The Vietnam legacy
WAR IN A TIME OF PEACE by David Halberstam Bloomsbury. £20, pp. 540. ISBN 0747559465
The real danger to an open society like America was the ability of a terrorist, not connected to any sitting government, to walk into an American city with a crude atomic weapon, delivered as it were by hand in a cardboard suitcase.
hat is the penultimate paragraph of David Halberstam's new epic; published in America almost on 11 September, it won him credit for prescience, and even more attention than this cool, reflective history might otherwise have earned in the frenzied analysis of those panicked weeks.
But foresight is not the point of this book, although Halberstam's analysis is of even more importance now, in the quandaries of American foreign policy, than in the first phase of the war on terror. His subject is the 1990s, the end of the Bush administration and the Clinton years, when the fall of the Soviet Union left the United States unchallenged on the world stage — that is what he means by 'a time of peace'. His aim is to reveal something about the American mood through the country's foreign policy, the theme that has made his reputation.
His argument is that in this luxury of absence of an enemy the US became complacent and inward-looking. It was the most powerful nation in the world and singularly uninterested in other countries. The legacy of Vietnam contributed to this introversion, he argues; even when the US had good cause to intervene abroad, fear of casualties held it back.
Thirty years ago, Halberstam wrote The Best and the Brightest, that account of the young men who led America into Vietnam. War in a Time of Peace is intended to be a bookend to its famous predecessor: an account of how those who were in their twenties during Vietnam behaved when they eventually won high office themselves.
But unlike The Best and The Brightest. the tale of brilliance, hubris and accelerating tragedy. War in a Time of Peace, as its title suggests, is more quizzical. The central question of the 1990s conflicts, from Washington's perspective, was 'What are we doing here.; many in both the Bush and Clinton administrations were convinced the answer was 'Nothing worthwhile'.
Most of the hook is about Yugoslavia, and the Clinton administration. Bill Clinton is one of the few omissions in the list of interviews, otherwise a long and dazzling rollcall of the US's foreign policy establishment in the 1990s. But that omission may have allowed Halberstam to be tougher. In a book — in contrast to its predecessor —
which is too personally generous to too many, Clinton is one of the few given a caustic assessment. For President Clinton, until the Lewinsky scandal rendered domestic politics inaccessible, foreign policy was 'an inconvenience, something that might pull him away from his primary job at hand — domestic issues, above all the economy'.
In fact, Halberstam reports, Clinton's reluctance to see his defence and intelligence advisers was so great that when a would-be terrorist crashed a plane near the White House, his aides joked that it was the CIA director James Woolsey trying to get in to see the President.
In a thesis he has expanded in a previous book, Halberstam puts much of the blame for the lack of interest abroad on the American media (by which he means television). The networks dropped expensive foreign correspondents, shortened international stories, and switched to infotain ment'. He perhaps labours this theme too much, from his position as one of the luminaries of American print journalism, and so underplays how the changes in Congress, particularly in the 1994 election, helped drive the national preoccupations.
His most valuable insights, unsurprisingly, are on the Vietnam legacy. As he shows. it is the generals themselves who were most cautious about losing military lives. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Bush and Clinton, and now Secretary of State, emerged from Vietnam determined to rebuild the strength of the army and yet singularly reluctant to deploy it. According to Halberstam. Clinton, ill at ease with the military after his Vietnam draft-dodging and the early row over gays in service, was in awe of Powell. He was steered by Powell's caution in holding hack from the conflicts in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia and, at the start, Kosovo; when Somalia led to the deaths of 18 American soldiers, he did not dare blame Powell, despite Powell's being in charge of the mission.
In Kosovo, that reserve was the cause of the now well-documented rows between General Wesley Clark, Nato's Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, the White House and the Pentagon. The Army's leadership fought to keep the US exposure in Kosovo to the minimum, and to prevent Clark from pursuing the targets he wanted.
Powell's caution was formally expressed, in the weeks after 11 September, in the 'Powell doctrine': the principle that force should be used only if it is overwhelming, the mission is clear, and there is the support of the American people. However. in Afghanistan, the Powell principle was overridden by the President and the Pentagon within weeks: the mission was not clearly defined, the exit was not clear, and force was to be incrementally increased.
Does the Afghanistan campaign show that the memory of Vietnam is now banished? Many have argued this, saying that the US has rediscovered its appetite, or at least tolerance, for military action. True, but 11 September is exceptional, in that it was a direct attack on the US. That is the factor which underpins steady public support for the action, and, from interviews, appears to drive the soldiers' motivation as well. Whether it would hold up for an attack on Iraq is untested, although many Americans seem persuaded of Bush's view of the threat.
The imprint of Vietnam still shows, but in subtler ways, Halberstam succeeds in arguing. Part of it is the politicians' love affair with the US Air Force, less demoralised than the US Army after Vietnam. as
a way of winning battles. One of the best passages is Halberstam's account of Air Force Colonel John Warden's battle to convince senior Bush officials before the Gulf war that a massive air campaign could produce victory. It is also reflected in the central role in policy-making now automatically assumed by the military, as Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld has shown.
In what is a lumpy narrative, built too much around Kosovo, there are many omissions which might have shed light on the dilemmas now facing the Bush administration. Because the narrative begins as the Gulf war ends, it does not address the question why the US decided not to push ahead and take Baghdad — whether for fear of casualties, of the splitting away of the Kurdish part of Iraq, or fear that it would not succeed. Nor, indeed, is there anything on Clinton's three strikes on Saddam Hussein, or the persistent US and British attacks on Iraq for infringements of the no-fly zone.
But his central thesis about the US's reflex towards introversion is certainly not disproved by the past seven months. For the rest of the world, it will be a harder task to persuade the US to remain engaged than to fend off its domination. They may not see it that way in Baghdad, but they do in Kabul.