Air Power Politics

Air Power Politics

Dusko Doder reviews David Halberstam's War in a Time of Peace.


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.)

Working with this cast of characters, the author could not replicate the drama and the tension of The Best and the Brightest, where decisions emerged from a caldron of strong feelings, ambition and anti-Communist zeal. For even when they took misguided steps, the American leaders of the 1960s were firmly convinced that Communism was threatening America's very existence and that relentless struggle on all fronts was crucial to preserve our way of life. This sounds like a platitude today; with the collapse of Communism it is hard to grasp the depth of passions that were tearing America apart. Occasionally, Halberstam stretches somewhat inappropriately to make the Clinton men into interesting personalities. For example, Lake is cast as a "Wilsonian figure" because his grandfather was a Harvard theologian. (This was "an almost sure sign that there would be significant Wilsonian traces in the gene pool.")

The central theme is America's groping for a strategy, a vision of what it should do in an unsettled and turbulent post-cold war world to stabilize it at low cost. The Administration first stumbled into a nation-building mission in Somalia, which was in the grip of civil war. (As Albright put it, the objective was to help lift Somalia "from the category of a failed state into that of an emerging democracy.") But the mission turned into a fiasco when the Somalis turned on the Americans. Then, in 1994, Clinton invaded Haiti to end the rule of a military junta and restore the elected president to power. Somalia and Haiti, Halberstam says, taught Clinton that "foreign policy might not help you, but it could certainly hurt you." He and his advisers were still plagued by the problem of Bosnia, "which limited everything else they did in foreign affairs." The focus of this book is overwhelmingly on the Balkans, where, according to Halberstam, the Clinton Administration finally discovers the answer, in the 1999 Kosovo war: that things in the world could be changed by a minimum, casualty-free application of American air power.

This hit Halberstam as a kind of revelation. While US and NATO aircraft pounded Yugoslavia for almost three months, the United States went about its business as usual. "It was something stunningly new–war in a time of peace." With few people realizing it, he observes, the Clinton Administration "had finally faced a critically important test for uses of American might." His view that this was a momentous event in the history of warfare is buttressed by British military historian John Keegan: "Now there is a new turning point to fix on the calendar, June 3, 1999, when the capitulation of President Milosevic proved that a war can be won by airpower alone."

The heroes of Halberstam's book are two second-echelon officials–Richard Holbrooke and Gen. Wesley Clark–helped by Albright, the original interventionist who had urged air attacks on Serbia as far back as 1993. They had nudged a reluctant President in the right direction, according to Halberstam.

Both Holbrooke and Clark are fascinating and engaging figures, each of them a wunderkind, each very ambitious, focused, brilliant and driven. Halberstam has known Holbrooke since their Vietnam days, when Holbrooke was a young diplomat who openly questioned official policy. ("Then and later, Holbrooke's ambition was matched only by his intelligence and the awesome quality of both, plus his raw charm, made him likeable sometimes inspite of himself.") Clark, "a water walker," parted company with his Army colleagues and embraced interventionist views after he became Holbrooke's military aide. ("The fault line in American geopolitical life ran right through him," Halberstam says.)

The interventionists were opposed by the Pentagon and Defense Secretary William Cohen, who is portrayed as an ineffectual wimp. ("If Cohen wrote an autobiography, after his career in the House and the Senate, his years in the Pentagon would get one brief chapter.") All top Pentagon generals are portrayed here as good but limited men. For example, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Hugh Shelton, was "a good man, not brilliant but fair and steady, who represented the virtues, the strength, the limitations and the conservatism" of the Army. Some, in addition, are capricious. Army chief Dennis Reimer had refused to sign off on Clark's appointment as NATO commander because he "simply did not like" him.

Here, on the whole, is where the book fails. However amusing and sharp the portraits and insight into the political manipulations, the substantive issues are presented incoherently and in a rambling fashion. What is missing is Halberstam's bone-deep knowledge and refined critical powers that gave his Vietnam book a firm spine of political argument. He does not know the Balkans; as a result, he brings little knowledge or insight gained firsthand. He thinks Vojvodina, the largest province of Serbia, is a town. I choose this particular, and minor, error because Vojvodina–the flatlands between Belgrade and the Hungarian border–happens to have been the venue for a possible ground invasion that Reimer and other chiefs favored over Clark's ill-chosen southern route leading through the Albanian Alps into Kosovo.

Halberstam's shaky grasp of the situation on the ground is coupled with his uncritical acceptance of what was essentially war propaganda. Exhibit A is the repeated assertion of genocide in Kosovo. ("This time the enemy was genocide, not Communism.") A year after the war's end, the Red Cross said 3,368 Albanian Kosovars were missing; the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia says 4,300 Albanian Kosovars have been exhumed so far. There are probably more victims that have not been accounted for, but that's not the point. Genocide–"acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group," according to the tribunal's statutes–definitely occurred in Bosnia, where tens of thousands of Muslims died and more than a million were uprooted, but easy use of the term for Kosovo is ill advised.

In developing the argument for the use of air power, Halberstam presents a fuzzy account of the collapse of the Bosnian Serbs in 1995. The key role in it was played by the Croatian Army, which was trained by retired American officers led by Gen. Carl Vuono, the former Army chief of staff. To say that the Croatian invasion of Bosnia "by chance" coincided with the American diplomatic push in August of 1995 is doubtful at best. (A Holbrooke aide told me at the time, "The Croats have long wanted to humiliate the Serbs, and this time we gave them the yellow light–proceed with caution.")

At one point in the book, we are told that at a meeting in Washington three weeks prior to the invasion Holbrooke favored "unleashing the Croats," while Lake and Albright were for "a yellow light." Moreover, Holbrooke's deputy, the late Robert Frasure, told a senior Croatian military official, "Well, do be careful," after the latter had presented him a detailed plan for the invasion. Holbrooke, in his own memoir, says the Croats moved "still against American recommendations," but this could be because he did not care to be associated with the atrocities the Croats committed during the mission.

Halberstam's argument is further weakened by the fact that the air campaign in the Kosovo war did remarkably little damage to Milosevic's military. Only when the United States unleashed the full force of NATO air power on Yugoslav cities, after forty-five days of trying to destroy the military, did the Serbian people begin to protest openly against Milosevic. The systematic destruction of the country's economic life and infrastructure undoubtedly led to the capitulation, but even then it was Washington's diplomatic deal with Moscow that finally forced Milosevic's hand. Without access to Russia's arms and energy, he was doomed.

There was never any question in anyone's mind–Milosevic included–that the NATO alliance could demolish Yugoslavia. But the test for any military action is whether violence can achieve political objectives. The heart of the matter is a clear definition of our political objectives in Kosovo. In his own memoir, Clark observes that after the war started "a number of us had begun to ask in private about the political goals of the campaign."

Clark had been so keen to fight a war that he had apparently not thought about those goals. He reasoned, according to Halberstam, that once it started Washington would have no choice but to give him everything he wanted, because if things started going badly, "the national security and humanitarian rationales would give way to other considerations: the ego and the vanity and the place in history of the Clinton (and Blair) administrations, and the need to show that NATO had not been defeated by some tinhorn dictator." No wonder the generals were worried about Clark.

The chiefs, starting with Colin Powell (who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs during the first Clinton term), wanted to know what the roles and missions were, what the objectives were and what the exit strategy was. They also wanted a strong White House commitment and Congressional support. Do these matters reflect the military's innate conservatism, as Clark and Holbrooke insist, or are they legitimate concerns of military professionals? Sadly, Halberstam's list of interviewees does not include Shelton, Reimer or other chiefs, who might have shed some light on the issue.

Coming after the bloody terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the book's seductive concept that a war can be won by air power alone is now being put to a real test. There is far more at stake in the current war against terrorism than in any of Clinton's military ventures. Moreover, the terrible loss of American lives gives the United States a moral justification that Clinton's engagements lacked. But it is obvious that much more is needed than air power. Conservatives advocate the use of ground troops and the expansion of war to Iraq, Iran and Syria. Liberals urge restraint and a multinational effort to eradicate terrorism. Powell, now Secretary of State, has staked out the middle ground, and at least this is encouraging. But in the current climate it is virtually impossible to have a calm debate about how best to achieve our political objectives and, more important, how to reassess America's place in the world in the twenty-first century.

Halberstam's book offers a catalogue of mistakes that flowed from Clinton's inattention to international affairs and his ad hoc resort to violence for tactical ends. Halberstam's "war in a time of peace" acquires a wholly different meaning after September 11. Given the short American political attention span, the air bombardments in the Balkans could be presented as victories even though they resolved none of the problems on the ground, where US troops continue doing constabulary duty to keep peace in Bosnia and Kosovo. The war against terrorism is something of an entirely different magnitude, and it will engage our attention for a long time.

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