In the 1990s, most Americans had never heard of Bosnia, didn't know a Croat from a Serb and couldn't locate Yugoslavia on a map, even though Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleansing a euphemism for state-sponsored genocide had produced the bloodiest European conflict since World War II. The mounting casualties were humiliating to leaders of the West, particularly to President Clinton, who in his inaugural address had promised that when the will and conscience of the international community is defied, we will act with peaceful diplomacy whenever possible, with force when necessary. The problem was that Clinton and his senior people were preoccupied with the economics of domestic policy and had developed no clear foreign policy. How the U.S. groped its way through this dilemma is the major focus of War in a Time of Peace, a work that adds to the legendary status of David Halberstam as an author and historian. His latest book is a fascinating examination of the dynamics of U.S. foreign policy after the Cold War, a period extending from one President Bush to another.
As he did in The Best and the Brightest, the number one national bestseller about the Vietnam War, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Halberstam probes the bureaucracy to reveal the interplay between the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and Congress. His perceptive portraits of powerful U.S. and foreign government officials and military officers offer clues to explain not only what they did, but why they did it. He relates their tactics, thoughts and personal dramas. For example, we learn that Defense Secretary William Cohen, the sole Republican in the Cabinet, managed to stir Clinton to action on a critical decision to bomb Iraq by not-so-subtly suggesting to him that any delay would show the world that his troubles with Ken Starr had paralyzed him. We learn that hard-liner Madeleine Albright, Warren Christopher's successor, didn't mind that her colleagues referred to the Kosovo campaign as Madeleine's War but was irked that the use of her first name hinted of sexism. And Halberstam tells of Milosevic's pointing a gun to his head and threatening suicide while his daughter shouted, Do it, Daddy! Don't surrender, Daddy! before police took him away. Halberstam's last 11 books have attained New York Times best-seller status. War in a Time of Peace might well make it an even dozen.
Alan Prince is the former editor of the Miami Herald's International Edition.