Foreign Policy

A Man of Sharp Angles and Firm Truths

David Halberstam's foreign policy

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To steal a laconic phrase from Fouad Ajami, say whatever you will about the American experience in Vietnam, the war was well written. Few wrote it better than David Halberstam in his 1972 masterpiece The Best and the Brightest. News that Halberstam had been killed in San Francisco on Monday came as the United States, thanks to its faltering involvement in Iraq, looks uneasily over its shoulder at the gaining shadow of Vietnam.

From the moment that Halberstam's death in a car accident was reported, the obituaries virtually wrote themselves. It didn't take much creativity to hook Halberstam's views of the Vietnam years to what the U.S. is going through in Iraq today. After all, George W. Bush, like Lyndon Johnson, was a man who entered office with an ambitious domestic agenda as his priority, only to be consumed by a Moloch-like foreign war. And as was the case in Vietnam, finding the right blend of military power and political initiative in Iraq seems to be forever eluding American officials. Many saw Vietnam—and now see Iraq—as something of a Greek tragedy where America's pride ultimately brought about its downfall. Halberstam was a high priest in that temple of interpretative determinism.

That wasn't always the case. Halberstam began as a believer on Vietnam, much like a handful of liberal hawks were before the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. However, it did not take very long for him to realize that the Vietnam project was not working, and in 1965 he wrote The Making of a Quagmire, in which he expressed his doubts. In those days it took a bit more time for American correspondents to declare everything lost, so Halberstam's pessimism was laudably prescient. It also became a model that other journalists later sought to emulate in being the first to sound the alarm of U.S. defeat. Then came The Best and the Brightest, which brilliantly displayed that peculiar habit America has of masochistically exploring its national misfortunes in forensic detail.

In that sense, Halberstam's work on Vietnam was just an earlier rendition of American writing on Iraq today: a foreign adventure that allows Americans to write mostly about other Americans. Along with The Best and the Brightest, Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie, Michel Herr's Dispatches, and Frank Snepp's Decent Interval are all outstanding books about America in Vietnam—and there are others—but you won't find very much about the Vietnamese in them (though to be fair to Snepp, the purpose of his account was to condemn the way the U.S. had abandoned its South Vietnamese allies). When it comes to foreign policy, Americans are prone to falling back into parochial conversations. This may be understandable, but it also shows how the global political ambition of the U.S. is built on soft foundations. If you mainly write about yourself, or more importantly if you can't interest your countrymen in the outside world, then don't be surprised when foreign endeavors that turn sour are suddenly declared the consequence of cruel, inescapable providence.

This fatalism permeated Halberstam when he described Vietnam, and it permeates most American publicists today writing about Iraq who hope to be taken seriously. Yet this neat conceptual composition of hubris followed by nemesis reflected another aspect of Halberstam that was especially noticeable in one of his later books, War in a Time of Peace: his desire for unambiguous order in U.S. foreign policy at a moment of growing disorder.

A common attribute of post-World War II foreign policy thinking in America, at least until the arrival of the neoconservatives, was how conventional and demure it was. It was the thinking you could find at places like the Council on Foreign Relations, on Wall Street, in mainstream Washington think tanks, and in Congress. Its foundation was that ideology should never displace a detached assessment of national duty, that partisanship was best abandoned at the water's edge, and that America had to be moral citadel, but not to the extent of jeopardizing international equilibrium and harming its interests and those of its reliable allies.

There was something very patrician in the approach, solemn, a feeling that either foreign matters were managed in that established way, the temperate way of the postwar leaders, or it would be bad form. Such reasoning injected rigidity into U.S. overseas relations, which is why the neocons never grasped that in trying to overhaul that system, they were breaking decades of practice for which they had no ready replacement.

Halberstam's journalistic inquisitiveness and skepticism notwithstanding, in his thinking he often came across as a product of that generation of conceited certitude. He was astute enough to make the dissolution of those Cold War certitudes during the 1990s, and the need for the U.S. to address this new situation, the theme of War in a Time of Peace. Halberstam's gift, but also his flaw, was to flesh out such complex transformations through his portrayals of personalities. This was a very Yankee way of looking at things, where everything boiled down to human will, as Halberstam turned those he described into agents of broader historical forces. In reading him you often feel you're watching a Hollywood movie, everything leading to a fated, even formulaic, climax.

It all somehow seemed to fit into a tidy vision Halberstam had of foreign affairs: there was a certain way of approaching policy, and it was based on consensus and ritual; if that ritual was broken, if modesty was abandoned in favor of the arrogant exercise of power, then destiny would intervene to discipline its practitioners. Muddling through were the human beings—politicians, presidents, decision-makers, soldiers, activists—players all in a larger drama, their personas brought out in vivid colors. Given Halberstam's tendency to seek out order, both moral and political, perhaps it's clearer now why when it came to Vietnam, he saw early on that the American enterprise had no place in his mental theater of the normal.

Once Vietnam ended, America returned to a world it knew, one that it didn't have to get used to. Things have changed today. After Iraq, what kind of world will the U.S. return to? Maybe Halberstam died at the right moment, because the absence of any obvious answer to that question might only have confounded a master of sharp angles and firm truths.

Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon.

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