Book Reviews   

 

 

War in a Time of Peace:

Bush, Clinton, and the Generals 

By David Halberstam  

Review by Richard Sheppard 

July 24, 2002 -- Historian David Halberstom, who sometimes recounts slightly too much the left, nonetheless writes detailed and readable “first drafts if history.” He has outstanding sources for his works, and War in a Time of Peace is a real insider’s read. Halberstam offers an individual-eyed look into the hair-pulling and baffling dramas that surrounded America’s reluctant involvement in the Balkans from the end of George H.W. Bush’s presidency down through the end of Bill Clinton’s. Along the way, the reader gets an education about a region that is so wickedly twisted that it stumps long-time policy experts and world-weary diplomats. The volume is also a valuable contribution to understanding first, how not to make policy, second, how to finally arrive at a policy, and finally, how to convince everyone that the policy is correct. Despite this reviewer’s misgivings about the overall Clinton Administration, War in a Time of Peace describes a beguilingly complex problem President Clinton and his team finally got their arms around. At least for now, given the intransigent nature of the Balkan nations.

"..captures the frustrations of the Clinton policy-makers as they struggle to balance domestic opinion (tepidly interventionist), European considerations (wanting everything both ways), the re-emergence of Russia following the collapse of communism, and the vaunted American military (they’d fight, but there better be an “exit strategy.”).."

The book’s central canvas is the Clinton administration, and the many, many players and their differing agendas as Serbia, Kosovo, Croatia and assorted neighboring nations as they descend into super-nationalistic hell, and ultimately genocide. It captures the frustrations of the Clinton policy-makers as they struggle to balance domestic opinion (tepidly interventionist), European considerations (wanting everything both ways), the re-emergence of Russia following the collapse of communism, and the vaunted American military (they’d fight, but there better be an “exit strategy.”)

In telling the events, Halberstam describes the primary players. Richard Holbrooke, the special negotiator of incredible ambition and ego, who can claim victory in the end. America’s first female Secretary of State Madeline Albright, who as an interventionist finally sees the bombing start, only to have the episode sometimes referred to as “Madeline’s War.” Colin Powell, America’s “First Soldier” who seeks to prevent America’s military from becoming quagmired in “another Vietnam.” Clinton’s two primary policy-wranglers, Sandy Berger and Anthony Lake, career government officials who skillfully navigate the seemingly unending obstacles to stopping the fighting and killing in the Balkans. And perhaps the smoothest of the smooth among a smooth Clinton team, General Wesley Clark, who happily jumps to the head of his class over more senior generals, and comfortably adapts to his role as mad bomber and all-around monkey-wrench bearer. Despite being the Commander-in-Chief, Clinton’s role in War in a Time of Peace is muted; he continually hopes his experts will carry the day, and they largely do so.

The history of the Balkans and the ethnic hatreds that still simmer are centuries old, and one gets the impression not necessarily or by any means entirely from this book, but from general exposure, that there will never be a true peace in the region.  Still, if you could look back from many years hence, War in a Time of Peace describes a time when a well-intentioned United States stepped between multiple belligerents, slapped them around, and got them to calm down for enough time for them to re-arm, re-equip, and start another round of killing.  Let’s hope not.

-- Rich Sheppard