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A World Transformed by George Bush and Brent Scowcroft

A World Transformed
by George Bush and Brent Scowcroft
Knopf. 568 pp. $30.00

A smart President chooses his successors wisely. As the Clinton administration flails amid the unraveling of the international economic and political order, George Bush looks more and more like a giant. Among foreign-policy cognoscenti, the team of Bush, Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, Colin Powell, and Dick Cheney has already earned a reputation for smoothness and competence that stands in rather striking contrast to the clunky hesitance and indecision of the Clintonites. When Secretary of State Madeleine Albright protested in a recent interview that the Bush team had a simpler job—“they had a different world to deal with in which the parameters were fairly set”—she paid unwitting tribute to the fact that Bush and his colleagues had a knack for making some of the hardest plays look easy. Then, too, the Bush administration actually won a few, and winning always looks easy in retrospect.

An air of easy confidence certainly pervades A World Transformed, written by Bush and Scowcroft, his top national-security adviser. In recounting their time in office, the two men are surprisingly frank and genial, willing to reveal small embarrassments—like the fact that Scowcroft often fell asleep in meetings—as well as larger errors of judgment. Such frankness makes for unusually interesting reading. Indeed, the novel construction of these memoirs—the two take turns telling their story, each from his own point of view—lifts them well above the monotony of other such accounts and produces a rounded picture of foreign-policy-making in the Bush years, at least as seen from the White House.

The open and often self-deprecating tone of A World Transformed must owe a lot to a conviction on the part of both men that their historical reputations are fairly secure. Whatever their failings—and these appear less significant as today’s debacles unfold—things did turn out pretty well on their watch. The Soviet empire collapsed. The Gulf war was won. Although Bush left behind a number of ticking time-bombs—the raging war in Bosnia, the unresolved crisis in Haiti, a North Korea well on its way toward developing nuclear weapons, Saddam Hussein still in charge in Baghdad—he will not likely be blamed for them. Who today blames Eisenhower for the unresolved mess he left in Vietnam?

It also should be said that Bush and Scowcroft deserve to enjoy their successes now, since they certainly never had a chance to enjoy them while in office. One of the most refreshing things about their account is the candor with which they reveal not only the difficulties they faced in trying to shape American foreign policy at the end of the cold war but also the uncertainty and insecurity they felt in confronting those difficulties. Contrary to Secretary Albright’s suggestion, things were never that easy for George Bush.

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Few are likely to remember that Bush’s first two years were hardly glorious. Even though many wonderful things were happening around the world, he had a hard time finding his footing. As he reveals here, he was deeply wounded by charges that he lacked Ronald Reagan’s “vision,” and he especially resented the fact that people seemed to value Reagan’s rhetorical abilities more than what he considers to be his own deeper grasp of the complexities.

Unlike Reagan, Bush intended to be a “ ‘hands-on’ President,” and he was also determined to chart his own course in foreign policy. This, however, was problematic, for even in hindsight it is not exactly clear what Bush and Scowcroft thought Reagan had done wrong, or what they planned to do differently. Moreover, Bush’s determination to establish his own identity as a world leader had a cost. Instead of trying to hit the ground running, which would have meant proceeding along the course Reagan had charted, he and Scowcroft launched a lengthy “strategic review.” It took the bureaucracy almost two months to produce this review—which amounted to nothing—and by that time Eastern Europe was exploding and the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was running circles around Bush in the international propaganda war. By the spring of 1989, critics in Congress and in the press were charging that the administration had no strategy and was adrift.

Of course, any American administration would have had a hard time keeping up with the rapid changes. But it was also true that, as critics complained at the time, Bush’s reaction was achingly cautious. This caution had the perverse effect of making him appear more conservative about change in the Soviet empire than Gorbachev himself. In the summer of 1989, for example, Gorbachev renounced the Brezhnev Doctrine, signaling that Warsaw Pact nations like Hungary and Poland would be allowed to leave the socialist camp. But when Bush visited Poland four days later, he was actually concerned lest the crowds he drew be too big and too joyous. As it turned out, the carefully planned events, as Scowcroft sadly recalls, were “sparsely attended by the citizens of Warsaw.”

Bush’s wary approach to Eastern Europe did more than deprive him of good photo-ops. It also shaped his attitude toward the central players in the drama, making him generally more sympathetic to the dictators who were trying to control pressures for reform than to the democrats who were expressing popular demands for more radical change. Bush plainly admired Poland’s General Wojciech Jaruzelski, for instance, whom he found “charming,” possessed of a good sense of humor, and, above all, impressively patriotic, and he concludes his account of the overthrow of Communism in Poland with a paean not to Lech Walesa but to Jaruzelski. This same preference extended to Hungary and Czechoslovakia and, of course, the Soviet Union.

There, Gorbachev was being challenged not only by hard-line opponents of his reforms but also by Boris Yeltsin, who was demanding faster and more sweeping changes in the Soviet system. Bush, for the most part, sided with Gorbachev in this struggle—and indeed, by the end of his first year in office, had far outstripped his predecessor Ronald Reagan in treating Gorbachev as an indispensable ally. His memoirs reveal that at the very heart of the “new world order” he envisioned for the post-cold-war era lay the U.S.-Soviet partnership. Moreover, he became convinced that his “personal diplomacy” with Gorbachev was the key to all the successes of his first two years in office, from the bloodless demise of the Warsaw Pact, to the smooth reunification of Germany and its incorporation into NATO, to the unprecedented international unity in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

This commitment to Gorbachev put Bush on a collision course with the democratic forces that were mounting against both the Soviet leader and the Soviet Union itself. When the crisis came to a head in the summer of 1991, Bush and his advisers consistently sided with Gorbachev against Yeltsin and against the republics seeking liberation from Moscow’s central control. “Whatever the course, however long the process took, and whatever its outcome,” Bush writes, “I wanted to see stable, and above all peaceful, change.” This was the concern that lay behind his famous statement to the Ukrainian people in August 1991, in what immediately became known as the “Chicken Kiev” speech, that the U.S. would “not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism.”

Even when it became clear, after the failed coup attempt by Soviet hard-liners in August 1991, that both Gorbachev and the Soviet Union were finished, Bush and most of his advisers were reluctant to let go. Scowcroft found it “painful to watch Yeltsin rip the Soviet Union brick by brick away from Gorbachev.” At an NSC meeting at the beginning of September, Bush and his advisers were unclear even as to whether the break-up of the Soviet Union was in America’s interest. Only Cheney argued forcefully that it was, and that the U.S. should carry out an aggressive policy “to lead and shape events.”

Did it matter that Bush was too cautious? In retrospect, despite his professed concern about overplaying America’s hand and inviting catastrophe, Bush acknowledges that a faster pace of change would not “have proved hazardous.” But both Bush and Scowcroft also admit that in the end their actions did not make much difference. In fact, the most that can be said of their policy toward the crumbling Soviet empire was that it followed the Hippocratic oath: they did no harm.

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Even this much cannot be said, however, of Bush’s other top foreign-policy priority: expanding America’s relationship with China. As he came into office, Bush must have harbored enormous hopes for ushering in a new era of Sino-American cooperation and friendship. He was uniquely suited to the role. Having served as envoy to China, he knew the leadership well and prided himself on understanding the Chinese character.

At the end of February 1989, Bush rushed off to Beijing for a meeting with Deng Xiaoping and other leaders, becoming the first President ever to visit Asia before Europe. Less than four months later, the Chinese dictatorship launched its brutal crackdown on the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, put a tight lid on the political reform movement that had been growing since the early 1980′s, and turned a defiant face to the rest of the world. Bush did not share the general outrage. To some, he writes, it might have appeared that China was “still the dictatorship it had always been,” but “I believed otherwise.” His chief worry was that the massacre would damage “our hard-won gains” by provoking an angry backlash in the United States.

Bush and Scowcroft devote fewer than two of their 22 chapters to the Chinese debacle, and for good reason. As James Baker recounts in his own memoirs, the administration’s China policy essentially consisted of three-and-a-half years of “treading water.” Bush was sympathetic when the Chinese dictators told him that their people yearned for stability more than for freedom, and he worked hard to blunt anti-Chinese sentiments in the U.S. Whenever he and Scowcroft did communicate dissatisfaction to the Chinese leadership, they indicated that they were doing so only in response to enormous political pressure at home. Although Bush may at times have been uncomfortable with this approach—he wrote in his diary on June 20, 1989, “I’m sending signals to China that we want the relationship to stay intact, but it’s hard when they’re executing people”—he firmly believed it was far more important to preserve the relationship than to “lecture” the Chinese about their moral shortcomings.

Bush also assumed that the United States could do little to affect Chinese behavior by means of pressure or threats. But as with the break-up of the Soviet Union, only more damningly, he underestimated the power of American influence. Even supporters of Bush’s general approach (like the Sinologist Harry Harding) concede that his repeated assurances to Deng made it easier for the Chinese leadership to resist international demands for more moderate behavior at home. Nor did Bush take advantage of a rare and fleeting opportunity to harness such demands. At an economic summit in Paris in July 1989, when the Europeans (!) were calling for severe sanctions against China, Bush led the charge for much softer penalties. “Ironically,” Scowcroft writes, “European ardor soon cooled and it was not long before the United States was virtually the only nation with any sanctions still operating.” Ironically—and, one might add, inevitably.

At their meeting in Beijing soon after the crackdown, Deng told Scowcroft that the burden for improving relations fell to the United States, and he employed a Chinese proverb: “It is up to the person who tied the knot to untie it.” Bush and Scowcroft shared Deng’s view that it was for the United States to untie the “knot” by making concessions. But it was the Chinese who had tied it, by slaughtering their own people. On July 9, 1989, Bush confided in his diary that there was “nothing that I really want China to do in order to solve the existing problem of strained relations.” This is an apt summary of his China policy—as it remains, unfortunately, of American policy today.

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The high point of the Bush presidency, and Bush’s own finest hour, was of course the Gulf war. More than anything else, the American victory in Desert Storm established the administration’s reputation for bold, decisive, and effective action. Again contrary to Secretary Albright, Bush’s accomplishment was anything but easy. As he laboriously tried to construct the case for war in the months between the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the launching of Desert Storm in January 1991, he faced huge obstacles, not the least of them being his own team of advisers.

The Bush administration had blundered badly before the invasion. Although Scowcroft insists here that “Saddam would have done what he did” regardless of American policy, that is a rather self-serving fatalism. As Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor have argued in their masterful account of the Gulf crisis (The Generals’ War, 1995), Iraq’s invasion might have been averted had the administration, and especially Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, been willing to deploy military forces when Saddam began building up along the Kuwaiti border. A 1979 Pentagon study, drafted by Paul Wolfowitz, later to become Bush’s Undersecretary of Defense, had foreseen the possibility of such an Iraqi move and recommended that the U.S. intervene “early . . . before hostilities began.” In the days before the invasion, however, Powell refused to move even an aircraft carrier to the Gulf. Scowcroft, fearful of offending Arab sensitivities, believed “this was not a time to posture and threaten.” That was a disastrous miscalculation.

As is well-known, Powell proved an even bigger problem after the invasion. From the beginning, Secretary of Defense Cheney and Wolfowitz wanted the United States to declare the invasion unacceptable and undertake efforts to reverse it. But Powell, as Gordon and Trainor recount, only wanted to defend Saudi Arabia. And as for Baker, he, according to Bush and Scowcroft, was not much better than Powell. “From the beginning of the crisis,” Bush recalls, “Baker was reluctant to contemplate [the use of force] and believed strongly that diplomacy and sanctions should be given every chance to get the job done.” Among the administration’s most prominent players, only Scowcroft, Cheney, Wolfowitz, and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger fully supported Bush’s valiant demand that the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait “must not stand.”

At home, Bush also faced opposition from prominent conservatives and respected military figures who warned of mammoth American casualties. By far his biggest problem, however, was the Democratic party—Secretary Albright’s party. Then-Senate majority leader George Mitchell stubbornly opposed the use of military power, placing his hopes instead on the dubious proposition that one or two years of international sanctions would do the trick. He was supported in this by almost the entire party, including such stalwarts as Sam Nunn and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who argued that “All that’s happened is that one nasty little country invaded a littler but just as nasty country.” Only ten out of 55 Senate Democrats voted in favor of the resolution authorizing force.

Finally, Bush’s masterful assembling of a grand international coalition against Saddam was also not as easy as it looks in retrospect. The Clinton administration these days likes to excuse its own bungled efforts against Saddam by claiming that Bush had an advantage: it was far simpler to persuade the world of the need to reverse Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. But this ignores the historical record. In preparing for U.S. action, Bush faced a nervous and reluctant Saudi royal family and an uncertain Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, who initially preferred an “Arab” solution to the problem. Jordan’s King Hussein had openly cast his lot with Saddam. Cooperation with the Soviet Union was sporadic, and all but collapsed when Yevgeny Primakov rose to ascendancy in Moscow’s policy-making councils. Bush’s ability to pull Arabs and Europeans together was an astounding and underappreciated feat of diplomacy and will.

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What made Bush so uncharacteristically bold, while so many were so feckless? In these memoirs he repudiates the widespread belief that Margaret Thatcher lent him some of her steely spine at a critical moment. Rather, it seems that, in response to Saddam’s treachery, Bush himself had a blinding flash of moral clarity. In the first two months after the invasion, Bush recalls, “I began to move from viewing Saddam’s aggression exclusively as a dangerous strategic threat and an injustice to its reversal as a moral crusade” (emphasis added):

[Saddam's] disdain for international law, his misrepresentation of what had happened, his lies to his neighbors all contributed, but perhaps it was hearing of the destruction of life in Kuwait which sealed the matter. I became very emotional about the atrocities. They really gave urgency to my desire to do something active in response. . . .

[A]t some point it came through to me that this was not a matter of shades of gray, or of trying to see the other side’s point of view. It was good versus evil, right versus wrong.

There was something about Saddam’s naked aggression, his deception and brutality, that cut through Bush’s studied realism, clarified his moral ambivalence, and blasted away his innate caution. While James Baker was lamely trying to explain the American interest in the Gulf as “jobs, jobs, jobs,” Bush was working on another level entirely—one might go so far as to call it Reaganesque.

Would that he had risen to such heights on more than this one occasion. Critical readers might well ask where his sense of moral outrage was when atrocities even greater than Saddam’s were taking place in Bosnia (a subject not touched on by Bush and Scowcroft). Or why, in China, Bush’s concern for “right versus wrong” had so little impact on his policies. Or indeed why, in the endgame of the Iraq war itself, he failed to see his “moral crusade” through to its necessary conclusion, ridding the world once and for all of Saddam’s evil. In Bush’s account of the Gulf crisis, one gets a glimpse, but only a glimpse, of the President that might have been.

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What, then, does it all add up to? It is too early for a definitive historical verdict on Bush and his administration, if such a thing is ever possible. Compared to what followed, Bush and his team did an admirable and, in the case of the Gulf war, even a heroic job. Yet it is clear, even from these memoirs, that the administration’s foreign policy was in most other respects unspectacular, or worse. In the case of the Soviet empire, the world was transformed through no particular action of the Bush administration’s. The decisive acts of American foreign policy were Reagan’s. In the case of China, Bush made no breakthroughs even by his own questionable definition of what such breakthroughs might have entailed. And the failure to finish off Saddam in Iraq, when the U.S. manifestly had the power to do so, may prove one of the most egregious errors of the post-cold-war era.

There is another, larger sense in which Bush failed. His lack of the “vision thing” really did have unfortunate consequences. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States had by necessity to assume an even more central role in world affairs than ever before. It had, indeed, become the sole power undergirding the “new world order.” Bush knew this, but his weakness as a popular leader combined with his deeply ingrained suspicion of “moral crusades” (except in Iraq), made him unable and unwilling to play the role of leader and educator that the American people so badly needed in their President.

To be sure, Bill Clinton deserves most of the blame for squandering the power, both moral and material, that the United States possessed at the end of the cold war. But it was Bush who—to his own political detriment—failed to articulate the necessary vision. In normal times, competence may be enough; but these were not normal times. They are becoming less so by the minute.

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