A View of History From Two Men Who Made It
Setting the record straight on a period of remarkable change.
A WORLD TRANSFORMED
By George Bush
and Brent Scowcroft
590 pp., $30
Former Monitor cartoonist Jeff Danziger once wryly depicted a relaxed President George Bush seated at a table in the United Nations. "Boy," Bush says, "I can't tell you how good it feels to be back among foreigners."
During his tenure as president, Bush earned a reputation for being more pas-sionate about foreign policy matters than about domestic ones - a tendency that undoubtedly hurt his reelection bid in 1992.
He typically appeared more engaged sitting in the Oval Office forcefully denouncing the belligerence of Saddam Hussein than he ever did campaigning on the stump or sparring with Democrats during budget negotiations.
Foreign policy was Bush's forte. This is starkly clear in "A World Transformed," which he co-wrote with his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft.
As the title indicates, the Bush administration witnessed profound changes in the international system - what Bush eventually termed "a new world order." The Berlin Wall crumbled and communism rapidly dissolved in Eastern and Central Europe; perestroika and glasnost helped spark the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war; and the United States cobbled together an international force that trounced an overmatched Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War.
The book is a behind-the-scenes account of the US role - and, specifically, Bush's and Scowcroft's role - during these selected events. It is not, they state in the introduction, a memoir or a history of the Bush administration's foreign policy achievements.
Semantics aside, however, it's difficult to overlook the fact that the picture they paint is long on self-congratulation and self-praise, and short on critical self-evaluation. Politics, indeed, is the art of spin.
Bush writes that they set the right tone of gentle encouragement for the reformers in Eastern Europe, keeping the pressure on the communist governments to move toward freedom without pushing the Soviets against a wall and into a violent crackdown. But it is an open question whether the US role mattered that much. Pro-democracy reformers like the Czechoslovak playwright and leader Vaclav Havel, together with visionary Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who refused to allow a repeat of the 1968 Prague Spring, carried the velvet revolution's torch of freedom.
Moreover, Bush and Scowcroft repeatedly counter criticism from the news media and members of Congress - a clear attempt to set the historical record straight.
During the Gulf War, for instance, Bush was raked over the political coals for his comparison of Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler, a stand he defends here. "I still feel it was an appropriate one," he remarks.
Seven years later, however, the comparison still seems a tad far-fetched. The atrocities Saddam committed pale in comparison with the millions slaughtered at the hands of Hitler. And the threat Saddam posed to the Middle East simply does not approximate the danger posed by the German Wehrmacht, which came within a hair's breadth of conquering Europe.
Nonetheless, "A World Transformed" is an engrossing read. The book offers a fascinating blend of phone conversations between Bush and foreign leaders, poignant passages from Bush's nightly diary entries, and private conversations with foreign policy advisers. The book offers a rare insight into the mechanics of an administration that lived through an epochal period in global affairs.
One interesting nugget occurred during negotiations over German reunification between the Soviets and Americans, crowded around a table in the White House. The Soviets staunchly opposed the idea of a reunified Germany joining the ranks of NATO, particularly since East Germany was the backbone of Moscow's security arrangement in Eastern Europe.
Bush fascinatingly recounts the Soviet reaction when Gorbachev concedes that a united Germany could be in NATO - a diplomatic coup for the US.
The dismay in the Soviet team was palpable, he writes. "[Sergei] Akhromeyev's eyes flashed angrily as he gestured to [Valentin] Falin.... It was an unbelievable scene, the likes of which none of us had ever seen before - virtually open rebellion against a Soviet leader."
During his presidency, Bush was sometimes maligned and often misunderstood. This book may help him earn credit for handling with honor and integrity one of the most fluid and dynamic periods of international affairs this century.
* Seth Jones is a graduate student at the University of Chicago.