The Magazine

Clintonites Abroad

Neither the best nor the brightest.

Oct 15, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 05 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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War in a Time of Peace
Bush, Clinton, and the Generals
by David Halberstam
Scribner, 544 pp., $28

THE STORY OF AMERICA'S FOREIGN POLICY during the years of Bill Clinton will be of considerable interest to historians. The United States, having won a stunning and surprising victory in the Cold War, emerges as the most powerful, prosperous, and politically attractive nation on the planet. It elects an extraordinarily gifted politician as its leader, a man of rural roots and elite education, the first president to represent the American generation that regards itself as uniquely enlightened and morally aware. For that president's every talent and accomplishment, there is an equally large weakness. He dominates his courtiers as thoroughly as any French king, Ottoman sultan, or Roman caesar ever did. His wife wields magnificent power as ruthlessly as Livia or Lady Macbeth.

This is a tale that would need a Thucydides or Suetonius to narrate its events, and a Tolstoy or Dickens to describe its personalities. And despite the change of administrations, the line from Bush I to Clinton to Bush II has a dramatic sweep, a symmetrical geometry, and it is a story we are still living. Indeed, the terrorist attacks of September 11 show more starkly the continuities of American history after the Cold War.

So perhaps David Halberstam is to be respected simply for attempting in "War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals" to piece together the pattern of American foreign policy during the 1990s. Self-consciously following the formula of "The Best and the Brightest," his hugely successful book that has established itself as the standard account of policy-making during the Vietnam years, Halberstam is again intending to write the first draft of history during the Clinton years, with Bush I as prelude and Bush II as a brief postscript.

Yet "War in a Time of Peace" proves, in the event, not so much a first draft as an incomplete draft. Halberstam contents himself with an analysis that never rises above conventional wisdom--and that conventional wisdom never gets very far from midtown Manhattan. This is the establishment liberal's view of the world as seen from New York City.

Worse, Halberstam contents himself with a framework that seeks to explain every aspect of Clinton's foreign policy in terms of domestic politics. While it may be true that, as Halberstam writes, "foreign policy was getting only the most marginal attention," especially in the first months of Clinton's presidency, the rest of the world had an annoying habit of intruding on the administration's priorities.

The first of the troubles began in Somalia, a mission inherited from the previous administration. Halberstam's treatment of the issue reflects the book's problems in a nutshell. After a good summary of Somalia's internal struggles prior to the intervention of U.S. troops in 1992, Halberstam then opts for the still-popular idea that the Clinton administration allowed "mission creep" to expand the American role there from a strictly humanitarian one to a doomed attempt at "nation-building."

Whatever the failures of Somali government and society, we were foolish ever to imagine that we might dispense aid and preserve neutrality in a war where food was being used as a weapon. And blaming the resulting mess on Boutros Boutros-Ghali's deep hatred of Somali clan leader Mohammed Farah Aideed--the Clinton administration's excuse, accepted wholeheartedly by Halberstam--is deeply misleading.

A BLIND SPOT EXISTS FOR THOSE WHO LOOK at the world this way, and they are most of America's foreign-policy community over the past decade. Because we have survived the Cold War, most of today's troubles seem to amount to nothing more than "teacup wars," a phrase used often by Leslie Gelb and quoted approvingly by Halberstam.

It is as though, in the absence of a competition between great nations, foreign-policy observers have trouble discerning the struggles for power that continue to shape international politics. Instead, these shadowy new conflicts arise with "rogue states" and "warlords" and "ethnic cleansers" and now international terrorists.

Even if, as Halberstam would have it, the Vietnam experience was the principal factor shaping Bill Clinton's understanding of America's role in the world, that doesn't mean Halberstam himself has to share it. The narrative as well as the analysis of "War in a Time of Peace" is spotty. Halberstam concentrates on Somalia and the Balkans, with almost nothing to say about Iraq, and little to say about China. Clinton, after all, inherited an unfinished war against Saddam Hussein; the story of the zigs, zags, and retreats--all the while pretending that Iraq was safely contained in its "box"--is one of the central and continuing themes of American foreign policy over the past decade. And the rise of China almost certainly marks the greatest geopolitical struggle for the coming century. Halberstam takes passing note of Bill Clinton's "butchers of Beijing" rhetoric in the 1992 campaign and the subsequent appeasement of the Chinese, but not much more.

FINALLY, THE SUBTITLE'S PROMISE TO DISCUSS "the generals" is only partially fulfilled. Halberstam does outline the heightened role played by uniformed leaders in U.S. foreign policy and decision-making, but he offers no broad analysis of the state of civil-military relations or what accounted for the growing tensions between soldiers and statesmen throughout the 1990s. And what there is tends to overemphasize insubordination while underplaying the institutional pressures faced by the military and exacerbated by the budgetary politics and policy choices of the post-Cold War era.

For all these faults, Halberstam still can be a very good reporter, and there are nuggets that do shine through. He manages, for example, to paint a nuanced portrait of General Wesley Clark in Kosovo. Clark is a complex figure, hated and admired in equal measure, and Halberstam manages to show the general's strengths and shortcomings well, all without disrupting the larger story. Similarly, he shines a light on the tortured character of former national security adviser Anthony Lake--a man with a long-running rivalry and friendship with the energetic Richard Holbrooke.

But in the end, "War in a Time of Peace" does not reach the level of "The Best and the Brightest." As the final chapters rush through the last Clinton years and the election of George W. Bush, Halberstam seems to have thrown in the towel. And, to be fair, the story's not over--American foreign policy remains a muddle.

If America's role in the world has proved a puzzle to three presidents, perhaps David Halberstam should be forgiven his own confusion.

Tom Donnelly is deputy executive director of the Project for the New American Century.

October 15, 2001 - Volume 7, Number 5