Why America napped

David Halberstam talks about the prosperity of the '90s, when America thought it could afford to ignore the world -- and what we'll do now that we've woken up.

Topics: Author Interviews, Books,

Why America napped

Veteran journalist and historian David Halberstam’s latest book, “War in a Time of Peace,” a detailed, revealing examination of America’s foreign policy in the 1990s, doesn’t mention the name Osama bin Laden. Not only is there no acknowledgement of a terrorist network called al-Qaida, there’s no reference, even in passing, to the bombings of American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, or America’s retaliatory strikes on Sudan and Afghanistan.

It’s an irresistible and sometimes unfair reflex to see everything through the lens of Sept. 11; the days when Americans considered terrorism a minor concern seem so remote. Halberstam’s book is mostly about the Balkans, and to a lesser degree about Somalia and Haiti. In probing the conflicts there, Halberstam unearths a lot about how policies, personalities and problems at home affected how we reacted to the rest of the world. But now, what Halberstam decided not to tell and why he might have chosen to leave it out seem just as relevant.

The battles that America did opt to fight, after all, were engaged in hesitantly. As Halberstam explains, President Clinton and the rest of country aggressively embraced, with a sigh of relief, the end of the Cold War era and the promise of a new peacetime economy. Tragic results in Somalia, for example, only encouraged America to avoid skirmishes on unfamiliar soil and in countries and cities with names that the average citizen didn’t recognize. Terrorist threats hardly registered on the broader radar screen. It’s an era that, in one hour, we’ve finally been forced to leave behind.

Salon spoke to Halberstam from his home in New York about the news networks’ culpability in downplaying America’s foreign involvements, how Americans might respond to the possibility of a “long twilight struggle” and his confidence in democracy in the face of war.

Two weeks after the World Trade Center and Pentagon tragedies, the last page of your book is chilling and prophetic. You write, “The real danger to an open society like America was the ability of a terrorist, not connected to any sitting government, to walk into any American city.” Then you conclude with this statement about the 1990s: “Foreign policy was not high on the political agenda, primarily because whatever the forces that might threaten the future of this country were, they were not yet visible.”

It really isn’t prophetic. It’s common sense. There’s all this talk about a missile shield which would protect us from people whom we are not vulnerable to and would not protect us from those we are vulnerable to. That has been self-evident for a long time. It’s not geopolitical brilliance.

The Saturday after the bombings, Warren Rudman, co-chair of this study on security and vulnerability that no one paid any attention to, was being interviewed. A certain pious, “Why weren’t our security and intelligence services more ready and why did they fail us?” attitude was coming from the anchorman. Rudman gently reminded him that when his report came out, the networks did very little with it. Then he pointed out that it could have been worse. It could have been biological. That is the way we live today, with no immunities.

Did Clinton not respond to what senior intelligence analysts said about the threats of terrorism?

I’m not an expert on that. But Clinton always reflected the country, and the country was not on red alert because it wanted to binge on the post-Cold War era. Part of this binging was concentration on the domestic economy. You had two levels: people being hurt by the domestic economy and those who binged when it began to turn around. Clinton was not in any rush to get ahead of that parade.

One of the ways to see Clinton is as an astonishing extension of a national mood. He understood exactly where the polls were and exactly how much political support there was for something. Also, he had very fragile constituencies within the Democratic Party. He was always tiptoeing and not about to take on, by and large, any issue that had too much of an undertow or any issue without a larger constituency.

Remember that book by John Kennedy about England before World War II, “Why England Slept”? The subtitle of my book could be “Why America Napped.” The most telling story is about Clinton’s election in 1992 right before he was inaugurated. He comes to Washington to meet with the House Democratic chairmen. When he gets to Lee Hamilton of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Hamilton says, “Well, Mr. President, we have China. Whatever you do on China, you’re only going to please half the people. Then, there’s Saddam Hussein ” Clinton interrupts him and says, “Lee, I’ve been traveling around our country for a year and no one cares about foreign policy other than about six journalists.” Hamilton is taken aback and replies, “That may be true, but the last presidents have been defined by foreign affairs.”

In the book, I followed up with this quote from Robert Kagan: “If you’re the President of the United States, you don’t find trouble, the trouble finds you.” In essence, Clinton reflected the national mood. Had there been one more term, had he not been pulled down by the Lewinsky thing, thereby losing two years of his second term, it might have been different.

Because he did start to focus on foreign policy later on in his presidency?

There was a greater interest in foreign policy and a greater awareness. When he was presented issues, he knew exactly what to do. But if you’re president, the question is: How much of your limited powder do you allot to stuff like this?

Do you think he was sufficiently aggressive in pursuing bin Laden and terrorism in general?

It’s only fair to him to put the blame on all of us, including myself. The worst offenders are the networks because they are really a crucial part of the circulatory system of democracy. There was a time in the ’60s and the ’70s when the networks’ reporters were an extension of the very media of which I was a part: the New York Times, the Washington Post, the L.A. Times and the Wall Street Journal. That’s changed radically. With the exception of “Nightline,” they’ve gotten out of the serious news business. In the last 10 years, the people who have been rewarded with the highest salaries have been awarded for doing the most trivial work: the male and female divas, the people who are so good at artificial empathy. And when you start doing celebrity and scandal and sex, not only is it bad of itself, it affects the larger populace.

They’re doing this because they’re getting signals from those great patriots who poll the American people to find out what the American people want to know. They find out that the American people want to be entertained and they send back signals to do fluffier, warmer, more endearing reporting. As that happens, the national debate gets more trivial. Foreign policy gets played down. The rest of the world becomes a place we don’t need to know about. The people in the inner government charged with representing our needs and our obligations to the rest of the world are diminished, their role atrophied. They get less resources. Their voices are dimmed in inner circles.

There’s a historic obligation that the editors of the Washington Post met, the editors of the New York Times handsomely met, the editors of the Wall Street Journal met: Balance what people want to know with what they need to know. Self-evidently, the networks failed that.

Are there exceptions?

There’s “Nightline.” But am I going to give out medallions to anyone because they stayed up all night for a week covering this tragedy? No. I’ve been very tough on Tom Brokaw. Do I still feel the same way about him? You bet. Here’s a guy who writes a book called “The Greatest Generation.” Now, I take what my father did going back in the service at the age of 46 very seriously. But I don’t think it was the greatest generation. It met a greatest challenge as all generations are sometimes called to do. The one thing that came out of that challenge was a commitment to foreign policy. And here’s Brokaw, a young man who presides over the end of NBC’s foreign reporting. If you think I’m irritated, you should talk to some of the colleagues of his who were foreign reporters at NBC in those glory days.

A lot of the book is about the ghosts of Vietnam. Do Americans have the will for a protracted war in Afghanistan?

Vietnam did not begin with the Viet Cong striking at the Pentagon or at the very heart of the Manhattan financial district. We got sucked into someone else’s war for independence by a series of our own miscalculations. Therefore, the support for this is very different. The sense of the threat on our doorstep is very, very different.

In historical terms, this is really much more like the beginning of the Cold War. Using John Kennedy’s very apt phrase, it is “a long twilight struggle.” The great question is going to be leadership. Can we sustain a long twilight? In World War II, that was pretty easy: Pearl Harbor. It wasn’t that immediate; no one knew what Pearl Harbor was. Maybe 1 percent of 1 percent of Americans had been to Hawaii. What was the most remarkable thing, though, and I saw this in my own family, was that everyone knew his or her duty. Everybody, the next day, understood how their life had changed, what you were supposed to do, what your new role was going to be. Families doubled up in houses. It was going to go on “for the duration.” That was the phrase we used.

That was a Calvinist America. We are a different country now. This is a much more materialistic, entertainment society with less patience and less attention span. The great question about leadership is that it’s not just about the president or the vice president. What about the private sector? What about Michael Eisner? And Michael Jordan of CBS? And the successors of Jack Welch? Are they going to say, “Guys, we made a mistake in reeling back our foreign correspondents. We’re going to give you an extra half-hour. We’re going to learn about the rest of the world”? That’s the real challenge. Are you going to start taking news that we didn’t want to hear? Or are we going to believe that we can handle terrorism by going once a year to a movie where Arnold or Sylvester or Bruce or one of the many intrepid heroes of Hollywood saves us in the last five minutes? So far, that’s psychologically what we’ve thought as a nation.

Do you think that our collective unfamiliarity with Afghanistan and Islam will harm support for war?

We can learn what we need to learn. We can rise to the occasion. The great thing about this country is its flexibility, resolve, resilience, common sense and pragmatism. It’s the job of journalists to make complicated things interesting. The shame of American journalism is that “Frontline,” with its limited resources, has been doing infinitely better, more thoughtful, more creative reporting on places like Afghanistan or Rwanda than the richest networks in the world. If it is a glory for “Frontline,” it is a shame for those big networks and the men at the top of the corporate structure who run them.

How do you feel about Bush’s administration right now and the key players?

You have to be very careful in not judging too quickly. This is a new president who is not particularly prepared to deal with the rest of the world because our tests of him were not about the rest of the world.

I have a real respect and fondness for Colin Powell, who I think is a very superior man. Dick Cheney is much more conservative than I, but he’s quite good and steady and thoughtful at moments like this. He’s much more intelligent than jingoistic, a solid person. The Joint Chiefs are going to be in no rush to get American kids on the ground in Afghanistan. If you were saving one story and clipping it for friends recently, it would be from the Washington Post. The correspondent interviewed five or six Russian generals who had fought in Afghanistan. They talked about what a graveyard it is with a certain bitter tone because they remember that the U.S. sponsored the Afghan rebels originally. But they warned us; it’s a pure hell. If I saw it, Eric Shinseki, the army chief of staff, saw it and Hugh Shelton, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saw it. [Shelton retired since Halberstam was interviewed.]

Will Colin Powell be a “reluctant warrior” as he’s been called?

He’s a very good, serious man and he understands the way the world is. Personally, knowing him, I’m glad he’s secretary of state right now.

What about Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld?

I am puzzled by Rumsfeld’s enormous affection for the missile shield, particularly because you’re going to have so many new demands on our resources — upgraded security, border points, more people tracking the movements of potential terrorists in this country, more money spent trying to track Arab finances in the world. Whatever it is, these people do not attack us at our strengths. That is the irony. Here we are, the richest, most powerful nation in the world, with no other power in the world against which our power is inapplicable. Not First, Second or Third World countries. But these terrorists who are, in effect, a tiny army without a nation, are a threat under the radar. Even if we had the shield fully in place, it wouldn’t have helped us. That’s true about any threat to come. From what I’m told, the Joint Chiefs are puzzled by Rumsfeld’s affection for the shield as well.

But does missile defense make more sense with a potentially destabilized nuclear state like Pakistan?

The nuclear defense shield always has the ability to be a deterrent of such terror. In terms of our vulnerability to Pakistan, I would feel very confident.

Will Bush be able to shed his administration’s unilateralism?

That’s over with. That was a last remnant of an America that thought that it was immune to the problems of the rest of the world, a hangover from Jesse Helms and others whose view of working with others was essentially contemptuous. We are now meeting the rest of the world and on terms where it is self-evident that we need to have alliances and friends.

In that 12-year span after the Cold War, after the Berlin Wall came down, the U.S. was a monopoly superpower. An odd isolationist monopoly superpower. We began to believe our own mythology that we didn’t need anyone else. That era’s over. You could hear that in Colin Powell, speaking the day after Sept. 11, about moving through NATO, beginning to try to strengthen our relationships with moderate Arab states and getting cooperation from those that are not so moderate. We are going to learn about the interdependency of the world.

How did our foreign policy in the 1990s set us up for trying to put together these global coalitions?

We can do it if we want. Richard Holbrooke and others did it very well. The rest of the world still looks for American leadership. In his last weeks as president, George H.W. Bush was visited by a bunch of representatives from new European democracies — Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary — who were imploring him to take greater action against Slobodan Milosevic. Bush was a hero to these people; he liberated them from the Soviet yoke. But he was also exhausted, he’d just done the Gulf War, and he wasn’t interested in going after Milosevic. As the representatives are leaving, Slovenian foreign minister Dimitri Rupel turns to the others and says, “We hear a lot about the new Europe, but the truth is that the political will of the free world begins and ends in the Oval Office.”

The rest of the world wants our leadership, but it wants real leadership. It doesn’t want us to nap then wake up irritatedly and yell, “Where were you and why weren’t you doing this?” and then return to napping. They’re appalled when they come here and see what is on our news programs at night. This is the most powerful nation in the world with news programs that are, essentially, cartoons.

What have we been signaling to the rest of the world during the past 10 years?

What we’ve been signaling to the rest of the world is that we don’t think they’re important. We can nap, and when we want, we can push a button and their job is to do what we want. They only hear from us, not just when we want something, but when we’re telling them something.

Has our relationship with Israel over the past 12 years affected the current crisis in a specific way? Would pressuring Israel back to the peace table help the current situation?

The easy answer is to say that this is all because of our policy in the Middle East. But it’s much more than Israel. Israel has affected our policy in the Middle East in the past. This is a new chapter. If Israel weren’t there right now, our opponents would have to invent it. This is much more about the assault upon moderate Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, which these people see as holy territory. They see some of the governments of the moderate Arab states — which we help sustain — as puppets of the infidels. They want us out of the Middle East. The second thing this is about is what we represent in terms of our decadent culture. Our women are allowed to call men, like me, and ask questions on the phone and write articles. Women run for the Senate and are elected. They hate our TV. They see all this as a threat. Everything is part of something larger. I don’t think this is about Israel. This is about America.

Did we not see tribalist or nationalist or fundamentalist movements as threats to our own security?

No. We thought it was a problem, but we never thought it would seep over into the countries that we cared about.

Why don’t you mention the bombings of the Kenya and Tanzania embassies in the book?

I was trying to keep down the size of the book. That was another direction.

Was there anything that you found in your research about that that seems important now?

Again, it was part of larger napping. It didn’t go to the higher level and it wasn’t something in terms of public attention that really galvanized us. In the piece I have coming out in Vanity Fair, I write about the terrorists that — even if we are wise and patient and even if the fates favor us — they will have succeeded more than they wanted in getting on our radar. Everyone tends to underestimate America. Dictators have always underestimated us: the Germans, the Japanese, the Russians during the Cold War. Milosevic said that we were afraid to take bodies. Bin Laden is saying that we’re weaker and less patient than the Russians and therefore easier to fight than they were.

They don’t understand a democracy’s true strength: men and women freely summoned. It’s very easy to forget that right before World War II, we got the draft by only one vote. At the beginning of the Cold War there was not great support for our policies of containment. It takes certain actions to galvanize this country, but when it is galvanized, the resource and muscularity of this country is great. The great advantage to being as old as I am is my sense of the resilience of America. What I see as strength, other powers have seen as decadence, but I will always put my bet on it.

Nothing about the last two weeks has shaken that confidence?

It’s a very difficult equation because our power is not likely applicable. It’s a different kind of enemy; it works in the night, it’s a fugitive even in its own general terrain. But I still have this great deep faith in this country and what it represents in terms of the free society.

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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