Commentary Magazine

War in a Time of Peace by David Halberstam

War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals
by David Halberstam
Scribner. 543 pp. $28.00

David Halberstam’s War in a Time of Peace is one of the first attempts to define what was noteworthy about American foreign policy in the Clinton era. Focusing on key figures in the White House, State Department, and Pentagon—Halberstam interviewed, among others, Colin Powell, Al Gore, Madeleine Albright, Richard Holbrooke, and Anthony Lake—the book explores the bitter fights that took place during the 1990’s over the question of American military intervention overseas, particularly in the Balkans.

Foreign policy is familiar territory for Halberstam. Though his most recent books have covered everything from major-league baseball to the impact of communications technology on politics, he cut his journalistic teeth in Vietnam, where his pessimistic dispatches earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 at the age of thirty. Halberstam began as a hawk in that war but went on to write the bestseller The Best and the Brightest, which portrayed Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, and other Johnson-administration officials as the real aggressors in Vietnam, men consumed by an arrogance of power. The book provided no fundamentally new insights, but by depicting the Vietcong insurgency as a legitimate nationalist revolt, impervious to American might, it codified the belief on the Left that it was futile for the U.S. to wield its military power abroad.

Halberstam has now come full circle, confessing himself to have been “quite wrong” on a number of key politico-military questions (but not about his opposition to U.S. intervention in Vietnam). Indeed, as he sees it, the foreign-policy problems of the Clinton years are best explained by the tenacity with which many members of the administration and the leadership of the U.S. military clung to a false set of lessons from that war.



Halberstam sets the stage by examining the final year of the first Bush administration. As he stresses, there was a chasm between the foreign-policy outlook of Bush and that of his hard-line predecessor Ronald Reagan, exemplified by James Baker’s early purge of Reagan appointees at the State Department. As Baker reportedly said at the time, “Remember, this is not a friendly takeover.”

Though Halberstam himself makes a few ritualistically liberal noises about the foreign-policy primitivism of the Reaganites, his main concern is to criticize Bush-administration officials for being too cautious. For Bush and his advisers, Halberstam complains, the prospect of the Soviet Union’s crackup was a nightmare, and this fear determined American policy elsewhere, especially in Yugoslavia. In their eyes, backing the breakaway province of Bosnia would have set a dangerous precedent. The result was that the U.S. stood aloof at a moment when its influence might have prevented war in the region.

As Halberstam notes, Bill Clinton seized upon the Balkans imbroglio during the 1992 presidential campaign to attack Bush and to neutralize charges of his own foreign-policy inexperience. Once in office, however, Clinton quickly adopted the stance of his predecessor. If anything, Clinton, who had promised to focus on the economy like a laser, was even less disposed to intervene in the widening conflict.

The signs of this hands-off attitude were visible from the outset of the administration. Clinton quickly dumped the foreign-policy hawks who had helped with his campaign and went with the more emollient types. Warren Christopher was selected to be Secretary of State precisely because he was not the sort of forceful figure who would push Clinton to act. As for the national security adviser, Anthony Lake, though he had been responsible for Clinton’s bellicose campaign rhetoric about Bosnia, he soon stifled his own views, becoming for Halberstam a Hamlet-like figure, tormented by the killings in the Balkans yet obsessed by the fear that any American military action would recapitulate the quagmire he had seen first-hand in Vietnam as a young foreign-service officer.



As Halberstam shows, Clinton’s mistrust of foreign involvements was cemented by the difficulties that he inherited from Bush in Somalia. In the summer of 1993, eighteen Americans were killed and 74 were wounded in Mogadishu trying to capture the gang lord Farah Aideed. Clinton’s main concern was to get out of this crisis with as little political damage as possible. The Somalia tragedy, Halberstam writes, “helped confirm Clinton’s worst suspicions about foreign policy. It was a tricky, murky business, outside the reach of domestic presidential control, with a greater possibility for negatives than positives.”

As for Bosnia, after years in which his administration had attempted to deny that genocide was taking place there, Clinton found his hand forced by the Serbs’ massacre of Muslims at Srebrenica in July 1995. An administration that had conducted a photo-op foreign policy could no longer disguise reality. American bombing finally began and, in combination with the advances of the Croatian military, induced the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to enter negotiations.

Yet, Halberstam shows, even after a peace agreement was signed at Dayton, the Clinton administration remained obsessed with appearances, putting a twelve-month time limit on the commitment of U.S. troops to Bosnia. “It was a completely unrealistic deadline that had nothing to do with the problems that any peacekeeping force was likely to encounter on the ground,” Halberstam writes. “But it would cover the period of the 1996 election.”

Not until Clinton’s second term did he assemble a foreign-policy team more to Halberstam’s liking. With Madeleine Albright at the State Department, Samuel Berger as national security adviser, and General John Shalikashvili as head of the Joint Chiefs, the administration started to take a somewhat tougher line. As Halberstam points out, Shalikashvili played a key role in moving the army away from the doctrine, first articulated by Reagan Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and later seconded in a modified form by Colin Powell when he served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, that military intervention was appropriate only if vital American interests were at stake. Rejecting this Vietnam-inspired view, Shalikashvili demanded more flexibility in the use of force.

Shalikashvili also saw to it that General Wesley Clark, one of the heroes of Halberstam’s tale, received a fourth star and became the supreme commander of NATO forces in Europe. It was thus a setback for this more militant new tendency when, even as Clark successfully pushed for bombing the Serbs in Kosovo during the next stage of the Balkan wars, the administration failed to develop a coherent plan, revealing early on that it did not intend to send American ground troops. Fortunately, Serbia’s Milosevic capitulated before such deployments became an issue. In the event, the important thing for Clinton was that he was able to claim victory.



David Halberstam is a dogged reporter and has managed to accumulate many new details about the conduct of foreign policy during the Clinton years. Most interestingly, he shows how a number of liberals in the administration came to adopt more hawkish views even as the military and the President remained bedeviled by memories of Vietnam.

But the narrative of War in a Time of Peace ends rather inconclusively, and Halberstam offers no real verdict about the administration’s legacy. The problem may be that he focuses so narrowly on military conflicts that he loses sight of the fact that the administration did have a coherent foreign policy. What Clinton believed in above all—and what Halberstam misses entirely—is the idea of globalization as the great peacemaker.

Clinton thought that if the U.S. could fashion a new global community that would bind nations into a complex web of economic interests and political organizations, cooperation, not confrontation, would prevail. Whether it was China or the Middle East, Clinton and his advisers were convinced that the world had entered a fundamentally new era, one in which history and power politics no longer mattered as much as they had in the past. It was no accident that by the end of his second term, Clinton’s most trusted foreign-policy adviser was the trade lawyer, Samuel Berger. From the President’s point of view, the wars he was forced to embark upon were pesky distractions from more pressing matters.

Today, the Clinton era seems most notable not for what was accomplished but for the illusions it spawned, globalization foremost among them. As the Bush administration now finds itself locked in a world-wide war, the record of its predecessor—Halberstam’s approval of its late and half-hearted conversion to hawkishness notwithstanding—provides a lesson in how not to act.


About the Author

Jacob Heilbrunn is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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