War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals
By David Halberstam. Scribners, 543 pages, $28.00
Inside David Halberstam's mammoth opus is a good little book struggling to escape its author's fatal ambition. The justly celebrated reporter apparently believes it possible to tell the story of U.S. foreign and military policy over a period of more than a decade, in all its political, personal, psychological, and strategic context, in the space of one book--albeit one of doorstop heft. It is not. And in undertaking this act of authorial hubris, Halberstam has unwittingly revealed a number of significant problems in the way we think about foreign policy, the way journalists report it, and the democratic failures that result from both.
When Halberstam published The Best and The Brightest in 1972, he achieved something about which most writers can only dream: a work combining both significant national import and lasting value in the vast literature on war and politics. The Best and the Brightest proved a nearly perfect marriage of passion and intellect. Halberstam had reported brilliantly from Vietnam for The New York Times. Seeing the war firsthand sent the sadder-but-wiser wunderkind home as a man with a mission. He wanted to answer a single question: "How in the world could this have happened?"
Halberstam's judgments are presented as part of a universal consensus that the author has somehow discerned. But rarely are we told anything about his sources.
The answer was in the peculiar political psychology of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment at the height of what was then believed to be the most sophisticated stage of the Cold War. Halberstam has never been what one would call a felicitous writer, but his razor-sharp observations verily screamed off the page. His scathing portraits of McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara, and Dean Rusk have yet to be equaled, much less surpassed. Though his methods were largely journalistic rather than scholarly and we now know much more about what took place here and in Vietnam, Halberstam's book remains the single most cogent answer to the question he originally posed when he began his furious writing and reporting.
War in a Time of Peace is being self-consciously marketed (and celebrated) as a kind of sequel to The Best and the Brightest. In the single blurb that appears on the book's jacket, Leslie H. Gelb, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, calls it more "ambitious and revealing than" The Best and the Brightest and "nothing less than a War and Peace for our generation." Since Gelb is an extremely intelligent man, one can only conclude either that he owed his friend Halberstam one large favor or he has never even opened Count Leo's big book. For War in a Time of Peace is as much a mess as War and Peace is a masterpiece. It is full of unsupported assertions. It ignores key aspects of the problems it seeks to address as it obsesses about more trivial ones. And the prose. . . . Oy, the prose.
What did Halberstam do to make his editors desert him just when they were most needed? Were his copy editors smoking dope? Much of this book reads as if it were translated from English into Serbo-Croatian and then back again. The sentences run on, aided by scores of commas and semicolons, as if trying to win an endurance contest with one another. Over and over, he makes exactly the same point he made a few pages ago, in much the same language. On page 316, discussing plans to win control of the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, Halberstam explains that French President Jacques Chirac "wanted to use French troops (with American choppers flying them in) to retake the town. The plan was rich in its aura of past French gallantry, full of risk and glory, but did not thrill either the president or the Pentagon. What would happen once Srebrenica was retaken? [President Bill] Clinton asked. Would that make a great difference?" Exactly 11 pages later, on Srebrenica again, he informs us: "Chirac had suggested that they use elite French and British troops in a heliborne assault to retake the town. The Americans were dubious. The risks were great, the upside in case they were successful relatively small." Note that in the retelling of the story the British have now appeared alongside the risk-and-glory-seeking French.
When Halberstam wrote The Best and the Brightest, he was in his midthirties but still something of an angry and insecure young man. He had seen the handiwork of Washington's arrogant "wise men" in Vietnam and he was having nothing of their self-serving explanations for what had gone wrong. Yet a clue to his insecurity can be found by looking at the author's bio he placed on the book's jacket. In the space where most writers name the books they've written and where they live, Halberstam felt compelled to quote Commentary, Harper's, Graham Greene, The New York Times, "Harvard's Asian expert, Professor James Thomson," The Christian Science Monitor, and Columbia University's poll of "150 American intellectuals" all testifying to the young Harvard grad's genius. Thirty years later, this 67-year-old veteran is still advertising that he went to Harvard and that he is "a man whose newspaper reporting and books have helped define the era we live in." (Don't tell me that publicists, not authors, write their jacket bios. Authors approve them, at the very least.)
Halberstam's insecurity continues to manifest itself in his annoying tendency to send up valentines to certain members of the foreign-policy establishment, as if to ape the style of a Vanity Fair Tom Cruise profile. We are informed, for instance, on one page that former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry was "the most admirable of public servants" and "the rarest of public figures." Later the author mentions Perry as "widely regarded in the Pentagon as one of the superior public servants of the time." When Perry calms two NATO leaders who were angry because Bill Clinton was late for an appointment, Perry heroically "sensed the escalating danger of continental distemper and smoothed things over." One expects him at any moment to walk on water, turn water into wine, and rise from the dead. (Oh wait, that's a different book.)
Meanwhile, Halberstam's treatment of Clinton, who had the temerity to refuse an interview request, is downright peevish. When a bunch of generals "snooker" Clinton into firing General Wesley Clark almost immediately following Clark's success in the war in Kosovo, Clinton later feels guilty and arranges for Clark to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Halberstam has the chutzpah to write: "Ironically, what happened to Clark created even more doubts about Clinton among many senior military men. They may have had serious philosophical differences with Clark but, they felt, Clinton was deeply in debt to him for the way he had run the war. Now when he had been sliced up, Clinton had somehow stood on the sidelines and done nothing." Ironically indeed, since these were the same military men who had done the slicing and dicing. All of these judgments are presented as part of a virtually universal consensus that Halberstam has somehow discerned. But rarely if ever are we privy to the sources he depends on in making these determinations.
Halberstam's lack of sourcing--which mirrors that of Bob Woodward, upon whose reporting he frequently relies--betrays a degree of intellectual laziness that is all too often characteristic of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment with which he now identifies but once pilloried. And while it makes for crackling good back story/ticktock journalism, it frequently fails as history. There are stories--two to be exact--told here of which I have heard contrasting versions from one the principals involved. Halberstam is not making up his version, of course, but he gives me no reason to believe that his is more accurate than mine, as any conscientious scholar would. Most of Halberstam's stories are uncheckable because--unlike in the work of say, a Robert Caro or Garry Wills--he footnotes precious little of what he asserts to be true.
For instance, we are treated to a verbatim reconstruction of a conversation held three decades ago in Vietnam between 24-year-old Richard Holbrooke and General William Westmoreland. Was Halberstam present? Is he relying on a 30-year-old memory of one of the participants? Don't we, as readers, deserve the option of deciding whether we want to rely on the same memory?
Halberstam also has the very American habit of putting his own views in the mouths of vaguely identified others. Perhaps because he likes and admires George H.W. Bush and feels considerable contempt toward Bill Clinton, he writes: "Some world leaders, who had found Bush accessible, began to see Clinton as the embodiment of something they disliked greatly about America: the smug remote superpower whose attitude on most things was don't call us, we'll call you and by the way we'll make all the important decisions." Oh really? Which world leaders? And how does Halberstam know? Did Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair, Boris Yeltsin, Helmut Kohl, and other luminaries decide as a group to confide in David Halberstam? Did the conversation take place by phone or did they all go out to dinner at Café Des Artistes one night and then go back to Halberstam's for brandy and cigars? Your guess is as good as mine.
The members of the foreign-policy establishment like to maintain that they make all their decisions on the merit of a given situation, unaffected by the clubbiness of their little world. So the fact that Larry Eagleburger considered Slobodan Milosevic to be a friend and an entertaining dinner guest presumably did not hobble America's ability to react to the Yugoslav crisis in time to avert disaster. And the fact that David Halberstam has been a lifelong friend to former Vice President Al Gore--so much so that he appeared as one of his flacks during the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 2000--need not affect his reporting of Gore's role in the crisis. This must be the case; after all, Halberstam does not even bother to mention it.
Halberstam must also have developed a soft spot for club president Henry Kissinger over the years. There's nothing else to explain the following amazing observation: "The singular strength of Kissinger was not just his skill at dissembling when necessary, his unusual ability to tell ten different people ten completely different stories about what he was doing on a given issue and remember what version of the story he had told to which person. Rather it was an inner emotional toughness." Another way to say this--the way 35-year-old David Halberstam might have said it, is: "Kissinger was a pathological liar, who illegally wiretapped his own staff and the reporters to whom they spoke with little concern for privacy, legality, or the morality of his actions."
As I said, there is a good little book buried inside the fatally flawed overstuffed one. For all his unrealizable ambitions, Halberstam remains a great reporter. The excellent little book embedded here tells the story of the complicated moral, political, personal, and intellectual education of former National Security Council adviser Anthony Lake and his ex-friend, the diplomat Richard Holbrooke, a friend of Halberstam who emerges from this telling with his name shining brightly on the marquee. Both men were, like the author, haunted by their experiences in Vietnam and both were wary and occasionally enthusiastic about the use of U.S. military power in the Balkans. Each tried to learn what they deemed to be the right lessons and combine those with their understanding of how the world had changed, what was likely to advance their own standing and careers, and what was politically possible for U.S. foreign policy at the end of the century. Holbrooke thrived, while Lake found himself swallowed up by his own doubts and a recalcitrant bureaucracy. Along the way, Halberstam's sketches of other important players like Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright, William Cohen, and Wesley Clark could have been used to illuminate this poignant story and historians would have found themselves with a valuable account of how personalities, politics, and apparently intractable foreign-policy problems interacted in the United States at the end of the twentieth century. The parts of the book dealing with these officials are first-rate journalism, albeit with the aforementioned sourcing problems.
Despite Halberstam's grand ambitions--he discusses the conduct of the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, as well as in Somalia and Haiti, and even, for a few pages, Rwanda--this is not really a book about U.S. foreign policy in the broadest sense. Halberstam is frequently contemptuous of the amount of attention Bill Clinton devoted to foreign policy, but he seems to define foreign policy as entirely made up of the stuff involving guns and bombs and the threat to use them. Has any president ever devoted himself more deeply to trying to bring peace to the Middle East than Bill Clinton did? Of Northern Ireland, we hear not a word. And what of his efforts on behalf of North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which I happen to oppose but nevertheless are certainly foreign-policy accomplishments, whether you like them or not? So, too, is the Kyoto Protocol, which never would have been achieved without the cooperation and, in some cases, leadership of the administration. The same goes for the International Criminal Court. In other words, like so much of the foreign-policy elite he now reflects, Halberstam's notion of foreign policy was obsolete even before September 11.
Moreover, Halberstam never gives us a clue about what America as a nation might want in its foreign policy. The only real nod he makes to public opinion--as opposed to media opinion--is his observation, "It was the realization of the volatility of the issues and the almost whimsical nature of the electorate which made the Clinton administration so uniquely dependent upon media advisers, consultants and pollsters." This notion of a "whimsical" public is based on a fatuous and cursory understanding of the available data on the topic but one that the foreign-policy establishment frequently deploys to flatter itself that it is actually carrying on the people's business. If Halberstam had bothered to school himself on the relevant political-science literature, he would know that the American people have remained remarkably consistent about the values they would like to see their foreign policy embody--more consistent than their alleged betters in office. But they have no ability to force the establishment--and the institutions it controls--to act according to their wishes. True, single-interest lobbies, like those on Cuba and Israel, wield influence, but this is hardly the same thing as true democratic involvement in the creation and execution of foreign policy. The genuinely democratic questions that foreign policy raises go unmentioned in this long book, except insofar as how a given disaster is said to play on CNN.
Finally, while Halberstam does do a fine job of illuminating the difficulties that even the best-intentioned foreign-policy makers faced in the Balkans, he ends up offering little in the way of ideas about what should have been done. This is worth keeping in mind today, as every TV chat show pundit offers a recipe for how to deal with the terrorist threat against the United States, while really, just about nobody has a clue. The Balkan wars were and remain a damn tough problem to solve, period. At one point, Halberstam quotes Clinton complaining about Vietnam doves like journalist Anthony Lewis who became Bosnian hawks: "What would they have me do? What the fuck would they have me do?" After reading over 550 pages by David Halberstam on the topic, I still don't know how he would answer that question.