For three decades now, David Halberstam has been, in the phrase of George Kennan, our most readable "historian of the present." Halberstam specializes in driving a big truck of a book through the gap that separates journalism from academia. He manages to transcend both on-the-scene reportage that often fails to grasp the larger picture and more professorial accounts that supply the Big Think but often bog down in soporific jargon and abstraction. At his best, Halberstam hits a narrative sweet spot between the mere chronicling of a Bob Woodward and the tendentiousness of, say, William Greider. His finest books succeed in capturing an epochal moment -- such as the Vietnam War, the rise of big media, or the economic confrontation between Japan and the United States -- almost as it happens. Leading characters, interviewed close to power, are fully fleshed out. Whether you are a journalist, a historian, or a political scientist, these are achievements equivalent to trapping lightning in a bottle.
Although he has served up mostly lighter fare in recent years (with books on baseball and Michael Jordan), Halberstam made his reputation grappling with important events still in progress, when the surrounding emotions were still raw and the official history unfinished. Even now, Halberstam writes as if he were dictating a hot story from the field. His prose is not pretty and is often annoyingly verbose, and his slicing and dicing of history is sometimes simplistic. But in his best work, he manages to combine the personal with the political in a way that makes for both great history and great reading.
In The Best and the Brightest, for example -- Halberstam's brilliant skewering of the hubris that got the United States entangled in Vietnam -- he used the story of McGeorge Bundy, a patrician Harvard dean turned national security adviser with a scintillating but shallow intellect, to demolish the wrong-headed U.S. Asia policy that dated back to the Truman Doctrine. Halberstam performed similar feats, combining personal narratives with national history, in two other superb books: The Powers That Be and The Reckoning.
One of the risks of being a historian of the present, of course, is that events can overtake you. That is what happened to Halberstam in the most dramatic way on September 11, after his book had already gone to press. The deadliest attack ever on U.S. soil abruptly transformed the foreign-policy landscape he describes in War in a Time of Peace. But the subject of his book is still relevant. Billed as "the long-awaited successor" to The Best and the Brightest, the book purports to sum up the impact of the Vietnam War on current U.S. interventionism and describe how domestic politics has come to dictate foreign policy. Halberstam tells this tale by detailing the often brittle relations between the civilians in the White House and State Department and the Pentagon brass. The concept of the book is clever: Halberstam starts off with President George H.W. Bush's stunning electoral defeat after the Gulf War. The battle against Saddam Hussein was the United States' last major foreign policy triumph in the twentieth century, but one that seemed to gain Bush few votes. In fact, Bill Clinton's equally stunning victory shortly thereafter owed in no small part to his success in exploiting Bush's reputation as a foreign policy patrician out of touch with the American people, who were mainly interested in "the economy, stupid." Alternating chapters between the home front and subsequent crises abroad --
in Haiti, Somalia, and especially the Balkans -- Halberstam demonstrates how during the 1990s, key foreign policy decisions were held hostage to the whims of an American public that no longer cared very much about events abroad.
War in a Time of Peace describes how both Bush and Clinton tried to navigate this new reality. Along the way readers are enlightened by the kind of apercus we have come to expect from Halberstam: Somalia, he notes, "was a tragic example of the fickle quality of foreign policy arrived at because of images, in this case images of starving people, which can be quickly reversed by a counterimage, that of a dead body being dragged through a foreign capital."
As Halberstam shows, Vietnam left a deep, still-unhealed wound in the American national psyche. No boast made in the last decade was more empty than Bush's claim in 1991 that "we've kicked that Vietnam syndrome for good." In fact, despite Bush's optimism, both his successor, Bill Clinton, and his top general, Colin Powell -- two leading characters in the book -- had been shaped by their respective Vietnam experiences. Powell's two tours of duty had made him reluctant to send the U.S. military abroad on interventionist adventures, and Clinton's history as a draft dodger made him gun-shy about pushing Powell and the Pentagon brass to do just that. The 1993 debacle in Somalia, where 18 U.S. soldiers were killed, only made things worse, leading to what Richard Holbrooke, another of Halberstam's leading characters, called the "Vietmalia" syndrome: support for any U.S. foreign policy where the national interest is not clear is so shaky that a few American casualties can torpedo it.
The book ends with, and takes its title from, the strange little undeclared war fought over Kosovo in the spring of 1999, another intervention in which the United States' new zero-casualty threshold was made paramount. This was a war that barely impinged itself on the American people's consciousness; as Halberstam writes, "our bombers were hitting targets in southern Europe every day, and the country went about its business as usual. It was something stunningly new: war in a time of peace." Perhaps nothing illustrated the nature of this new game better than the ignominious fate ultimately suffered by NATO's supreme commander during the conflict, General Wesley Clark. Having won the war, Clark was treated not to a ticker tape parade, ˆ la Ike, but dismissal, pariah status at the Pentagon, and public obscurity (despite a brief recent appearance on the bestseller list).
All the usual Halberstam touches accompany this narrative, along with some of the author's quirks: the exhaustive brain-picking of participants, the deft interweaving of biography and history, the slight breathlessness of tone and droning repetition. (For example, he writes at one point that "Bleiburg is a name that has little importance in the West, but in Croatia it has great significance," and then, just a few sentences later, "Bleiburg was a part of recent history of which the West was unaware, but it meant a great deal to the Croats.")
But War in a Time of Peace is ultimately an unsatisfying work, one that never quite gels. The reportage is, for the most part, accurate, but Halberstam is covering well-trodden ground: Clinton's political genius and Bush's corresponding tone deafness, German responsibility for the Balkan chain of disaster, and the genesis of the Somalia debacle. All have been well documented, and Halberstam only occasionally adds fresh details. The real problem, however, is that the reader fails to get any sense of direction, of deeper context. The book feels rushed and one-dimensional; the history he details so well, undigested.
The author's biggest difficulty, of course, is the horrific events of September 11. That single day cost the nation more lives than the entire American Revolutionary War, more than Iwo Jimas, more than Pearl Harbor. The terror attacks clarified America's post-Cold War foreign policy in one blow, and seemed to render almost everything written before, including this book, virtually irrelevant. No longer could the nation go about its business unaffected by events abroad.
In truth, however, there is a continuum between the story Halberstam tries to tell and the world we have entered since the terror attacks. September 11 only drove home, with stomach-churning clarity, the lesson implicit in Bosnia, Somalia, and Kosovo, as well as in the recent globalization turmoil and the growing divide between rich and poor nations. It is a lesson that Americans, in their complacency, had chosen not to see before but that now exploded on their doorstep: the peace they had taken for granted was not secure. The work of the American Century was not over. History had not, in fact, ended.
Yes, the United States had built an international system and it was powerful: Bush senior's new world order really had come into being after all. This was the meaning of the world's reaction to the September disaster, summed up in the poignant headline in Le Monde: "We are all Americans." As Georgetown's
G. John Ikenberry argues in his recent groundbreaking book, After Victory, one reason American hegemony has remained largely unchallenged is that the Cold War structure created by Washington -- comprising bodies such as NATO, the World Trade Organization, even the detested United Nations -- has become entrenched. And that has been a boon for Washington, giving multilateral cover to U.S. might and forestalling would-be rivals. It is this global structure, in fact, that explains why the worst predictions for the post-Cold War world have not come true, why Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" has not actually happened -- although we may seem perilously close to it now -- and why Robert Kaplan's "coming anarchy" has, despite assorted financial crises, wars, and mass slaughters, proved less than anarchic against the general global order that prevails.
But this Americanized global system nonetheless generated a great mass of discontents. And these have-nots blamed the nation they rightly identified as the shadow power behind the system. Not surprisingly, the deepest anger came out of the Arab world, where regimes have been, as a rule, least open to American-style globalization and political ideals. Washington also seemed uninterested in pushing its ideals in that part of the world. At the same time as the United States promoted democracy and open systems in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, it let Saddam Hussein stay in power, betrayed the Shi`ite rebellion in Iraq's south, and preserved the corrupt Kuwaiti and Saudi royals whose oil America coveted. The extremists in the Arab street saw this hypocrisy clearly and used it to demonize the United States.This is not meant to blame Americans in the least for the insane attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; no reasonable person could do that. But it should help Americans understand the suicidal rage behind the attacks.
For the George W. Bush administration, meanwhile, the hijackings were a historic comeuppance. The conservative unilateralists who had disengaged from the world for nine months have now been saddled with the most multilateral of tasks: rooting out terrorist resistance to the global system they once unknowingly presided over -- and the mechanisms and conventions of which they are now eager to use. The result is that, for the moment, there is no longer any confusion about the U.S. national interest versus the interests of the "international community," as there was for so much of the period Halberstam writes about. The two have become virtually identical.
The question now is how long that will really last. A push by hard-liners within the Bush administration for a tougher response -- especially a military strike on Iraq -- could well shatter the antiterror coalition Powell has been assembling. And as the anguish of September 11 passes, the problems of American hegemony that Halberstam describes will remain. Vulnerable or not, the United States is too powerful compared to the rest of the world, and the nature of the "war" it is fighting is too diffuse and long-term, for Americans not to return to some degree of complacency -- although they may never again reach the height of hubris that prevailed on September 10. Contrary to President Bush's fighting words, this is not a war for existence or for survival; the "enemies of freedom" that he referred to in his eloquent September 20 speech to Congress are not the Germans or the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, powerful industrialized nations bent on challenging American hegemony; they are mere ragtag holdouts, tiny "cells" of misfits who failed even to seize power in their own small home countries. However dangerous it might be, this global war is more like a mop-up mission, courtesy of U.S. special forces, the CIA, and the FBI.
All of which takes us back to the tale Halberstam tries to tell but does not quite get around to. In his book, Halberstam gropes toward but never fully grasps the real problem that faced policymakers in Washington over the past decade, before the terror attacks exposed America's vulnerability. We lived in a world in which petty dictators, such as Yugoslavia's Slobodan Miloÿsevi«c or Somalia's Muhammad Farah Aidid, could nimbly test the limits of the United States' languorous indifference. These tyrants were too small-time to rouse Americans to action and yet simultaneously too annoying or brutal to be ignored by a civilized superpower. As Clinton learned, American presidents face a heavy burden when trying to persuade their fellow citizens to expend their resources on such under-the-radar crises without a clear national interest at stake. Yet such is the United States' economic and military dominance that for decades to come, terrorism aside, this will be just what U.S. politicians will have to do. The president of the United States is still glibly referred to as the "leader of the free world." But when it comes to the kind of crises Halberstam describes, he is more like President Pothole, the global go-to guy who is petitioned in every flare-up.
This is the real backdrop to Halberstam's story, the conceptual framework that he delivers in bits and pieces but never fully spells out. And it is critical to understanding why almost every major crisis involving U.S. intervention in the past ten years followed nearly the same pattern. Whether the issue was Bosnia or Somalia, the Asian financial contagion or the Mexican economic bailout, Washington suffered a similar agonized debate. Inexorably, the conventional wisdom would go from determined noninvolvement to a resigned acceptance of some kind of U.S. role. (But not always: the United States unforgivably failed to act in Rwanda, and Halberstam witheringly relates the State Department's efforts to parse the definition of "genocide" in order to avoid having to get involved.) Such is the nature of the U.S.-dominated global community today that America repeatedly finds itself drawn into once-obscure hot spots that seem, on their face, to have little or nothing to do with the traditional U.S. national interest, but which damage the fabric of the international system that is part of a new, more diffuse national interest.
CURSED WITH SUCCESS
Because his narrative is unmoored to any conceptual anchor, Halberstam tends to imbue events such as the decade-long Balkans catastrophe with too much significance. He quotes, for example, CNN's Christiane Amanpour as saying that the conflict was her generation's Vietnam. The Balkan wars were indeed the biggest foreign policy challenges faced by the West in the 1990s, but they had none of the geostrategic import of Vietnam, a point that Halberstam himself acknowledges. As horrific and gripping as were the events in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo, they occurred on the margins of the post-Cold War world, representing, as Halberstam notes at one point, "evil without a larger context." This is suggested by the fact that, although the Europeans may have been embarrassed by their failures to end the bloodshed and humiliated by the necessity of American intervention, the sinkhole in southern Europe did not impede one bit the march to Maastricht -- the really big European story of the 1990s. Meanwhile, for most Americans, Kosovo was only a sideshow to the Lewinsky affair, and Bosnia was overshadowed by the fight over the national budget.
For the same reasons, it is wrong to blame Clinton too much for these foreign policy imbroglios. The evenhanded Halberstam never does so, at least not directly. But the book leaves the reader with a lingering sense that the United States had so many problems abroad in the last decade not just because the country was haunted by Vietnam, but because the 42nd president, whom the author calls a "complete political animal," did things by poll numbers and surrounded himself with weaklings, amateurs, and political hacks. Yet as we saw in the months before September 11, the "professionals" in the second Bush administration looked rather confused as well, repeatedly flip-flopping on engagement and angering the very "allies and friends" with whom Bush once pledged to strengthen ties. All of which suggests that the problem is more the times than the man.
In War in a Time of Peace, Halberstam tries to do too much and ends up doing too little. He covers a vast amount of material that needs far more sifting. Halberstam spends too much time analyzing Clinton's domestic agenda, for example, presenting detailed biographies of figures such as Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, when such matters have little to do with his larger point about a shrunken foreign policy dictated by politics. And Halberstam spends too little time probing the larger global context and America's new role in it, post Vietnam and post Cold War.
The result is that often, amid the sprawl of his narrative, Halberstam lets important lessons slip by. In one passage, for instance, he vaguely attributes anti-Clinton hatred to "modern politics" and the nation's obsession with "cultural and social concerns." Yet Halberstam fails to note that such hatred was able to run rampant because there were no great issues facing the nation in the 1990s that might have prevented a few extremists from upending the government over a sex scandal. Precisely because presidents are traditionally defined by foreign policy -- and because foreign policy weighed so lightly on the scales, at least until the recent terror attacks -- the job itself came, in the 1990s, to seem less weighty, less awesome, and more open to criticism. Can anyone imagine Republicans and the media impeaching J.F.K. at the height of the Cold War, even if his enemies had known he was entertaining Fiddle and Faddle in the White House pool?
As George W. Bush has shown, restoring gravitas to the office of the president will not be a problem as long as the nation remains fully engaged in the war on terror. But if the complacency that Halberstam describes returns, so too will the political dilemmas that attend it.