The Magazine

Clintonites Abroad

Neither the best nor the brightest.

Oct 15, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 05 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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