The American habit of napping just before a war starts

When historian and author David Halberstam included a reference to terrorism in his latest bestseller, "War in a Time of Peace," he didn't expect it to appear prophetic.

The comments - on the last page of the book - refer to what he says was common sense even before Sept. 11: That the biggest threat to an open society like America is not from the military of a rogue nation, but from a terrorist who walks into a city "with a crude atomic weapon, delivered, as it were, by hand in a cardboard suitcase."

What Mr. Halberstam set out to do more than two years ago when he began the book was not to find the next great challenge to the US, but to examine America through the lens of foreign and military policy in the decade since the end of the cold war.

The book is billed as a sequel to an earlier work, "The Best and the Brightest," about Vietnam, a topic Halberstam knows well, having won a Pulitzer Prize reporting on that war for The New York Times.

Three decades later, he looks inside the Bush Sr. and Clinton White Houses at the tensions that existed between the president and the military, and between the president and the public during conflicts in places such as Kosovo, Bosnia, and Somalia (Monitor review Sept. 13). Decisions were often made under the shadow of wars past (such as Vietnam), and in a country more concerned in with its own economy than the outside world, due in part to diminishing international coverage in US media.

The book's subtitle "Bush, Clinton, and the Generals," could easily have been "Why America Napped," he explains in an interview. Here are a few more of his thoughts on the book, foreign policy, and the media:

What led you to the conclusion that the real threat to America going forward would be from terrorists?

I think that's been there forever. If you look at the cold war and the relationship with the Soviets, the high-water mark is clearly the confrontation in the fall of 1962 with the Cuban missile crisis. In a way, it has been coming down ever since that. Other than a surprise confrontation with a flaky leader somewhere else, my sense, and I suspect that of many other people, has been, hey, that threat has gone down, whereas the threat from terrorism and the access of terrorists to ever greater weaponry has gone up.

When I talk about that particular sentence [in the book], I don't think it's a particularly prophetic one, I think it's driven by common sense. I mean, name a country and tell me that it's really a threat to us in the traditional military sense. North Korea? Not really. China? Not really. We can go through periods where we really make each other sweat, but I think in the sense of a classic real vulnerability, it takes this sort of ghost nation to do it, people without a country.

Did you have any other material on terrorism that you didn't include?

No, it's not an area I've written about, it's an area I've sort of watched and been aware of. But it's not like I had any expertise. The threat was out there, it would have taken a person in the government saying, 'This is now our top priority.' And no one did that. There was always a danger, in that if you did that of seeming to panic or to be pushing the people towards hitting the panic button.

But it's clear that neither [Presidents Bush Sr. nor Clinton] decided to go that way. Obviously that's probably more apropos of the Clinton years, because I think you could make the case that the time when that threat was on the rise was somewhere between '93 and 2001. I've been in a room, where [Clinton] post-presidency has said that he was obsessed by bin Laden. If he was, and I think he's telling the truth, it's quite possible that to certain agencies in the government, he gave out a view of being obsessed. And I gather that he gave the green light on a willingness to assassinate him. But in the larger sense of turning the country and the government to share his obsession, no, there's nothing on that.

As a cultural observer, can you compare this time to a previous time?

In terms of the kind of war it's going to be, and the kind of struggle it is, it's more like the heightened part of the cold war, the harsher part. It's not really like World War II, but in terms of drawing a line between the way we used to be and the way we are now, I think that part is parallel to Pearl Harbor.

Does the mood of America have an impact on foreign policy?

Foreign policy is always driven by domestic concerns and attitudes. That's one of the things I tried to show in the "The Best and the Brightest" and in the new book. Foreign policy is not a pure, abstract science. It is something that is first and foremost derivative of domestic political equations.

There's been some talk about similarities between Afghanistan and Vietnam. Do you think that's fair?

I'd be very, very careful of making those comparisons. First off, in Vietnam, we got ourselves involved in what was a continuum of civil war and a war for independence, an anticolonial war. And we went seeking it; this is a war that has sought us. And obviously there are some real dangers - nobody who knows anything about Afghanistan wants to lightly employ American ground troops there. The lessons learned by the Russians are self-evident. One of the most important pieces of journalism that I've read since Sept. 11 is a piece in The Washington Post. Susan Glasser did a great interview with about five or six Russian generals who fought there, and their description is of not a graveyard, but a boneyard.

In terms of the decline in international reporting in recent years, did Americans lose interest, or did journalists not sell the stories well?

Obviously Americans paid less and less attention because they felt less threatened. There was a belief that the private sector had all the answers and that foreign policy was no longer a hot piece of territory anymore. But the blame obviously goes to the media and particularly to television because on the part of any serious journalistic institution there's an ancient rule - and that is that a great journalist, a great editor, balances what people want to know with what they need to know. And certainly the networks just didn't do that.

What difference would it have made now if there had been more coverage?

We would have been more up to speed in terms of getting our intelligence forces up to speed. We'd be better off in terms of domestic security. I think we lost four or five years in there. As we looked away, we diminished ourselves and made ourselves a little more vulnerable. There are people who believe that the classic example is the moment the Russians were driven out of Afghanistan - we, who had helped supply these [resistance] forces and trained them, turned away and orphaned them.... The more serious the media is in terms of covering foreign policy, the better the debate is nationally, and the better the government performs.

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