Important Piece of the Puzzle,
The second major theme I drew from this book was one that the author highlights toward the end of the book when he quotes Madeline Albright, then Secretary of State, as saying (on page 409), “We’re just gerbils running on a wheel.” For this the U.S. taxpayer pays $500 billion dollars a year? For gerbils? In combination with Pentagon deception of the President in railroading General Clark out of NATO early, and a wide variety of other practices between personalities in Washington that would get you fired in any serious corporation, the overall impression that one draws of the Washington foreign policy and national security establishment is one of inattention alternating with craven back-stabbing. This is not an environment that is operating at peak efficiency, nor can it be trusted to act in the best interests of the voter and taxpayer.
A third theme, and this impressed/depressed me tremendously, is that of journalism and open sources of information getting it right early, only to be ignored. The author–Halberstam–takes great care to tell a story of respect for the accomplishments of another journalist, Roy Gutman of Newsday, whose headline on 21 November 1991, “Yugoslavs Need West’s Intervention,” was the beginning of a series of insightful articles that had little impact at the time. Joining the insights of journalists was the ignorance of history by politicians–Halberstam comments particularly on the lack of European understanding of just how recognition of Croatia was the opening of a Pandora’s Box of genocide. I was especially struck, throughout Halberstam’s accounting, as to how crafty the Balkan players were, how able they were at deception and distraction, and how inept the Americans and the Europeans were at interpreting the situation and the ploys–with massive genocidal consequences.
A fourth theme that was not emphasized by the book, but which I would highlight based on a passing observation by the author with regard to the lack of television coverage, has to do with the absolute imperative for America and Europe to have both a strong television industry that can go into the dark places where today only adventurers like Robert Young Pelton (“World’s Most Dangerous Places”) dare go–while at the same time governments need a “ground truth” cadre of observers who are accustomed to and can survive instability and combat, and are not trapped like rats in Embassies, reporting reality second or third hand. We simply don’t know. We simply do not have trusted observers–or TV cameras–in 80% of the places where we most need to have reliable independent observation.
Finally, there were a number of recurring points across the whole book, points where I ended up making annotations:
1) Civilian-military relationships are not marked by trust
2) Presidential teams tend to lack depth, have no bench
3) Washington promotes the least offensive, not the most talented
4) Bush Sr. got no bounce from Gulf War–this is suggestive today, as the son follows the father’s path.
5) Satellite imagery was used to detect Haitians building boats–this struck me as so symbolic of all that is wrong with the US intelligence community–rather than someone walking the beaches and seeing and sensing directly, we use satellites in outer space, at great cost, to do remote viewing…
6) Trust, Truth, and Morality–Halberstam may not mean to say this, but my reading of his book, influenced by Joe Nye’s book on “The Paradox of American Power,” was just this: all the money and all the military hardware in the world will not win a conflict in the absence of trust among the civilian-military players; truth about the fundamentals on the ground; and a morality that empowers tough decisions early enough to prevent genocide.
The book ends on a mixed note–on the one hand, observing that prior to 9-11 (and many would say, even after 9-11) America has distanced itself from the world; and on the other, noting that this is a very strong country, slow to anger, slow to rouse, but when roused, capable of miracles. More upbeat than I expected, I was almost charmed by the author’s optimism, especially in light of the many books he has written about the corridors of power and the pitfalls of American adventures overseas.