Excerpt from War In A Time Of Peace by David Halberstam, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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War In A Time Of Peace

Bush, Clinton & The Generals

by David Halberstam

War In A Time Of Peace
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2001, 543 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2002, 560 pages

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So, much to the disappointment of many on the right, Bush was anxious to minimize the event as a symbolic occasion. It was against his nature. Taking personal credit for any kind of larger success, not all of which was his, conflicted with the way he had been brought up. He believed -- an attitude that was surely old-fashioned and quite optimistic in an age of ever more carefully orchestrated political spin, when the sizzle was more important than the steak -- that if you did the right things in the right way, people would know about it. You should never call attention to yourself or, worse, advertise your accomplishments. Besides, Bush put a primacy on personal relationships, and by then he had begun to forge one with Mikhail Gorbachev and was obviously unwilling to do anything that would make things more difficult for his new ally. The more Bush celebrated, the more vulnerable Gorbachev and the other more democratically inclined figures in the Soviet Union were likely to be. Celebrating was like gloating and Bush would not gloat. (A few months later, getting close to an election campaign, Bush was more emboldened, and when he delivered his January 1992 State of the Union speech, with an election year just beginning, he did give the United States credit for winning the Cold War. Gorbachev, by then ousted from power, was not amused and said that the end of the Cold War was "our common victory. We should give credit to all politicians who participated in that victory.")

It was probably just as well that Bush did not try to grab too much credit for the collapse of communism, for what had transpired was a triumphal victory for an idea rather than for any one man or political faction. The Soviet Union had turned out to be, however involuntarily, the perfect advertisement for the free society, suggesting in the end that harsh, authoritarian controls and systems did not merely limit political, intellectual, and spiritual freedom, but economic freedom and military development as well. They limited not just the freedom of the individual, something that many rulers in many parts of the world would gladly accommodate to, but in the end limited the sum strength and might of the state, which was a very different thing. Therefore, what the proponents of an open society had long argued, that freedom was indivisible, and that the freedom to speak openly and candidly about political matters was in the long run inseparable from the freedom to invent some new high-technology device, or to run a brilliant new company, was true. The rights of man included not merely the right to compose and send an angry letter to a newspaper complaining about the government, they included as well as the right to choose where he went to work, and his right to garner, if he so chose and worked hard enough and with enough originality, far greater material rewards than his neighbors. The Soviet system was a devastating argument for what the lack of choice did, and what happened when a society was run top to bottom, instead of bottom to top. When George Bush had taken office, the Soviet system had begun to collapse of its own weight. Clearly by the eighties, Communist rule, as critics had long suggested, had undermined the nation itself, weakening it, particularly in a high-tech age when there was such an immediate and direct connection between the vitality of the domestic economy and a nation's military capacity, and when the gap between American weaponry and that of the Soviets had begun to widen at an ever greater rate.

Symbols had never been Bush's strength, and those who were dissatisfied with his innate caution liked to imagine what Ronald Reagan -- who was always so brilliant with symbols and had a God-given sense of when and how to use them -- might have done had he still been president when the wall fell. Possibly he would have ventured to Berlin for some wonderful kind of ceremony that the entire nation, perhaps the entire free world, could have shared. But Reagan was then and Bush was now, and unlike his predecessor (and his successor), Bush tended to downplay ceremonial moments. Many in the right wing who had often found him to be of too little ideological faith were again let down. Once more he had proven himself unworthy, placing success in a delicate and as yet unfinished geopolitical process above the temptation to savor what might have been a glorious historic moment.

Copyright © 2001 by The Amateurs, Inc.

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