"War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals" by David Halberstam, Scribners, 543 pages, $28

David Halberstam has gained a distinguished reputation on two counts. First, as a star journalist for The New York Times and then as a journalist-author-historian who has written thick-volumed and highly successful best-sellers: "The Best and the Brightest" (co-authored with John McCain) and "The Powers That Be."

These two books reflect the life experience and professional career of a successful correspondent who worked for America's most important newspaper and who, in the context of his job, covered the war in Vietnam. The first book explores how the American administration headed by John F. Kennedy, who mobilized the "best and the brightest" on behalf of his government, sunk into the Vietnamese quagmire. The second deals with the complex relations between the media and the political and economic institutions of the United States.

Halberstam has adopted and enhanced a genre that was developed by journalist-authors who preceded him. His books paint a broad - almost epic - picture, while his principal theses are backed up by meticulous detail. The portraits of the chief protagonists of his narratives are depicted in great detail, with their actions and the major events of their lives presented in the context of stories and episodes. His successes have generated further successes. After gaining a reputation as someone who generates best-sellers, Halberstam now has the means allowing him to devote an immense amount of time to the research that will form the basis of his next book.

The book being reviewed here is a sort of sequel to "The Best and the Brightest." In "War in a Time of Peace," Halberstam focuses on post-Cold-War American foreign and national security policies. As suggested by the book's subtitle, the author is interested in the complicated relationship between the president, the president's national security team and the Pentagon's generals. Halberstam studies the manner in which two American presidents who served during the 1990s, George Bush and Bill Clinton, tackled the challenges of national security in the post-Cold War era, and examines America's victory in this struggle.

Bush's rise and fall

When the Soviet Union crumbled, the U.S. lost the focus of its foreign policy and the "glue" that had held that policy together. Even in previous decades, America had found it difficult to manage a coherent and consistent foreign policy, given both the country's immense size and the fact that a significant portion of its politicians and citizens took no interest in what happened beyond America's borders and even suspected that all the foreign policy establishment really wanted was to embroil the U.S. in the exhausting affairs of other nations and to spend the American taxpayer's money on foreign aid.

As president, Bush focused his energies on foreign policy. His previous career - his wartime service during World War II, his ambassadorship to the United Nations and China, his position as chief of the Central Intelligence Agency - trained him effectively to serve as the commander-in-chief of American foreign policy. He brilliantly handled both the crisis generated by the Soviet Union's collapse and the shift to a world with only one superpower. In the final analysis, he attained partial success in dealing with a new kind of challenge: namely, that posed by the tyrants ruling regional powers like Iraq and Serbia. The collapse of the familiar and symbolic patterns of the Cold War era enabled these tyrants to conduct a policy of occupation and annexation free of the threat of the world's two "police officers," the two superpowers.

With the help of a gifted and energetic secretary of state, James Baker, Bush built up an impressive international coalition and defeated the armies of these dictators with hardly any American casualties. However, Bush made some wrong moves on the eve of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and in the final stages of the Gulf War. Bush also refrained from conducting an activist policy in two additional crisis areas - the Balkans and Somalia.

Moreover, Bush's political fate graphically illustrates the limited relevance of foreign policy accomplishments with respect to American domestic politics. When the Gulf War ended, Bush, wearing the laurels of a victor, enjoyed in the winter of 1992 an unprecedented lead in public opinion polls - but an economic crisis that had spun out of control sapped him dry politically. The following summer, Bush began to lag behind the Democratic presidential candidate, Bill Clinton and, after losing in the presidential elections, he was succeeded by a president who pledged to focus attention on domestic and economic issues.

Clinton at the helm

The history of the Clinton administration provides an important lesson. An American president - even one who prioritizes domestic policies and whose heart and soul do not lean toward foreign and security matters, cannot ignore or neglect such matters. Not only is the world's only superpower the ultimate arbiter of international crises: Its president cannot effectively function vis-a-vis the American public with the image of a leader who is powerless when dealing with global problems. The average American, who perhaps shows little interest in international politics and who apparently would find it hard to locate Sarajevo on the map, expects the president of the United States of America to "act like a president" - which means demonstrating skill in the management of world affairs.

Thus, Clinton found himself involved against his will in Somalia, Haiti and, on two occasions, in the former Yugoslavia. In Somalia, he suffered a scorching failure in a face-off with a local bully, Sheikh Hussein Mohammed Aidid, and pulled out the tiny American expeditionary force after the U.S. suffered both casualties and loss of face. In Haiti, he attained much greater success after managing to settle the internal crisis there without any real military intervention.

However, in Halberstam's view, these episodes were only a prelude to the main issue in Clinton's foreign policy: the crisis in Yugoslavia. Halberstam presents his readers with a detailed description of the crisis' two key stages: the war in Bosnia and the Kosovo affair. He shows how the bloody events and their portrayal in the media forced President Clinton to intervene. Halberstam depicts the paradox of American foreign policy during the 1990s: the reluctance of generals like Colin Powell to intervene militarily in international crises, versus the pressure of liberal intellectuals for the application of America's military might in the face of sinister Serb chauvinism and against war criminals who implemented that chauvinism.

As in his previous books, Halberstam presents his narrative first and foremost through its chief protagonists. Readers are given a portrayal, on the one hand, of the failure of the national security adviser in the first Clinton administration, Tony Lake and, on the other, of the phenomenal success of Richard Holbrook. If one can cite one clear-cut heroic figure in this book, that person would be Holbrook, an extraordinarily talented diplomat in Clinton's liberal administration, who understood what geopolitics meant, who defeated the Serbs, and who spurred the warring factions in Bosnia to sign the Dayton Agreement.

Presented with the portrayal of the events in Bosnia, Israeli readers may perhaps immediately ask themselves what would have happened if Clinton had instructed Holbrook to apply his talents in the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to achieve peace between Israel and the Arabs. The question will have to remain unanswered because Halberstam's book makes no mention of the Israeli-Arab peace process. His choice here is incomprehensible. Involvement in that process was a central aspect of Clinton's foreign policy. The Middle East provided him with some brilliant successes and with some dismal failures. His position vis-a-vis Iran and Iraq raises many questions in the minds of those who are interested in the issue of America's ability and desire to use force to back up its diplomatic moves.

The terrorist attack on the centers and symbols of the power of the U.S. on September 11, 2001 has changed the perspective according to which the issues that concern Halberstam are perceived. If, when the Soviet Union crumbled, the U.S. lost an enemy or rival that provided American foreign policy with a focus and a logic, the U.S. now has a new enemy and a new challenge.

To an extent, the arena of confrontation has been shifted from remote areas on the face of the globe to the American metropolis. If the U.S. attacks Iraq, the average American will understand that the attack was carried out not to save Kuwait or some other obscure country, but rather to protect the security of American citizens. Moreover, the American offensive brought home: (a) the fact of the military-technological superiority that the U.S. has acquired, and (b) the immense gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world in that realm.

America's ability to use force against outlaw nations now seems greater than ever. However, there is ironically still an immense distance between that ability and the ability to influence Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, for instance, to declare a cease-fire even when the vice-president of the United States is looking him straight in the eye.

Prof. Itamar Rabinovich, president of Tel Aviv University, served as Israeli Ambassador to the United States.