War Without Risk?

David Halberstam
David Halberstam; drawing by David Levine


David Halberstam’s account of the policies and the wars that preceded the conflict in Afghanistan brings into sharp perspective the painful lessons of the post–cold war decade. If generals are said to be prepared to fight the last war, one can only hope that they have learned from their mistakes as they now try to eradicate terrorism from Afghanistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and who knows where else.

In his tale of the Gulf and Balkan wars Halberstam presents a portrait gallery of heroes and—if not villains—ditherers and skeptics. The heroes are Richard Holbrooke, the architect of the Dayton Accords that brought a troubled peace to Bosnia; and General Wesley K. Clark, the NATO commander and victor in the Kosovo war. The ditherers include, preeminently, President Bill Clinton; his first national security adviser, Anthony Lake; his secretary of defense in the second administration, William S. Cohen; and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, especially under the leadership of General Hugh Shelton. Colin Powell is portrayed as both a hero in the Gulf war and a skeptic on the use of US military power in Somalia, Haiti, and the Balkans.

Bush père had no intention of intervening in Yugoslavia when the federation was disintegrating in the summer of 1991. Although the Serb president Slobodan Milosevic had shown little interest in Slovenia’s breakaway, he coveted the Krajina, a region of eastern and central Croatia inhabited by a great many Serbs. Taking it over was to be his first step in trying to create a greater Serbia.

The fall of 1991 was probably the last chance to prevent the cruel war that broke out in Bosnia in March 1992. The fatuous statement of Foreign Minister Jacques Poos of Luxembourg, that “this is the hour of Europe,” implying that the European powers could deal with Yugoslavia on their own, only reinforced Bush and Baker in their desire to avoid any American involvement in the Balkan wars. Moreover, General Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, gave both Bush and Clinton an excessively high estimate of 200,000 troops that would be needed to quell the fighting.

The Persian Gulf War was far more to the taste of an American superpower than getting involved with the feuding peoples of the Balkans. The American national interest there was clear: no one country, and particularly Iraq, should be able to dominate the Gulf, which would then give that country the power to disrupt the flow of oil at reasonable prices to the rest of the world. That Saddam Hussein had commenced a war of unprovoked aggression against the small, oil-rich state of Kuwait provided additional, Wilsonian reasons for US intervention.

The devastating images of a beaten and bedraggled Iraqi army, their prisoners of war stretching out across the desert in a seemingly endless line, gave most Americans the impression that the victory belonged to American ground troops led by General Norman Schwarzkopf. But…

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