Not Halberstam's Best or Brightest

By Stan Crock


Bush, Clinton, and the Generals

By David Halberstam

Scribner -- 543pp -- $28

David Halberstam's new book, War in a Time of Peace, is billed as a follow-up to his 1972 best-seller, The Best and the Brightest. Like the earlier estimable work, which focused on the Vietnam War, this volume delves into the personalities, politics, and policies that lie behind America's national security strategy. Unfortunately, this literary effort, like many movie sequels, doesn't measure up to the original.

Halberstam starts out at the apogee of the first Bush Administration--the Persian Gulf War. He goes on to describe Bush's subsequent political downward spiral. The President was in a good position to profit electorally from the collapse of communism and from his qualified defeat of Saddam Hussein. Yet he failed to reach the voters in the next election--since they were primarily concerned about domestic affairs, particularly the sputtering economy. Bill Clinton realized this early on and hammered home that voters needed someone who cared about the Middle West as well as the Middle East. But, as Halberstam shows, Clinton, too, found himself unable to avoid entanglement in foreign policy issues--and may have even sought refuge in them during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

In covering the Bush and Clinton Administrations, and just touching on George W.'s time in office, War in a Time of Peace devotes considerable attention to the difficulties that regional strife poses for Europe and the U.S. But the book arrives at a peculiar moment--for which Halberstam can hardly be faulted. It went to press well in advance of the terrorist attack and sheds no light on how the U.S. should handle terrorism.

Still, the author makes two points that are worth noting in the aftermath of Sept. 11. One is that since the end of the cold war, foreign policy initiatives have provided few benefits for a President but considerable risks. President George H.W. Bush's stellar ratings in the polls after Operation Desert Storm, for example, did little for him in 1992 as the public worried more about the economy. The book leaves you wondering if his son will face the same problem: a huge liability if he fails in his campaign against terrorism--and little payoff if he succeeds and the economy falters. Or is the political equation somehow altered by the fact that the World Trade Center isn't in some distant, hard-to-pronounce city such as Mogadishu or Sarajevo?

A second important point Halberstam makes is that after the decision to use the military in Kosovo, the generals--in particular, General Wesley K. Clark, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe--had considerable leverage. Politicians don't want to be blamed for losing a war out of failure to heed the generals' requests. So when Clark pushed for the introduction of ground troops, the White House felt considerable pressure to go along. If Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic hadn't agreed to NATO'S terms, American G.I.s might well have been sent in. The current President should consider the potential political clout of the military brass as he plans a campaign in a region that has bloodied many a big army.

In his book, Halberstam has accumulated an immense amount of reportage, but he rakes over well-tilled ground. That would have been O.K. had he provided insightful analysis along the way. Americans could benefit--especially right now--from an examination of U.S. muscle-flexing in such 21st century hot spots as the Balkans, Haiti, and Somalia. But readers won't get that from Halberstam. For an enlightening discussion of these moral blind alleys, where intervention and nonintervention are equally excruciating options, the recently published Wilson's Ghost, by Robert S. McNamara and James G. Blight, is a much better choice.

Another opportunity Halberstam misses is in his treatment of two key Clinton Administration figures, National Security Adviser Anthony K. Lake and diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke. Both play central roles in this book and provide a thread of continuity with The Best and the Brightest, since as young men they served in the Vietnam-era State Dept. As they grew older and assumed greater power within Democratic policy circles, their disillusionment with the handling of the conflict led them to search for ways Democratic Administrations could improve their execution of foreign affairs. If Halberstam had restricted his story to the evolution and changing roles of these two men--who were friends at first and became rivals later--he might have created a riveting tale.

The author chose to paint with a broader brush. As a result, we get repetitive portraits not only of Lake and Holbrooke at different junctures, but also of everyone from George H.W. Bush to General Clark, and Air Force Colonel John Warden, a strong advocate of air power in the Balkans. Often introduced as digressions from the book's chronological narrative, these profiles are so numerous and lengthy that they become a serious annoyance.

Finally, there's Halberstam's fascination with air power. He clearly has bought the Air Force argument that bombing campaigns alone can win wars. But it's also a possibility that Russia's withdrawal of support--not U.S. bombing--led Milosevic to cave on Kosovo. Likewise, bombing Afghanistan is unlikely to quash terrorism. The fact that the Bush team launched diplomatic, financial, and intelligence campaigns before any bombing may be a sign that his team already understands this critical lesson.

Crock is chief diplomatic correspondent.

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