David Halberstam is a legend in American journalism. I was a journalism student when Halberstam was the New York Times correspondent in Vietnam in the early 1960s, and I remember how much we admired his work. His dispatches offered empirical evidence that our ally in Saigon was an Oriental despot who terrorized his own people and that the US-supported military program was a fake and a failure. This, of course, was not the way US Embassy officials in Saigon saw it, and they questioned his patriotism. The reporter stood his ground, brashly charging that the embassy had become "the adjunct of a dictatorship."
Halberstam subsequently became what most journalists secretly aspire to–a successful author of big and smart books on sweeping topics. His The Best and the Brightest, which deals with the decision-making in military and foreign policy surrounding America's involvement in Vietnam, remains a classic. What makes it still so compelling a read is his critical eye, passion for truth and sheer zest for mapping out the Washington bureaucratic infighting that steered the country into Vietnam. It was not hyperbole to present the narrative in epic terms, for although Vietnam is a small and underdeveloped, distant land, the war there was a part of a historic struggle between the world's two superpowers and two competing ideologies.
In War in a Time of Peace Halberstam returns for the first time to the area of national security reporting to look at America in the 1990s "through our decisions in foreign policy." He brings to the task his prodigious writing skills and the understanding that decision-making in military and foreign policy affairs is driven by personality as much as by events. The canvas is vast. But the baby boomers who now run the US government are a different breed from the men who surrounded JFK and LBJ. President Clinton, an enormously talented man of great promise that was never fulfilled, himself seems to embody the new generation. Quite apart from various domestic scandals, he had little interest in foreign affairs. (A few days before taking office, he told Lee Hamilton, then chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, that nobody in America cared about foreign policy except for a handful of journalists.) After informing the nation that he had ordered an attack on Yugoslavia, Clinton vanished from public view, apparently shying away from public responsibility for it.
The President, as far as the military was concerned, was perhaps its most detested Commander in Chief. Their problem with Clinton went back to the way he handled his draft call. They did not like his decision to allow gays to serve openly in the military, but liked it even less when, facing opposition, he quickly backed off. Various scandals during his presidency further undermined his standing. They despised what they saw as the primary concern at the White House: not necessarily reality but "the appearance of reality–spin." The very qualities that made him a superb operator in American politics–his skill with words, his immense ambiguity, his knowledge of how to please different constituencies–made the military distrust him.
Clinton's top foreign policy advisers–Warren Christopher, Tony Lake, Sandy Berger and Madeleine Albright–had one common characteristic: None was a forceful, independent figure. Christopher became Secretary of State, we are told, because nobody knew "whether he had ideas or a vision of his own." Endowed with "a Hamlet-like quality," Lake is described as a "world class survivor" who presided over the National Security Council while the massacres in Bosnia and Rwanda took place. Berger, "the most pragmatic of men," was Clinton's political twin in his outlook toward foreign policy–which may explain why Berger could almost boast in a newspaper interview about how the Administration did almost everything in foreign policy ad hoc and mock those who thought it needed a larger strategic vision. Albright was a pioneer in a man's world and as such was ignored for a long time. (Her peers viewed her as "acceptably talented, not exceptional in intellect" and given to media grandstanding and self-promotion.)