David Halberstam's War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals describes the formulation of US policy regarding Yugoslavia during the 90's. Halberstam is best known for The Best and the Brightest, which examines the policy makers in Washington who got the country into the war in Vietnam. His latest book pushes ahead three decades to explain how the Bush and Clinton administrations dealt with Bosnia and Kosovo.

Halberstam presents an overview of the events in the Balkans, providing a perspective that was lacking from the daily news accounts. That overview is a background for understanding how the US government leaders responded. However, Halberstam spends little time discussing the aftermath following US actions. You'll need to read other books to discover those consequences, such as what happened in Bosnia after the Dayton peace accords and the extent of damage caused by US bombing during the Kosovo campaign.

Instead, most of the book takes place in DC. Halberstam provides a biography of the major players, including their backgrounds, beliefs, strengths, weaknesses, and relationships with one another. (Despite the book's title, these are mainly top-level civilians in the State Department, Defense Department, and the National Security Council.) He then portrays how they dealt with the ever-changing Yugoslav situation, in the context of various political, beauracratic, and interpersonal pressures.

The Bush and early Clinton administrations refused to take strong action regarding Bosnia, mainly because they didn't want to face the costs and risks of sending in American troops. With underarmed western European forces but no US forces on the ground, the US couldn't start bombing or lift the arms embargo without undermining the NATO allies. The Clinton administration was also thwarted by Bill Clinton's lack of knowledge or familiarity with foreign affairs, poor organization (during the early years), and political scandal and partisanship (during the later years). (By the way, this was first time I viewed Clinton from a historical perspective.)

Eventually, motivated by escalating atrocities, greater domestic concern, and Croatia's increased military strength as a counterbalance to Serbia, the US did respond. The US green-lighted the Croatian attack on Bosnian territory held by Serbia and orchestrated the diplomatic initiative leading to a peaceful settlement of the Bosnian conflict.

After that came the whole conflict in Kosovo. Eventually, the US bombing campaign, in conjunction with the threat of sending in NATO ground troops, made Serbia capitulate. The interesting part of these stories was the process by which the US foreign policy establishment first hesitated, then took strong action with regard to Bosnia and Kosovo.

Halberstam also discusses what happened in Somalia, Haiti, and Rwanda, in terms of the situation that the US encountered, how and why the US responded (or didn't respond), and what the result was. These were all situations where the US felt pressure to act, mainly on humanitarian grounds, in countries where it didn't have a direct interest. That's rather different than earlier military actions, which were based on strategic, geopolitical or economic considerations. Of course, the recent war in Afghanistan is unique in its own way.

Meanwhile, the perspective of the military was rather different than in past decades. New technology made the bombings in the Gulf War and Kosovo for more effective than the bombs dropped in Vietnam. At the same time, the military was very reluctant to get involved anywhere, demanded clear objectives, an exit strategy, and contingency plans first. The Vietnam War cast a long shadow on the policy makers and generals, many of whom started their careers in the midst of it.

It's a very interesting book. Halberstam strongly supports the US interventions in Yugoslavia. He reveals the slow, laborious process by which the US eventually did what was, in his mind, the right thing.

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