“War in a Time of Peace“ is Halberstam‘s most recent foray into bringing history to life, and it is a most worthy sequel to his classic, “The Best and the Brightest,“ which examined the decisions made during the Vietnam era and the men who made them. Here, he looks at how many of the lessons learned have come to influence American foreign policy in the past two presidential administrations and since the Gulf War.
Lest that sound like a tonic for insomniacs, be assured that it is anything but. Halberstam is a master at creating finely etched character portraits, finding just the right behind-the-scenes anecdote to illustrate a point, and skillfully weaving in pop culture perspectives to keep serious subjects from becoming overwhelming. The result is another journalistic tour-de-force, one guaranteed to make the same kind of long-lasting impact that “The Best and the Brightest“ was destined for 30 years ago.
His primary point in this highly-anticipated follow-up is that the long shadow of the Cold War still looms over American foreign policy, even as shifts in our domestic politics, policies, and players have changed our identity as a nation and as a world power. The dynamics are even more complex than ever reasons Halberstam in a well-presented case that leaves no stone unturned, from egos to the environment.
In the opening chapter, the author sets the stage as the balance of power is about to be passed on to a new administration, one that will place domestic policy ahead of foreign for the first time in nearly five decades. He writes:
“For a brief, glorious, almost Olympian moment it appeared that the presidency itself could serve as the campaign. Rarely had an American president seemed so sure of reelection. In the summer and fall of 1991, George Bush appeared to be politically invincible. His personal approval ratings in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War had reached 90 percent, unheard of for any sitting president, and even more remarkable for someone like Bush, a competent political insider whose charisma and capacity to inspire had in the past escaped most of his fellow citizens. Of his essential decency and competence there had been little doubt, and the skill with which he had presided over the end of the Cold War had impressed not merely the inner club that monitored foreign policy decision-making, but much of the country as well. With exceptional sensitivity, he had juggled and balanced his own political needs with the greater political needs of his newest partner in this joint endeavor, Mikhail Gorbachev. For Bush was quite aware that Gorbachev‘s political equation was much more fragile than his own, and he had been careful to be the more generous member of this unlikely two-man team that was negotiating the end of almost forty-five years of terrifying bipolar tensions... the world was still a dangerous place, which meant that the country would surely need and want an experienced leader, preferably a Republican, at the helm. Aboard Air Force One at that time, flying with his father from Washington back to the Bush family‘s vacation home in Maine, was George W. Bush, the president‘s son. He was just coming of age as a political operative in his own right, and he was euphoric about the meaning of these latest events. “Do you think the American people care going to turn to a Democrat now?“ he asked.“
Bush‘s feeling of invulnerability is an ingenious metaphor for an America that reluctantly begins to tango with the Balkans, Somalis, and Haitians, all under the guidance of a fascinating cast of characters that included the likes of Bush, his predecessor Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, Richard Holbrooke, Al Gore, Wes Clark, James Baker, Dick Cheney, and Madeleine Albright, among others. Many brought their experiences with Vietnam to bear on the shaping of foreign policy, though there were constant and taut power struggles with and by those who had not been a part of that war or any other, most notably the new president himself.
While Clinton wanted to focus on his agenda at home, and, undoubtedly, the last thing he wanted to do was engage his country in any kind of ground war, he came to realize that much of the rest of the world relies upon America for support, intervention, and protection. Forced to move from his singular focus on “the economy, stupid“ and deal with conflicts like those in the Yugoslav theater, his administration and the public in general were both unwilling to act and uncertain of even how to do so. Halberstam reckons that a number of factors, from a generational shift in national leadership to the American preoccupation with entertainment over news economic prosperity have made foreign policy one large grey area to many, if not irrelevant.
America‘s role in the new world order in the new millennium is still being crafted, especially with having been propelled into the war on terrorism in a way no one could have predicted with the events of September 11. Halberstam‘s dissection of how we have gotten to this latest juncture in our constantly evolving story is an important one, providing much clarification, but raising many serious questions.
As with all his other works, be they on media, civil rights, or sports heroes, the depth and scope of Halberstam‘s experience in the political and social arena and his keen intelligence and perceptiveness render him singularly unique for tough queries. If you are a fan of books on tape, check out this one with its even delivery by the talented Broadway actor and frequent audio book reader James Naughton - it‘s a winner.