual divinities. Gelb's absurd allusion to War and Peace must have come from languidly contracting Halberstam's own title. Written before the events of September 11, War in a Time of Peace is commendable, but it has none of the virtuosity of Halberstam's Vietnam epic and its only Tolstoyan quality lies in sporadic references to Boris Yeltsin.

What Halberstam has done here is to examine U.S. decision making in the Balkans, with brief forays into Somalia and Haiti, during the Bush Sr. and Clinton administrations. He uses these episodes to illustrate America's inability, after the Cold War, to find an overarching foreign policy rationale to replace Soviet containment.

But Halberstam draws general lessons from too few cases. To truly understand America's foreign policy during the past 12 years, one must look at more than wars. America's most decisive international transactions after the Cold War were conducted peacefully. NATO enlargement, Bill Clinton's efforts to bring about Middle East peace, and U.S. policy toward China are all ignored by Halberstam. We are promised a profound investigation of America's post-Cold War behavior, written by an aficionado of the broad brushstroke. What we get are sketches that, however insightful, are limited in their overall relevance.

Halberstam is at his best chronicling ruinous predestination. Vietnam was America's Greek tragedy. It was a war the republic entered, and stayed in, because of hubris. At every step of the way the U.S. was provided with a prophecy and an opportunity to retreat, but it rejected the advice of the gods despite almost certain defeat. That was the message in The Best and the Brightest (1972), and in Halberstam's earlier, prescient The Making of a Quagmire (1965). But the story he tells in War in a Time of Peace provides little opportunity for him to exhibit his gift for chronicling grand tragedy. George Bush and Clinton made third-rate Agamemnons. Unlike John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, they were always likely to emerge from their overseas dilemmas unharmed—such is the prerogative of a superpower without real adversaries. There was no epic quality in their foreign policy imbroglios.

In fact, both Bush's and Clinton's foreign policy aides spent much time looking for ways to avoid acting momentously. The Bush team longed for stasis even after the Berlin Wall fell. With the significant exception of the Gulf War, which was thrust upon the administration precisely because Secretary of State James Baker assumed that Saddam Hussein would avoid disrupting the equilibrium in the Gulf, Bush and his acolytes were devoted to constancy. The same could be said of Clinton, though his initial indifference to foreign affairs stemmed from yearning to reshape the domestic political and social landscape.

Yet the Balkans grabbed the U.S. by the lapels. During the waning months of the Bush administration, and again during the latter halves of Clinton's two terms, the U.S. would feel pressure to intervene in the Balkans. The results were mixed. Bush's point man on Yugoslavia—Lawrence Eagleburger, who was briefly secretary of state—succeeded in keeping the U.S. out of the country where he had once served as ambassador. Clinton had less luck: Both in Bosnia, after the appalling massacres of Muslims in Srebrenica in July 1995, and again in Kosovo in 1999, the U.S. entered the fray, because the spectacle of killing fields in Europe did not permit further isolation.

Two people emerged as the most ardent supporters of U.S. involvement in the Balkans: Richard Holbrooke, who as assistant secretary of state for European affairs played a key role in negotiating an end to the war in Bosnia, and Gen. Wesley Clark, who as NATO commander moved the Clinton administration toward employing military force in Kosovo. It is no coincidence that Halberstam focuses on those men: In challenging their environments they satisfy Halberstam's interest in those who buck the system, who are institutional subversives. Valiant dissidence is a common trait shared by those who enter Halberstam's more memorable biographical pantheon, such as the civil rights activist John Lewis or John Paton Davies, a China specialist purged from the McCarthy-era State Department.

Holbrooke, who had almost single-handedly imposed the Dayton accords on the parties involved in the Bosnian conflict, was too much the brilliant individualist to reach the top. A natural for secretary of state, he was nevertheless mistrusted by Clinton when it came time to select a successor to the comatose Warren Christopher. The president did not want someone too assertive on foreign policy, and deep down probably feared a rival Washington prima donna. Instead, he chose Madeleine Albright, a onetime academic destined for humble achievement.

Halberstam's account of Clark's career is similar. Like Holbrooke he was too smart by half, earning him the distrust of the military hierarchy. Clark was an Arkansas Rhodes scholar and a military success story, yet he never became "one of the boys" at the Pentagon. The tension reached a breaking point when Clark made his case for action in Kosovo to civilians outside the Defense Department.

This angered Defense Secretary William Cohen and the Joint Chiefs, who opposed Balkan intervention. Clark won the day when the administration opted to fight, and he ultimately led a victorious campaign. His reward was to be stealthily fired by his superiors, most of whom did not even attend his retirement ceremony.

Halberstam's portraits of Holbrooke and Clark accentuate what Neil Sheehan has written: "[Halberstam] was a man who saw the world in light and dark colors with little shading in between." This makes him write so many of his biographical portraits in a heroic timbre. The characters Halberstam depicts cannot be commonplace; they are performers in the Sturm und Drang of history, rendered grand by the grand events that afflict them, so that their struggles become struggles with destiny itself.

This dramatic approach makes Halberstam an enjoyable writer. But this absence of shading, this incessant hunt for heroes and villains, can be a double-edged sword. In Halberstam's Vietnam books, it manifested itself in a sense of outrage at the way the war was eating up America's youth and its talented elite. The indignation was, naturally, directed against the administrations engaged in Vietnam, and more fundamentally at a government that often seemed to be criminally out of control.

Yet in War in a Time of Peace, Halberstam's skepticism toward government power is missing. While he has a weakness for subversives, he here exhibits a more dominant characteristic: a craving for order in U.S. foreign policy. But he can't easily make a case for order if he admits that those who should have imposed it—Clinton and his team—consistently abused their foreign responsibilities. How else can one describe Clinton's financial misconduct with China, his bombing of a medicine factory in Sudan, and his disastrous push for a premature Palestinian-Israeli settlement in order to pad his frayed legacy? What we have is a paradoxical book: one where the U.S. is revealed to have had little foreign policy direction in the 1990s, but where the unprincipled officials responsible for this condition get off surprisingly easily, since Halberstam cannot censure the agents of his desired order.

Halberstam is also taken in by the institution he once so effectively demolished: the U.S. military. In several passages, he exalts the American weaponry used in the Balkans, particularly the latest Air Force technology. Like a Pentagon procurement brochure, Halberstam goes into lengthy descriptions of JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or "smart bombs"), the F-117, and the B-2 (which both "resembled bats, but the B-2, with a wingspan of 172 feet, resembled a bat on a diet of steroids"), replete with such military-porn terms as "collateral damage," "radius of accuracy," and "striking power." He seems to believe that high-tech air power is enough to win wars, a question that still generates angry debate in the armed forces.

Halberstam describes an institution whose bureaucratic instincts commonly clashed with the optimal policies, but he never digs deep enough to determine if there was something fundamentally flawed in the armed forces during the period under consideration. And yet a military institution that so grudgingly engaged in combat in the 1990s was no less anomalous than the one that sought out war at any cost in Vietnam.

Halberstam would not necessarily have written a better book by mocking the armed forces. But he seems to be a creature of the Zeitgeist. When he previously wrote critically of the U.S. foreign policy powers-that-be, his suspicions of state power were more pervasively shared than similar suspicions would be today. The rebels of yesterday—which for Halberstam means those, like he, who disputed U.S. policy in Vietnam—became the establishment during the Clinton years.

These were the same people who, directly or indirectly, were once Halberstam's allies. So when he describes in his acknowledgments his love for writing "about serious subjects for serious citizens," one gets a disquieting sense that this conceited statement is partly directed at the acquaintances who are also the subjects of his book.

It might seem that War in a Time of Peace was rendered anachronistic by September 11, when the U.S. embarked on a secular crusade against myriad axes of evil, ending a decade and more of foreign policy floundering. Not entirely. Halberstam outlines a period when America's strategy overseas suffered from an absence of meaning. But what Bush and his entourage, and Halberstam for that matter, cannot quite grasp is that foreign policy meaninglessness is a splendid luxury, not something to be lamented.

For the U.S. establishment, the Cold War gave foreign policy pervasive significance. Where Halberstam describes the vacuum that followed the collapse of containment, George W. Bush has used the events of September 11 to fill this vacuum. But are Americans eager to follow? Most were happy to enjoy 10 years of peace, when foreign policy commitments only marginally disturbed their daily lives. What made September 11 traumatic was that it broke this tranquil, parochial lethargy—a lethargy most Americans today doubtless crave, regardless of how the administration (and "national greatness" thinkers of all stripes) exploit September 11 to advance an agenda of intercontinental browbeating.

Though George W. Bush has been depicted as a man of popular tastes, his mood since the attacks has differed from that of many of his countrymen. The president has developed an appetite for world supremacy. Apparently, you can take the president out of the empire, but you can't take the empire out of the president. Bush and his administration seem firm in the belief that America has a mission to set the world straight. It is unfortunate that Halberstam, who wrote so luminously about the hazards of American overconfidence in Vietnam, should regret the loss of this particularly dangerous sense of mission.