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ALWAYS AMERICA FIRST

War in a Time of Peace By David Halberstam, Bloomsbury, £ 15

Writing of the disorientation in British foreign policy before England finally resolved to stand up to Hitler’s threat, John Kennedy once came up with a thesis that was later published in the book, Why England Slept. If he were to write a book on a similar lack of direction in American foreign policy in the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to the terrorist attacks on America on September 11, 2001, David Halberstam would have called it Why America Napped.

With the threat of communism and the Cold War gone and its superpower role vindicated once again in the Kuwait War, America suddenly faced a void in both its foreign policy and domestic politics. The interventionist became an isolationist without quite understanding the nature of the transformation or its consequences for itself and for the world. “We became in the process an entertainment society,” Halberstam laments, “we went quite systematically from a serious agenda worthy of a monopoly superpower to an even more trivial one of scandal and celebrity.” The nation was jolted out of that collective amnesia by 9/11.

Coming more than 25 years after his masterpiece on the Vietnam War, The Best and the Brightest, this book surveys the foreign policy struggles of the presidencies of George Bush and Bill Clinton and how they both mirrored and shaped domestic political opinion. With a range of information and insights, Halberstam unfolds the contradictions inherent in the two presidents’ — and the American voters’ — attitudes to world affairs.

Like Churchill losing the next British elections despite his iconic status in the Allied victory in the World War II, George Bush, who rode high on the US victory in the Kuwait War, lost the 1992 presidential election to the dark horse from the backwaters of Arkansas. The Republican campaign painted Clinton as a coward who dodged the draft during Vietnam and as a philanderer whose sexual escapades were widely known. But Clinton’s political instincts told him that his “America First” was a winning slogan because the Americans had become increasingly insular.

But in 1992, when Clinton took office, world affairs were becoming murkier. Bloody ethnic wars raged in the Balkans, and a massive humanitarian crisis loomed in Somalia. Halberstam shows how Clinton was forced to move from an almost marginalizing foreign policy to increasing engagement in the Balkans. But even after the Clinton administration had a settlement in Bosnia, in Halberstam’s view, it “still did not have a foreign policy”.

He argues that constant conflicts between the state department and the Pentagon was behind this lack of focus. While Pentagon was still dominated by Vietnam veterans cautious of military involvements, policymakers in the state department took a hawkish line. Caught in the tussle were the likes of the American commander in Kosovo,Wesley Clark. The American confusion often led to frustrations among the country’s allies, particularly during the NATO offensive against Yugoslavia.

When, during the last years of his second term, Clinton plunged into diplomatic initiatives to resolve the west Asia crisis, the wheel seemed to have come full circle for him, who had begun by dismissing foreign policy as a matter of interest only to a handful of journalists.

The book ends with Clinton leaving the White House as “ingloriously” as Richard Nixon after his impeachment, and George W. Bush taking over. Halberstam is too good a journalist and diplomatic historian to merely apportion blame or pass judgments. He has shown the leaders and policy-makers for what they have been, dispassionately and comprehensively. His chronicle will sharpen the world’s understanding of not just the American policies of the period, but the intricate dynamics of superpower policy-making.

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