War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals

Overview

Pulitzer Prize­winning journalist David Halberstam chronicles Washington politics and foreign policy in post­Cold War America. Evoking the internal conflicts, unchecked egos, and power struggles within the White House, the State Department, and the military, Halberstam shows how the decisions of men who served in the Vietnam War, and those who did not, have shaped America's role in global events. He provides fascinating portraits of those in power — Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Kissinger, James Baker, Dick Cheney, ...

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Overview

Pulitzer Prize­winning journalist David Halberstam chronicles Washington politics and foreign policy in post­Cold War America. Evoking the internal conflicts, unchecked egos, and power struggles within the White House, the State Department, and the military, Halberstam shows how the decisions of men who served in the Vietnam War, and those who did not, have shaped America's role in global events. He provides fascinating portraits of those in power — Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Kissinger, James Baker, Dick Cheney, Madeleine Albright, and others — to reveal a stunning view of modern political America.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Bestselling historian David Halberstam offers a look at how George H. W. Bush and the man who replaced him as commander-in-chief, Bill Clinton, handled the various rocks and shoals of U.S. foreign policy during their terms in office. According to Halberstam, the most difficult task for presidents in the post-Cold War world has been handling the varying egos and personalities of U.S. generals like Colin Powell.
From the Publisher
Leslie H. Gelb president, Council on Foreign Relations Halberstam's most important book, more ambitious and revealing than The Best and the Brightest, in what it tells of politics and decision making in America during the nineties. Just as Vietnam was the test case for our elders, the Balkans and other tragic conflicts became the proving ground for the Bush and Clinton administrations. What Halberstam has written is nothing less than a War and Peace for our generation.
From The Critics
Bill Clinton, who wasn't particularly interested in foreign affairs and effortlessly persuaded the voters that it didn't matter, ended up spending much of his presidency grappling with three of the most intractable foreign-policy crises of the '90s: ethnic warfare in the Balkans, violent chaos in Africa and a bloody stalemate in the Middle East. As historical ironies go, that's a doozy. But Halberstam's book doesn't quite rise to the occasion, though it is full of interesting things (such as the acute observation that by cutting back on their foreign-news coverage in the '80s, the TV networks became "essentially isolationist, or neo-isolationist, both reflecting and at the same time increasing the nation's self-absorption"). That's part of the problem—it's too full. This is the sort of book that publicists call "epic," meaning that it wanders all over the place and trails off inconclusively at the end. As for the smoothly portentous drone of Halberstam's Pulitzer Prize-winning prose style, suffice it to say that the book would be a lot more readable if it contained fewer sentences like "Events, George Ball wrote in one of his dove papers on Vietnam just before the fateful commitment of American combat troops, quoting from Emerson, are in the saddle and ride mankind." Doesn't anybody edit manuscripts anymore?
—Terry Teachout

Publishers Weekly
War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals by David Halberstam. The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian looks at events that have shaped contemporary politics and political leaders in Washington. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Halberstam, the former Vietnam War correspondent and redoubtable historian (The Best and the Brightest), assesses the lasting influence of the Indochina war on U.S. foreign policy. Popular lore has it that the Gulf War, a convincing triumph over a Third World despotism, banished the "Vietnam Syndrome," whose most obvious feature is an extreme reluctance to put American troops at risk for fear of alienating the public. Halberstam demolishes this fiction. Fascinating capsule biographies of Colin Powell, Bill Clinton, and other leaders establish beyond a doubt that the Indochina debacle was the formative event in their lives and continues to shape policy today. Indeed, post-Cold War operations such as the Kosovo campaign seem to have consummated the Vietnam Syndrome witness the spectacle of NATO warplanes delivering their munitions from 15,000 feet for fear of losing allied pilots. This sobering account of the factors that have misshapen U.S. military operations is an ideal companion to the recent memoir by Gen. Wesley Clark, former NATO commander in Kosovo (Waging Modern War, LJ 8/01). An indispensable addition to all public libraries. James R. Holmes, Ph.D. Candidate, Fletcher Sch. of Law & Diplomacy, Tufts Univ., Medford, MA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Another weighty tome from the noted journalist and historian, this one chronicling the sometimes confused, always complex junction of foreign policy and military might. Halberstam (The Children), a familiar explainer of the ways of Washington, here turns his attention to an ongoing matter: the reshaping of the US military following the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War. When the armed services faced its first major test after the fall of the Soviet Union, it was in the one-sided Persian Gulf War, "a devastating four-day land war, a rout preceded by five weeks of lethal, high-precision, high-technology air dominance." Halberstam focuses closely on John Warden, a "brilliant, truly innovative, and equally difficult" air force colonel who, having been sharply critical of the conduct of the Vietnam War, developed a doctrine of absolute air supremacy and of bombing the enemy into submission; he also looks closely at Warden's civilian counterparts, who imposed political conditions on the military and, some critics have charged, prevented the Allied forces from taking Baghdad and putting an end to Saddam Hussein's regime. Other recent military ventures, Halberstam observes, ended less successfully than the Gulf War, among them the disastrous American intervention in Somalia and the inconclusive invasion of Haiti; no international conflict exposed the weakness of American resolve and the ongoing legacy of the so-called Vietnam Syndrome than the outbreak of the war in Bosnia, about which the first Bush administration did next to nothing and the Clinton administration merely dithered. As always, Halberstam's cast of characters numbers in the high dozens, and hisfondness for encyclopedic detail lends a daunting air to an already dense discussion. Still, well-written and lucid, his narrative reveals a military that continues to be ill-coordinated to meet-and sometimes opposed to-the political ends of its civilian overseers, who in turn often seem terminally confused about the rest of the world. Excellent, as is Halberstam's custom, and instructive for those seeking to understand geopolitical realities.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743223232
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 9/3/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 560
  • Sales rank: 642,584
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.44 (h) x 1.25 (d)

Meet the Author


David Halberstam
was one of America's most distinguished journalists and historians, a man whose newspaper reporting and books have helped define the era we live in. He graduated from Harvard in 1955, took his first job on the smallest daily in Mississippi, and then covered the early civil rights struggle for the Nashville Tennessean. He joined The New York Times in 1960, went overseas almost immediately, first to the Congo and then to Vietnam. His early pessimistic dispatches from Vietnam won him the Pulitzer in 1964 at the age of thirty. His last twelve books, starting with The Best and the Brightest and including The Powers That Be, The Reckoning, and The Fifties, have all been national bestsellers. Thirty-eight years after Mr. Halberstam won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in Vietnam, War in a Time of Peace was the runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize. He died in April 2007.

Biography

A journalist, historian, and biographer, David Halberstam brought his idiosyncratic and stylistic approach to heavy subjects: the Vietnam War (in 1972's The Best and the Brightest); the shaping of American politics (in 1979's The Powers That Be); the American economy's relationship with the automobile industry (in 1986's The Reckoning); and the civil rights movement (in 1998's Freedom Riders).

His books were loaded with anecdotes, metaphors, suspense, and a narrative tone most writers reserve for fiction. The resulting books -- many of them huge bestsellers -- gave Halberstam heavyweight status (he won the Pulitzer for international reporting in 1964) and established him as an important commentator on American politics and power.

Halberstam was also known for his sports books. In The Breaks of the Game, which a critic for The New York Times called "one of the best books I've ever read about American sports," he took on professional basketball.

In The Amateurs, he examined the world of sculling; in Summer of '49 and October 1964, he focused on two pivotal baseball events: the Boston Red Sox's exasperating near victory over the New York Yankees for the 1949 pennant, and the 1964 season, when the Yankees lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals. In 1999's Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, Halberstam documented the making of a legend.

Always happy to extend his reach well beyond the subject at hand, Halberstam packed his books with social commentary as well as sports detail.

His writing routine was as strenuous and disciplined as that of any of the athletes he wrote about. To sustain his steady output of extensively researched, almost-always-massive books, he allows no unscheduled interruptions: "Most of us who have survived here [New York] after a number of years have ironclad work rules. Nothing interrupts us. Nothing," he once wrote in The New York Times. "We surface only at certain hours of the day."

Good To Know

David Halberstam's first job was as a reporter for a small-town Mississippi newspaper.
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    1. Date of Birth:
      April 10, 1934
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Death:
      April 23, 2007
    2. Place of Death:
      San Francisco, California
    1. Education:
      B.A., Harvard, 1955

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

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.

One moment had seemed to symbolize the supreme confidence of the Bush people during this remarkable chain of events. It came in mid-August of 1991, when some Russian right-wingers mounted a coup against Gorbachev and Bush held firm, trying at first to support Gorbachev and, unable to reach him, then using his influence to help the embattled Boris Yeltsin. The coup had failed. A few days later, Gorbachev, restored to power in part because of the leverage of Washington, had resigned from the Communist Party. To the Bush people that attempted coup had been a reminder that with the Cold War officially ended or not, the Berlin Wall up or down, 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 are going to turn to a Democrat now?" he asked.

Bush himself believed he was invulnerable. He had presided over the end of the Cold War with considerable distinction. He had handled the delicate job of dealing with the complicated international events that had led to the end of European communism, thereby freeing the satellite nations of Eastern Europe, and perhaps most remarkably of all, gaining, with Russian approval, a unified Germany that was a member of NATO. But typically he had held back on participating in any kind of celebration to mark those stunning events.

When the Berlin Wall had come down, many in the right wing, and a number of people around Bush himself, wanted some kind of ceremony, for this was a historic moment and they believed it deserved a commemoration not unlike those that had attended V-E and V-J Days in World War II, the victories in Europe over Germany, and in the Pacific over Japan. The destruction of the wall represented not merely the West's triumph in a long, difficult struggle against a formidable adversary, but equally important, a triumph in their minds of good over evil, proof that we had been right and they had been wrong, and that our system was politically, economically, ethically, and spiritually superior to theirs. At the very least there should be, they believed, one momentous speech to recount the history of the Cold War and celebrate the victory of the forces of light over darkness.

But Bush was uncomfortable with the idea of a celebration, aware that he had little flare for the dramatic. "I'm not going to dance on the wall," he told his aides. Even as the wall was coming down, Marlin Fitzwater, his press officer, had invited a small group of reporters into the Oval Office to talk with the president, but they found his answers cautious, curiously without emotion, almost joyless. Bush was sparring with them. Why wasn't he more excited? a reporter asked. I'm not an emotional kind of guy, he answered. "Maybe," he said later by way of explaining his self-restraint, "I should have given them one of these," and he leapt in the air in a parody of a then popular Toyota commercial portraying a happy car owner jumping and clicking his heels together. On Saturday Night Live, a comic named Dana Carvey, who often parodied Bush, showed him watching scenes of Berliners celebrating the destruction of the wall but refusing to join in. "Wouldn't be prudent," he said. Then Carvey-as-Bush pointed at himself: "Place in history? Se-cure!"

So, much to the disappointment of many on the right, Bush was anxious to minimize the event as a symbolic occasion. It was against his nature. Taking personal credit for any kind of larger success, not all of which was his, conflicted with the way he had been brought up. He believed — an attitude that was surely old-fashioned and quite optimistic in an age of ever more carefully orchestrated political spin, when the sizzle was more important than the steak — that if you did the right things in the right way, people would know about it. You should never call attention to yourself or, worse, advertise your accomplishments. Besides, Bush put a primacy on personal relationships, and by then he had begun to forge one with Mikhail Gorbachev and was obviously unwilling to do anything that would make things more difficult for his new ally. The more Bush celebrated, the more vulnerable Gorbachev and the other more democratically inclined figures in the Soviet Union were likely to be. Celebrating was like gloating and Bush would not gloat. (A few months later, getting close to an election campaign, Bush was more emboldened, and when he delivered his January 1992 State of the Union speech, with an election year just beginning, he did give the United States credit for winning the Cold War. Gorbachev, by then ousted from power, was not amused and said that the end of the Cold War was "our common victory. We should give credit to all politicians who participated in that victory.")

It was probably just as well that Bush did not try to grab too much credit for the collapse of communism, for what had transpired was a triumphal victory for an idea rather than for any one man or political faction. The Soviet Union had turned out to be, however involuntarily, the perfect advertisement for the free society, suggesting in the end that harsh, authoritarian controls and systems did not merely limit political, intellectual, and spiritual freedom, but economic freedom and military development as well. They limited not just the freedom of the individual, something that many rulers in many parts of the world would gladly accommodate to, but in the end limited the sum strength and might of the state, which was a very different thing. Therefore, what the proponents of an open society had long argued, that freedom was indivisible, and that the freedom to speak openly and candidly about political matters was in the long run inseparable from the freedom to invent some new high-technology device, or to run a brilliant new company, was true. The rights of man included not merely the right to compose and send an angry letter to a newspaper complaining about the government, they included as well as the right to choose where he went to work, and his right to garner, if he so chose and worked hard enough and with enough originality, far greater material rewards than his neighbors. The Soviet system was a devastating argument for what the lack of choice did, and what happened when a society was run top to bottom, instead of bottom to top. When George Bush had taken office, the Soviet system had begun to collapse of its own weight. Clearly by the eighties, Communist rule, as critics had long suggested, had undermined the nation itself, weakening it, particularly in a high-tech age when there was such an immediate and direct connection between the vitality of the domestic economy and a nation's military capacity, and when the gap between American weaponry and that of the Soviets had begun to widen at an ever greater rate.

Symbols had never been Bush's strength, and those who were dissatisfied with his innate caution liked to imagine what Ronald Reagan — who was always so brilliant with symbols and had a God-given sense of when and how to use them — might have done had he still been president when the wall fell. Possibly he would have ventured to Berlin for some wonderful kind of ceremony that the entire nation, perhaps the entire free world, could have shared. But Reagan was then and Bush was now, and unlike his predecessor (and his successor), Bush tended to downplay ceremonial moments. Many in the right wing who had often found him to be of too little ideological faith were again let down. Once more he had proven himself unworthy, placing success in a delicate and as yet unfinished geopolitical process above the temptation to savor what might have been a glorious historic moment.

Bush's belief that process always took precedence over image confirmed his reputation, essentially well-deserved, as a cautious insider rather than a public figure who knew how to rise to historic occasions and use symbols to bring the nation together. In a way it was Bush at both his best and worst. At his worst, he failed to take a memorable event and outline what it meant in larger terms of the long, hard struggle of a free society against a totalitarian state, and perhaps at the very least to showcase those remarkable people in Eastern Europe whose faith in a better, more democratic way during the long, dark hours of communist suppression was finally being rewarded. But it was also Bush at his best, because he was unwilling to exploit a vulnerable colleague — Gorbachev — and his distress and humiliation for political profit. Bush, after all, was first and foremost a team player, and unlikely though it might have seemed just a few years earlier, Gorbachev was now his teammate.

Whether or not he celebrated the end of the Cold War, it appeared to be just one more significant boost to his presidency. And it came at virtually the same time that American military forces, as the dominating part of the United Nations coalition, had defeated the Iraqi army in a devastating four-day land war, a rout preceded by five weeks of lethal, high-precision, high-technology air dominance. The stunning success of the American units in the Persian Gulf War, the cool efficiency of their weapons and the almost immediate collapse of the Iraqi forces, had been savored by most Americans as more than a victory over an Arab nation about which they knew little and which had invaded a small, autocratic, oil-producing duchy about which they knew even less. Rather, it had ended a period of frustration and self-doubt that had tormented many Americans for some twenty years as a result of any number of factors: the deep embarrassment of the Vietnam War, the humiliation suffered during the Iranian hostage crisis, and the uneasiness about a core economy that was in disrepair and was falling behind the new muscle of a confident, powerful Japan, known now in American business circles as Japan Inc.

The Gulf War showed that the American military had recovered from the malaise of the Vietnam debacle and was once again the envy of the rest of the world, with the morale and skill level of the fighting men themselves matching the wonders of the weapons they now had at their disposal. The lessons of the Gulf War were obvious, transcending simple military capacity and extending in some larger psychological sense to a broader national view of our abilities. We were back, and American forces could not be pushed around again. Perhaps we had slipped a bit in the production of cars, but American goods, in this case its modern weapons, were still the best in the world. The nation became, once again, strong, resilient, and optimistic.

The troops who fought in the Gulf War were honored as the troops who had fought in Vietnam were not. Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf, the presiding generals of the war, were celebrated as William Westmoreland had never been. Shades of World War II: Powell was the new Eisenhower, the thoughtful, careful, tough but benign overall planner; and Schwarzkopf was the new Patton, the crusty, cigar-chomping, hell-for-leather combat commander. There was a joyous victory parade in Washington, and then they were honored again at a tumultuous ticker-tape parade in New York. Powell's security people had suggested that he wear a flak vest, but he felt he was heavy enough without one, and he was driven along the parade route in an open 1959 Buick convertible without protection. Both Schwarzkopf and Powell were from the New York area, Schwarzkopf the son of the head of the New Jersey State Police, and Powell the son of parents who had both worked in the garment district. Powell's memory of occasions like this was of newsreel clips of parades for Lindbergh, Eisenhower, and MacArthur. Now riding through a blizzard of ticker tape raining down on himself and Schwarzkopf, he had been delighted; all this fuss, he thought, for two local boys who had made good.

Nineteen ninety-one had been an excellent year for George Bush. It had ended with the ultimate Christmas present for an American president when Gorbachev had called to wish him well personally, and to inform him that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. Gorbachev, the last leader of the USSR, was resigning and turning over power to Boris Yeltsin, the new leader of Russia. Earlier in the day, Gorbachev had told Ted Koppel of Nightline that he was a something of a modern-day Russian pioneer because he was participating in the peaceful transfer of power, acting in accordance with a formula that was democratic, something relatively new in Moscow. Then, in a warm, rather affectionate conversation with Bush he said was turning over what he called the little suitcase, the bag that contained the authorization codes to activate the Soviet nuclear arsenal, to the president of the Russian Republic. Even so, he could not bear to mention Yeltsin, his sworn enemy, by name. The deed was done and Gorbachev was gone. (As Raisa Gorbachev had shrewdly observed after returning from an immensely successful trip to the United States in June 1990, "The thing about innovations is that sooner or later they turn around and destroy the innovators.")

Some of that special call announcing the end of the Soviet Union was even watched on television. Gorbachev, the product of the most secretive society in the world, was now a media-savvy man who had learned to play to international as well as domestic opinion. Bush would later discover that Gorbachev had allowed Koppel and Nightline to televise his end of their two-person phone call. It was the climax of a year that most American presidents only dream of. It seemed like the rarest of times when almost all the news was good and Bush was the primary beneficiary. His presidency was an immense success and his reelection appeared to be a sure thing.

But there were already signs that a powerful new undertow was at work in American politics, and Bush and the people around him were for a variety of reasons, most of them generational, slow to recognize it. But the signs of significant political and social change were there nonetheless. They reflected a certain lack of gratitude on the part of all kinds of ordinary people for the successes of the last three years, and a growing anger — indeed perhaps rage — about the state of the American economy. There was also a concurrent belief that George Bush was certainly capable of being an effective world leader, but domestic problems and issues, in this case, principally, the economy, did not matter as much to him as foreign affairs. A number of different pollsters were picking up this undertow of discontent, among them Stan Greenberg, a former Yale professor who was polling for the young would-be Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton, and Fred Steeper, who had impeccable Republican connections and was polling for the Republican National Committee. Steeper was working out of the office of Bob Teeter, a leading Republican public opinion expert, who was one of George Bush's closest friends and political allies and would be among the men directing his campaign for reelection. Normally Steeper would have been polling for Bush directly, but due to a temporary breakdown in polling in 1991 because of factional differences in the White House, he had ended up working for the RNC.

By the early nineties, polling had become an ever more exact and important instrument of American politics, though some old-timers from an earlier political era were made uneasy by it. They especially distrusted those politicians who used it on all occasions for all purposes and appeared to have no inner value system or beliefs that could withstand the alleged truths produced by polling. But used properly, polls could reveal some things. Used properly, they could serve as a good DEW-line alert system for forces that might soon represent important shifts of public opinion. At the very least they could reveal the primacy of issues, and this would turn out to be one of those occasions. Fred Steeper thought he had been detecting signs of a growing economic malaise for quite a while and a resulting public disenchantment with Bush's attempts to deal with the economy. The huge budget deficits produced by Reagan's tax policies had led to a bitterly debated decision in 1990 on the part of George Bush to go for a tax increase. Campaigning for election in 1988, he had vowed not to raise taxes — "Read my lips. No new taxes," he had said during the campaign. By breaking that promise he had angered many in his own party. The bright and angry young Republican conservatives in the House, led by Newt Gingrich, had broken with him on that issue, and he had got the tax increase through Congress largely with support from the Democrats. But it would become a not-insignificant wound.

By the summer and fall of 1991, the polls had begun to show a potential vulnerability for Bush. His personal ratings still remained high, but there was a growing public restlessness about the direction of the economy and therefore of the country. The economy, then, that was turning into a slow-burning but eventually inflammatory issue for the incumbent. Several regions in the nation were suffering from a recession, and by the end of 1991, the entire country would be declared in a recession. One type of economy, a blue-collar industrial one, was coming to an end, and the new high-tech digital one that would soon replace much of it had not yet arrived with sufficient impact to compensate for its predecessor's decline. The Japanese were producing heavy industrial goods of a higher quality than we were, and America's industrial heartland was being called the Rust Belt. The budget deficit was growing larger every year, as was the trade imbalance with Japan. Ordinary people who did not usually monitor such economic trends felt squeezed and believed they were working harder and harder just to stand still. It was one of those moments in American life, despite the continuing growth of the postwar economy, when economics and politics converged because normally abstract economic numbers were becoming deeply personal.

Steeper had discovered in late 1990 and early 1991 that there were increasingly serious political problems stemming from what was a stagnant economy. The irony of the Gulf War was that it had momentarily changed the lead topic on the national agenda from a growing concern about the economy to pride in our newly manifested military might. That, of course, was of immediate political benefit for Bush, resulting in the quantum increase in his personal popularity. Yet his vulnerability on economic issues was there. Right before the Gulf War, despite the success of the administration in ending the Cold War, the responses to the most elemental question a pollster can ask — "Is the administration on the right track or the wrong track?" — had been disturbing. Steeper's polls showed that roughly two out of three Americans thought the country was headed down the wrong track. Clearly there had not been much domestic political bounce to the amazing events that marked the end of the Cold War. But then came the triumph of the Gulf War. A mere two days into the fighting, a poll had shown a complete reversal of that most important index: two out of three Americans now thought we were headed in the right direction.

The Gulf War, however, had only temporarily obscured deep dissatisfaction in the country, particularly about the economy. That was new problem number one. Problem number two was that despite the warm and enthusiastic welcome accorded the returning troops, the Gulf War itself had surprisingly little traction. Yes, the country had sat transfixed for those few days, watching the television coverage released by the Department of Defense — video clips of high-technology bombs landing precisely on their intended targets. And yes, everything had gone not only as well as it was supposed to, but unlike most events in warfare, even better than expected. The entire country had fallen in love with the troops and their amazingly swift victory. If not everyone loves a sword, then almost everyone on the winning side loves a swift sword. But in truth, it was a war without real resonance. The actual land combat had lasted just four days, and it had been conducted by an elite professional army, thereby touching relatively few American homes. For much of the country it was a kind of virtual war, something few people were engaged in or had sacrificed for. Thus, like many things celebrated in the modern media, it was distant and oddly nonparticipatory; when it was over, it was over, leaving remarkably little trace. People had tied yellow ribbons to their mailboxes or gateposts as a sign of their support for those fighting, but it was very different, indeed, from the time during World War II when small flags with stars were displayed in windows to signify that a member of the family was in service, probably overseas and in harm's way.

The different pollsters tracking George Bush in the period after the Gulf War, from March until well into the fall of 1991, found a steady decline in the president's approval ratings, a decline, depending on the pollster, of some twenty or twenty-five percent. That was bad enough, but it was relatively easy to justify — after all, his ratings at the moment of victory in the desert had been almost unconscionably high. What went up that high certainly had to come down. Much more alarming was that people were again becoming mutinous over the economy, even as the aura of good feeling about the Gulf War was beginning to vanish.

The White House, for a variety of reasons, tended to cut itself off from that ominous trend. Steeper's polls and those of other pollsters showed that much of the country, perhaps as many as 80 percent of those polled, thought the country was in a recession. But the president's economic advisers — Michael Boskin, who was the head of the Council of Economic Advisers, effectively Bush's own personal economist, Dick Darman, his budget director, and Nick Brady, his secretary of the treasury — all told him that the recession was over. Some of his political people were furious with that stance; they thought the economists were dead wrong and were underestimating a potentially destructive political issue in order to justify their past advice. Nonetheless, Bush, in the fall of 1991, went public and declared that the recession was over. That was a critical mistake; it put him in direct conflict with the way a vast majority of Americans felt on an issue that was growing ever more serious in the public mind.

This was the predicament of the Bush White House at the end of 1991. It had been Bush's best year in office, yet a powerful political current was beginning to work against him. Furthermore, he was being given little credit for his considerate skill in negotiating the end of the Cold War. In fact, the end of the Cold War was now possibly also working against him, as the release from Cold War tensions accelerated the change in the primacy of issues, from foreign affairs, where the Republicans in general and Bush in particular had been the beneficiaries, to domestic affairs, at a time when the economy was soft and the chief beneficiaries on economic issues were the Democrats.

Among the first to spot this change was Fred Steeper. In December 1991, at exactly the time when the Soviet Union was breaking up and a once-feared adversary was losing its strength, he was holding a series of focus groups with ordinary citizens, trying to figure out how they felt about the issues that would face the Republican Party in the upcoming election year. The results were deadly. Not only was the primary issue the economy, not only did most ordinary people feel the country was mired deep in a recession, in contrast to what the president and his economic advisers were saying, but they were furious with Bush, who, they believed, was not that interested in them and their problems. Even more devastating, there were signs that it was already too late for him to right himself on this issue.

Because of these findings Steeper wrote a memo for his boss, Bob Teeter, suggesting the possibility of what he termed the Churchill Factor or the Churchill Parallel. At the end of July 1945, just after Germany had surrendered, a tired England had not even waited for the war to end in the Pacific before voting out Winston Churchill, its gallant and beloved wartime leader, whose bulldog determination had symbolized England's strength and faith during Europe's darkest hour, and replacing him with the obviously less charismatic Labor Party leader, Clement Attlee. (He is a modest man and has much to be modest about, Churchill once said of Attlee.) The British had believed that Churchill's primary passion was defense and foreign policy, not domestic affairs, and they wanted someone who they thought would pay more attention to their postwar needs.

The same thing might now happen to George Bush, Steeper warned, and it was imperative that the president not bank too heavily on his foreign policy successes in the campaign ahead. The economy was hurting a wide range of people and becoming preeminent in their minds. Bob Teeter warned Bush of much the same thing. But the president was more confident, loath to move against his top people — his economists — and still content to believe their rosier economic forecasts. Thus, a critical election year would begin with Americans bothered by the state of the economy and yearning for benefits from the end of the Cold War, and with George Bush under assault from a Democratic challenger for paying too much attention to foreign policy and too little to domestic policy. All of this would take place as the Balkan state of Yugoslavia began to unravel with horrendous human consequences.

Copyright © 2001 by The Amateurs, Inc.

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First Chapter

Chapter One

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.

One moment had seemed to symbolize the supreme confidence of the Bush people during this remarkable chain of events. It came in mid-August of 1991, when some Russian right-wingers mounted a coup against Gorbachev and Bush held firm, trying at first to support Gorbachev and, unable to reach him, then using his influence to help the embattled Boris Yeltsin. The coup had failed. A few days later, Gorbachev, restored to power in part because of the leverage of Washington, had resigned from the Communist Party. To the Bush people that attempted coup had been a reminder that with the Cold War officially ended or not, the Berlin Wall up or down, 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 are going to turn to a Democrat now?" he asked.

Bush himself believed he was invulnerable. He had presided over the end of the Cold War with considerable distinction. He had handled the delicate job of dealing with the complicated international events that had led to the end of European communism, thereby freeing the satellite nations of Eastern Europe, and perhaps most remarkably of all, gaining, with Russian approval, a unified Germany that was a member of NATO. But typically he had held back on participating in any kind of celebration to mark those stunning events.

When the Berlin Wall had come down, many in the right wing, and a number of people around Bush himself, wanted some kind of ceremony, for this was a historic moment and they believed it deserved a commemoration not unlike those that had attended V-E and V-J Days in World War II, the victories in Europe over Germany, and in the Pacific over Japan. The destruction of the wall represented not merely the West's triumph in a long, difficult struggle against a formidable adversary, but equally important, a triumph in their minds of good over evil, proof that we had been right and they had been wrong, and that our system was politically, economically, ethically, and spiritually superior to theirs. At the very least there should be, they believed, one momentous speech to recount the history of the Cold War and celebrate the victory of the forces of light over darkness.

But Bush was uncomfortable with the idea of a celebration, aware that he had little flare for the dramatic. "I'm not going to dance on the wall," he told his aides. Even as the wall was coming down, Marlin Fitzwater, his press officer, had invited a small group of reporters into the Oval Office to talk with the president, but they found his answers cautious, curiously without emotion, almost joyless. Bush was sparring with them. Why wasn't he more excited? a reporter asked. I'm not an emotional kind of guy, he answered. "Maybe," he said later by way of explaining his self-restraint, "I should have given them one of these," and he leapt in the air in a parody of a then popular Toyota commercial portraying a happy car owner jumping and clicking his heels together. On Saturday Night Live, a comic named Dana Carvey, who often parodied Bush, showed him watching scenes of Berliners celebrating the destruction of the wall but refusing to join in. "Wouldn't be prudent," he said. Then Carvey-as-Bush pointed at himself: "Place in history? Se-cure!"

So, much to the disappointment of many on the right, Bush was anxious to minimize the event as a symbolic occasion. It was against his nature. Taking personal credit for any kind of larger success, not all of which was his, conflicted with the way he had been brought up. He believed — an attitude that was surely old-fashioned and quite optimistic in an age of ever more carefully orchestrated political spin, when the sizzle was more important than the steak — that if you did the right things in the right way, people would know about it. You should never call attention to yourself or, worse, advertise your accomplishments. Besides, Bush put a primacy on personal relationships, and by then he had begun to forge one with Mikhail Gorbachev and was obviously unwilling to do anything that would make things more difficult for his new ally. The more Bush celebrated, the more vulnerable Gorbachev and the other more democratically inclined figures in the Soviet Union were likely to be. Celebrating was like gloating and Bush would not gloat. (A few months later, getting close to an election campaign, Bush was more emboldened, and when he delivered his January 1992 State of the Union speech, with an election year just beginning, he did give the United States credit for winning the Cold War. Gorbachev, by then ousted from power, was not amused and said that the end of the Cold War was "our common victory. We should give credit to all politicians who participated in that victory.")

It was probably just as well that Bush did not try to grab too much credit for the collapse of communism, for what had transpired was a triumphal victory for an idea rather than for any one man or political faction. The Soviet Union had turned out to be, however involuntarily, the perfect advertisement for the free society, suggesting in the end that harsh, authoritarian controls and systems did not merely limit political, intellectual, and spiritual freedom, but economic freedom and military development as well. They limited not just the freedom of the individual, something that many rulers in many parts of the world would gladly accommodate to, but in the end limited the sum strength and might of the state, which was a very different thing. Therefore, what the proponents of an open society had long argued, that freedom was indivisible, and that the freedom to speak openly and candidly about political matters was in the long run inseparable from the freedom to invent some new high-technology device, or to run a brilliant new company, was true. The rights of man included not merely the right to compose and send an angry letter to a newspaper complaining about the government, they included as well as the right to choose where he went to work, and his right to garner, if he so chose and worked hard enough and with enough originality, far greater material rewards than his neighbors. The Soviet system was a devastating argument for what the lack of choice did, and what happened when a society was run top to bottom, instead of bottom to top. When George Bush had taken office, the Soviet system had begun to collapse of its own weight. Clearly by the eighties, Communist rule, as critics had long suggested, had undermined the nation itself, weakening it, particularly in a high-tech age when there was such an immediate and direct connection between the vitality of the domestic economy and a nation's military capacity, and when the gap between American weaponry and that of the Soviets had begun to widen at an ever greater rate.

Symbols had never been Bush's strength, and those who were dissatisfied with his innate caution liked to imagine what Ronald Reagan — who was always so brilliant with symbols and had a God-given sense of when and how to use them — might have done had he still been president when the wall fell. Possibly he would have ventured to Berlin for some wonderful kind of ceremony that the entire nation, perhaps the entire free world, could have shared. But Reagan was then and Bush was now, and unlike his predecessor (and his successor), Bush tended to downplay ceremonial moments. Many in the right wing who had often found him to be of too little ideological faith were again let down. Once more he had proven himself unworthy, placing success in a delicate and as yet unfinished geopolitical process above the temptation to savor what might have been a glorious historic moment.

Bush's belief that process always took precedence over image confirmed his reputation, essentially well-deserved, as a cautious insider rather than a public figure who knew how to rise to historic occasions and use symbols to bring the nation together. In a way it was Bush at both his best and worst. At his worst, he failed to take a memorable event and outline what it meant in larger terms of the long, hard struggle of a free society against a totalitarian state, and perhaps at the very least to showcase those remarkable people in Eastern Europe whose faith in a better, more democratic way during the long, dark hours of communist suppression was finally being rewarded. But it was also Bush at his best, because he was unwilling to exploit a vulnerable colleague — Gorbachev — and his distress and humiliation for political profit. Bush, after all, was first and foremost a team player, and unlikely though it might have seemed just a few years earlier, Gorbachev was now his teammate.

Whether or not he celebrated the end of the Cold War, it appeared to be just one more significant boost to his presidency. And it came at virtually the same time that American military forces, as the dominating part of the United Nations coalition, had defeated the Iraqi army in a devastating four-day land war, a rout preceded by five weeks of lethal, high-precision, high-technology air dominance. The stunning success of the American units in the Persian Gulf War, the cool efficiency of their weapons and the almost immediate collapse of the Iraqi forces, had been savored by most Americans as more than a victory over an Arab nation about which they knew little and which had invaded a small, autocratic, oil-producing duchy about which they knew even less. Rather, it had ended a period of frustration and self-doubt that had tormented many Americans for some twenty years as a result of any number of factors: the deep embarrassment of the Vietnam War, the humiliation suffered during the Iranian hostage crisis, and the uneasiness about a core economy that was in disrepair and was falling behind the new muscle of a confident, powerful Japan, known now in American business circles as Japan Inc.

The Gulf War showed that the American military had recovered from the malaise of the Vietnam debacle and was once again the envy of the rest of the world, with the morale and skill level of the fighting men themselves matching the wonders of the weapons they now had at their disposal. The lessons of the Gulf War were obvious, transcending simple military capacity and extending in some larger psychological sense to a broader national view of our abilities. We were back, and American forces could not be pushed around again. Perhaps we had slipped a bit in the production of cars, but American goods, in this case its modern weapons, were still the best in the world. The nation became, once again, strong, resilient, and optimistic.

The troops who fought in the Gulf War were honored as the troops who had fought in Vietnam were not. Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf, the presiding generals of the war, were celebrated as William Westmoreland had never been. Shades of World War II: Powell was the new Eisenhower, the thoughtful, careful, tough but benign overall planner; and Schwarzkopf was the new Patton, the crusty, cigar-chomping, hell-for-leather combat commander. There was a joyous victory parade in Washington, and then they were honored again at a tumultuous ticker-tape parade in New York. Powell's security people had suggested that he wear a flak vest, but he felt he was heavy enough without one, and he was driven along the parade route in an open 1959 Buick convertible without protection. Both Schwarzkopf and Powell were from the New York area, Schwarzkopf the son of the head of the New Jersey State Police, and Powell the son of parents who had both worked in the garment district. Powell's memory of occasions like this was of newsreel clips of parades for Lindbergh, Eisenhower, and MacArthur. Now riding through a blizzard of ticker tape raining down on himself and Schwarzkopf, he had been delighted; all this fuss, he thought, for two local boys who had made good.

Nineteen ninety-one had been an excellent year for George Bush. It had ended with the ultimate Christmas present for an American president when Gorbachev had called to wish him well personally, and to inform him that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. Gorbachev, the last leader of the USSR, was resigning and turning over power to Boris Yeltsin, the new leader of Russia. Earlier in the day, Gorbachev had told Ted Koppel of Nightline that he was a something of a modern-day Russian pioneer because he was participating in the peaceful transfer of power, acting in accordance with a formula that was democratic, something relatively new in Moscow. Then, in a warm, rather affectionate conversation with Bush he said was turning over what he called the little suitcase, the bag that contained the authorization codes to activate the Soviet nuclear arsenal, to the president of the Russian Republic. Even so, he could not bear to mention Yeltsin, his sworn enemy, by name. The deed was done and Gorbachev was gone. (As Raisa Gorbachev had shrewdly observed after returning from an immensely successful trip to the United States in June 1990, "The thing about innovations is that sooner or later they turn around and destroy the innovators.")

Some of that special call announcing the end of the Soviet Union was even watched on television. Gorbachev, the product of the most secretive society in the world, was now a media-savvy man who had learned to play to international as well as domestic opinion. Bush would later discover that Gorbachev had allowed Koppel and Nightline to televise his end of their two-person phone call. It was the climax of a year that most American presidents only dream of. It seemed like the rarest of times when almost all the news was good and Bush was the primary beneficiary. His presidency was an immense success and his reelection appeared to be a sure thing.

But there were already signs that a powerful new undertow was at work in American politics, and Bush and the people around him were for a variety of reasons, most of them generational, slow to recognize it. But the signs of significant political and social change were there nonetheless. They reflected a certain lack of gratitude on the part of all kinds of ordinary people for the successes of the last three years, and a growing anger — indeed perhaps rage — about the state of the American economy. There was also a concurrent belief that George Bush was certainly capable of being an effective world leader, but domestic problems and issues, in this case, principally, the economy, did not matter as much to him as foreign affairs. A number of different pollsters were picking up this undertow of discontent, among them Stan Greenberg, a former Yale professor who was polling for the young would-be Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton, and Fred Steeper, who had impeccable Republican connections and was polling for the Republican National Committee. Steeper was working out of the office of Bob Teeter, a leading Republican public opinion expert, who was one of George Bush's closest friends and political allies and would be among the men directing his campaign for reelection. Normally Steeper would have been polling for Bush directly, but due to a temporary breakdown in polling in 1991 because of factional differences in the White House, he had ended up working for the RNC.

By the early nineties, polling had become an ever more exact and important instrument of American politics, though some old-timers from an earlier political era were made uneasy by it. They especially distrusted those politicians who used it on all occasions for all purposes and appeared to have no inner value system or beliefs that could withstand the alleged truths produced by polling. But used properly, polls could reveal some things. Used properly, they could serve as a good DEW-line alert system for forces that might soon represent important shifts of public opinion. At the very least they could reveal the primacy of issues, and this would turn out to be one of those occasions. Fred Steeper thought he had been detecting signs of a growing economic malaise for quite a while and a resulting public disenchantment with Bush's attempts to deal with the economy. The huge budget deficits produced by Reagan's tax policies had led to a bitterly debated decision in 1990 on the part of George Bush to go for a tax increase. Campaigning for election in 1988, he had vowed not to raise taxes — "Read my lips. No new taxes," he had said during the campaign. By breaking that promise he had angered many in his own party. The bright and angry young Republican conservatives in the House, led by Newt Gingrich, had broken with him on that issue, and he had got the tax increase through Congress largely with support from the Democrats. But it would become a not-insignificant wound.

By the summer and fall of 1991, the polls had begun to show a potential vulnerability for Bush. His personal ratings still remained high, but there was a growing public restlessness about the direction of the economy and therefore of the country. The economy, then, that was turning into a slow-burning but eventually inflammatory issue for the incumbent. Several regions in the nation were suffering from a recession, and by the end of 1991, the entire country would be declared in a recession. One type of economy, a blue-collar industrial one, was coming to an end, and the new high-tech digital one that would soon replace much of it had not yet arrived with sufficient impact to compensate for its predecessor's decline. The Japanese were producing heavy industrial goods of a higher quality than we were, and America's industrial heartland was being called the Rust Belt. The budget deficit was growing larger every year, as was the trade imbalance with Japan. Ordinary people who did not usually monitor such economic trends felt squeezed and believed they were working harder and harder just to stand still. It was one of those moments in American life, despite the continuing growth of the postwar economy, when economics and politics converged because normally abstract economic numbers were becoming deeply personal.

Steeper had discovered in late 1990 and early 1991 that there were increasingly serious political problems stemming from what was a stagnant economy. The irony of the Gulf War was that it had momentarily changed the lead topic on the national agenda from a growing concern about the economy to pride in our newly manifested military might. That, of course, was of immediate political benefit for Bush, resulting in the quantum increase in his personal popularity. Yet his vulnerability on economic issues was there. Right before the Gulf War, despite the success of the administration in ending the Cold War, the responses to the most elemental question a pollster can ask — "Is the administration on the right track or the wrong track?" — had been disturbing. Steeper's polls showed that roughly two out of three Americans thought the country was headed down the wrong track. Clearly there had not been much domestic political bounce to the amazing events that marked the end of the Cold War. But then came the triumph of the Gulf War. A mere two days into the fighting, a poll had shown a complete reversal of that most important index: two out of three Americans now thought we were headed in the right direction.

The Gulf War, however, had only temporarily obscured deep dissatisfaction in the country, particularly about the economy. That was new problem number one. Problem number two was that despite the warm and enthusiastic welcome accorded the returning troops, the Gulf War itself had surprisingly little traction. Yes, the country had sat transfixed for those few days, watching the television coverage released by the Department of Defense — video clips of high-technology bombs landing precisely on their intended targets. And yes, everything had gone not only as well as it was supposed to, but unlike most events in warfare, even better than expected. The entire country had fallen in love with the troops and their amazingly swift victory. If not everyone loves a sword, then almost everyone on the winning side loves a swift sword. But in truth, it was a war without real resonance. The actual land combat had lasted just four days, and it had been conducted by an elite professional army, thereby touching relatively few American homes. For much of the country it was a kind of virtual war, something few people were engaged in or had sacrificed for. Thus, like many things celebrated in the modern media, it was distant and oddly nonparticipatory; when it was over, it was over, leaving remarkably little trace. People had tied yellow ribbons to their mailboxes or gateposts as a sign of their support for those fighting, but it was very different, indeed, from the time during World War II when small flags with stars were displayed in windows to signify that a member of the family was in service, probably overseas and in harm's way.

The different pollsters tracking George Bush in the period after the Gulf War, from March until well into the fall of 1991, found a steady decline in the president's approval ratings, a decline, depending on the pollster, of some twenty or twenty-five percent. That was bad enough, but it was relatively easy to justify — after all, his ratings at the moment of victory in the desert had been almost unconscionably high. What went up that high certainly had to come down. Much more alarming was that people were again becoming mutinous over the economy, even as the aura of good feeling about the Gulf War was beginning to vanish.

The White House, for a variety of reasons, tended to cut itself off from that ominous trend. Steeper's polls and those of other pollsters showed that much of the country, perhaps as many as 80 percent of those polled, thought the country was in a recession. But the president's economic advisers — Michael Boskin, who was the head of the Council of Economic Advisers, effectively Bush's own personal economist, Dick Darman, his budget director, and Nick Brady, his secretary of the treasury — all told him that the recession was over. Some of his political people were furious with that stance; they thought the economists were dead wrong and were underestimating a potentially destructive political issue in order to justify their past advice. Nonetheless, Bush, in the fall of 1991, went public and declared that the recession was over. That was a critical mistake; it put him in direct conflict with the way a vast majority of Americans felt on an issue that was growing ever more serious in the public mind.

This was the predicament of the Bush White House at the end of 1991. It had been Bush's best year in office, yet a powerful political current was beginning to work against him. Furthermore, he was being given little credit for his considerate skill in negotiating the end of the Cold War. In fact, the end of the Cold War was now possibly also working against him, as the release from Cold War tensions accelerated the change in the primacy of issues, from foreign affairs, where the Republicans in general and Bush in particular had been the beneficiaries, to domestic affairs, at a time when the economy was soft and the chief beneficiaries on economic issues were the Democrats.

Among the first to spot this change was Fred Steeper. In December 1991, at exactly the time when the Soviet Union was breaking up and a once-feared adversary was losing its strength, he was holding a series of focus groups with ordinary citizens, trying to figure out how they felt about the issues that would face the Republican Party in the upcoming election year. The results were deadly. Not only was the primary issue the economy, not only did most ordinary people feel the country was mired deep in a recession, in contrast to what the president and his economic advisers were saying, but they were furious with Bush, who, they believed, was not that interested in them and their problems. Even more devastating, there were signs that it was already too late for him to right himself on this issue.

Because of these findings Steeper wrote a memo for his boss, Bob Teeter, suggesting the possibility of what he termed the Churchill Factor or the Churchill Parallel. At the end of July 1945, just after Germany had surrendered, a tired England had not even waited for the war to end in the Pacific before voting out Winston Churchill, its gallant and beloved wartime leader, whose bulldog determination had symbolized England's strength and faith during Europe's darkest hour, and replacing him with the obviously less charismatic Labor Party leader, Clement Attlee. (He is a modest man and has much to be modest about, Churchill once said of Attlee.) The British had believed that Churchill's primary passion was defense and foreign policy, not domestic affairs, and they wanted someone who they thought would pay more attention to their postwar needs.

The same thing might now happen to George Bush, Steeper warned, and it was imperative that the president not bank too heavily on his foreign policy successes in the campaign ahead. The economy was hurting a wide range of people and becoming preeminent in their minds. Bob Teeter warned Bush of much the same thing. But the president was more confident, loath to move against his top people — his economists — and still content to believe their rosier economic forecasts. Thus, a critical election year would begin with Americans bothered by the state of the economy and yearning for benefits from the end of the Cold War, and with George Bush under assault from a Democratic challenger for paying too much attention to foreign policy and too little to domestic policy. All of this would take place as the Balkan state of Yugoslavia began to unravel with horrendous human consequences.

Copyright © 2001 by The Amateurs, Inc.

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Interviews & Essays

Exclusive Author Essay
War in the Time of Peace

This book began with a conversation at a party with Les Gelb, the head of the Council of Foreign Relations, in the spring of 1999, when the NATO-American bombing of Kosovo was in full force. Les and I have been friends for almost 30 years. We met for the first time in 1970 when he was a young man, newly departed from the Clifford-McNamara Defense Department to go over to the Brookings Institute. At the time I was working on a book on the origins of the Vietnam War that eventually became The Best and The Brightest. I was aware that Les had been the director of a documentary history of government papers on the war eventually known as the Pentagon Papers. At the time, he was extremely helpful, without in any way compromising the classified documents, which had yet to be made public. Now some 30 years later, with one tour in the Carter State Department and two tours as a foreign policy analyst -- first as a reporter and then as a columnist for The New York Times -- behind him, he remained one of the most knowledgeable and thoughtful people in the world of national security.

At the party I asked him a couple of questions about who within the Clinton administration was driving the bombing campaign, and his answers were so clear and so different from what I expected (if there was a critical, forceful, but somewhat covert player, he said, it was the vice president, Al Gore) that I thought it might make an interesting magazine piece. Graydon Carter at Vanity Fair, another old friend, readily agreed and told me to go ahead. But after about six weeks of research, I decided it was a book, not a magazine piece. (The same thing had happened to me exactly 30 years earlier when I began a magazine article on McGeorge Bundy that turned into a book about how and why we went to war in Vietnam.) For me this marked the first time I would return to the area of national security reporting since I had finished that particular book in 1972. The book had done exceptionally well, and I received numerous immediate and very handsome offers to do successor books on the same general subject. But since I like to take on questions to which I do not know the answers and to use the four or five years I spend on one of my longer books as a kind of graduate school, I had preferred to go in other directions.

This time, however, I was delighted to return to a venue which I had once known and which had changed so dramatically in recent years. The Cold War was over, and the fear of being called soft on communism -- something that had covertly played a large role in the Kennedy and Johnson decision-making was no longer an important factor. But there were other things that were fascinating to me: for example, the shadow that Vietnam still cast over civilian-military relations and the question of how truly internationalist this country was, now that the Soviet threat had receded. A number of contemporary issues also intrigued me. The technology of politics was different, the players were different, the political constituencies were quite different, and yet shadows from the past were still there, ghosts that still loitered in the hallways and meeting rooms.

I wanted the book to be a way of looking at America through our decisions in foreign policy; the focal points were places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, Rwanda and Somalia, all of them extremely tough calls -- especially for President Clinton, who had so confidently made a point of criticizing his predecessor in the area of foreign policy during the 1992 campaign. How did Clinton's national security apparatus respond to humanitarian crises and, in some instances, to genocide in distant places where issues of America's national security were not directly involved? How much would they factor in for a president who, despite his campaign speeches, was obsessed first and foremost with domestic politics? How did senior military men, still wary after the civilian architects of Vietnam had given them such a bastardized assignment (and, in their opinion, had helped co-opt a number of their own senior figures), react? And what did the response of -- and the divisions within -- the foreign policy apparatus tell us about the country itself?

The premise of this book was always that it was to be about America, not about the Balkans or any other foreign country. I had what was, at best, a layman's knowledge of the Balkans, and one of the hardest parts of this assignment was getting up to speed on that complicated part of the world where the history is so dark and convoluted.

I should note finally that I did not go looking for the ghosts of Vietnam, but they were often there and they found me, most notably in the damage done to two institutions critical to general public health and disproportionately affected by that war: the United States Army and the Democratic Party. (David Halberstam)

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  • Posted December 3, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Great Look at the foreign policy of 1990s

    Published in 2001, this book takes a look at the foreign policy of the 1990s. The decade is defined by Halberstam as a time period of war in a time of peace. Halberstam writes in vignettes that give you a great glimpse of all the major foreign policy players during President Bush 41 and President Clinton¿s administrations. Halberstam writes as a true journalist, someone who investigates a topic and presents the reality of what happened. There is little opportunity to see this author¿s opinion until the epilogue which Halberstam added as a post-script to 9/11 in 2002. This is a must read for anyone interested in foreign policy and provides excellent insight into President¿s Clinton¿s challenges as a leader. Halberstam¿s grasp of the political process and his ability to display just how difficult and confusing it is to be Commander in Chief of this great country make for an incredibly informed and yet entertaining read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 4, 2003

    Superb Sequel To 'The Best & The Brightest'

    For those of us who marveled at former journalist David Halberstam¿s masterful account of the ways in which the personal biographies and contemporary history fatefully intersected to produce the disastrous American incursion into Vietnam in 1970¿s ¿The Best And The Brightest¿, his recent (2001) tome ¿War In A Time Of Peace¿ is the long-awaited sequel and companion piece on the ways in which the ghost of our involvement in southeast Asia yet haunts America¿s role in foreign affairs in the late 20th century. As in the previous work, Halberstam¿s trademark insights into the ways in which personal ambitions and private agendas fuel and contort the political processes of which American foreign policy is a part make this book memorable and worthwhile. For example, his observation¿s on former Secretary of State Madeline Albright¿s arrogant attempt to nation-build in Somalia makes it easier to understand lapses in our policy there that led to the now-famous firefight chronicled so brilliantly in ¿Blackhawk Down¿, resulting in several dozen American causalities and hundreds if not thousands of dead and wounded Somalis. His brilliance is in showing how these individual personalities interact, often clashing based on the existential circumstances they find themselves embroiled in. Thus does Army General Wes Clark find himself embroiled in a very difficult conundrum in the Balkans, facing both an intransigent enemy and an uncertain and indecisive command structure by way of both President Clinton and the Joint Chiefs. One marvels at the ways in which Halberstam entwines the details of the personal biographies of a play card of figures ranging from Clark to Colin Powell to Madeline Albright to Richard Holbrooke to Anthony Lake to James Baker to Dick Cheney with the cross-cutting issues and circumstances that eventually come to comprise contemporary history. In so doing he brings history to life, making its study both more interesting and more relevant, showing how particular individuals and their own personal political, philosophical, and social baggage and predispositions animate the interactions at the government¿s highest levels. Sadly, it also chronicles how petty, venial, and subjective such decision-making can be, as in Albright¿s arrogantly misguided decision to try to force a motley collection of feudal Somali warlords into experimenting with democracy. What makes all of this even more interesting and more intriguing is how he then overlays the ways in which many of the chief players and architects of the American foreign policy decisions in the Balkans were affected by their roles in the war in Vietnam, whether it be as a calculating conscientious objector like Bill Clinton, a government official like Anthony Lake, or a then young Captain and Lt. Colonel by the name of Colin Powell. In this fashion we come to see the lingering impact the war in Vietnam had in shaping and propelling the course of events in the 1990s. Indeed, the shattering affect the war had on both the Defense Department and the State Department and the kinds of men and women that came to administer and manage them can be seen in the quixotic unfolding of American foreign policy as it meandered aimlessly from position to position over the intervening decades without any seeming central focus or evident grand strategy. Thus, over the smoldering coals of the memories of the American defeat in Vietnam, the foreign policy of the American government circled cautiously around the perimeters of meaningful involvement, desperate to avoid any commitment that might draw it into another inconclusive and unpopular ground war, even when confronted with the sensational and melodramatic facts of another holocaust being systematically conducted by the Bosnian Serbs on the ground in the Balkans. This is a wonderful book, a book superbly researched, documented, and written, and it is certainly one I can highly recommend for students of contemporary history. Enjoy!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2003

    Please Check your Facts

    The author states that this is a book more about American policy than about events in the Balkans. This is a good thing. This book needs a good fact checker. It contained several errors of fact and geography, (Vojvodina is a region not a town) and although those errors are not material to his arguments, they do make me question other facts on which those arguments are based.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 3, 2002

    A diffrence in leadership

    A wonderful insight into the inner sanctum of the Clinton White House, but not quite equal to Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest.

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    Posted December 26, 2008

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    Posted November 9, 2009

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    Posted December 29, 2009

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    Posted December 28, 2009

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