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Deep Shallow

A WORLD TRANSFORMED.\o7 By George Bush and Brent Scowcroft (Alfred A. Knopf: 592 pp., $30)\f7

September 27, 1998|JACOB HEILBRUNN | Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at the New Republic

"A World Transformed" is a kind of rough draft of history and impressions--snippets of George Bush diaries, comments by Bush on his diaries and recollections by his national security advisor Brent Scowcroft of their stewardship of foreign policy. In a back-and-forth dialogue, they trade off authorship of the hundreds of passages that make up the book.

The book resembles Bush's own speaking style--disjointed, hard to follow and, at times, sophomoric. To put it another way, Bush does not emerge as a man of secret, hidden depths. "Goshdarnit" is one word that figures prominently, as well as descriptions of such mundane moments as when "my dog Ranger, dripping wet from the rain would straggle to the door [of the Oval Office] begging to get inside." (The innocence of such passages is only heightened by recent Oval Office antics.)

If "A World Transformed" is not quite the opus that the two men set out to write before crumbling and handing it over to one James McCall, who organized this baggy monster, is it worthless? Not at all. Buried in the musings are nuggets on policy toward the Soviet Union, Iraq, China and a host of other countries. The fact that Bush would devote his memoirs--since that is what this appears to be--exclusively to foreign policy further suggests how indifferent he was to domestic policy, which was ultimately the undoing of his presidency.

Then there is the question of Bush's parceling out of credit. His book leaves the reader dangling about Secretary of State James Baker's role. Was Scowcroft really the man in charge, not Baker? Baker, at any rate, is mentioned only elliptically by Bush and Scowcroft. Bush always felt ambivalent about Baker, the man who engineered much of his career, and the ambivalence may be coming through in the scant praise apportioned to him. Baker must be seething.

The stakes are high. The world was transformed during the Bush tenure; the biggest question hanging over this book is how much credit Bush & Co. deserve for the transformation. For the most part, the picture is unwittingly dispiriting; the impression conveyed is of a foreign policy team fixated on the past while events whooshed by. Indeed, the greatest weakness of Bush's foreign policy was his inability to see how irrelevant his particular approach to foreign policy was.

Bush exercised a centuries-old doctrine, commonly referred to as foreign policy realism, an honorable doctrine that essentially calls for adhering to a country's national interests, avoiding messy internal quarrels in far-off countries and shunning the intrusion of moral considerations. It worked for 18th and 19th century Europe, when Britain ruled the seas and maintained the balance of power on the continent. But did it work for Bush? Could the United States play the role of Britain? Can morality be dispensed in a world in which tyrants, large and small, are on the rise?

Bush and Scowcroft seemed to have thought so. Consider their suspicion of Gorbachev: Where Reagan had no real intellectual apparatus when it came to foreign policy and responded intuitively, Bush and Scowcroft were flummoxed by the notion that a leader of a foreign country would voluntarily diminish his power. Gorbachev's actions contravened realist principles, which claim that a leader is always out to maximize power. The other component of realism is its disdain for human rights and its love of status quo and order. Though Bush and Scowcroft were suspicious of Gorbachev, they also were worried about the breakup of Eastern Europe. Thus Solidarity entered the Polish parliament on April 5, 1989, before the administration had formulated any kind of policy toward Eastern Europe. Scowcroft writes, for example, that in May "I was still convinced we had to make a bold initiative to reassert leadership, to regain control of the international agenda and to reunify and bolster NATO."

To his credit, Bush never flinched from backing German reunification. The smoothness of the process of reunification, which could have gone badly awry, was a major accomplishment. But the administration was, essentially, responding belatedly to events on the ground that it was unprepared for. When the Berlin Wall came down, Bush remained silent: "I was wary about offering hasty comments." Perhaps the strangest stance that Bush took was his embrace of Gorbachev after initial suspicions, an embrace that kept him from raising any objections to Soviet actions in the Baltic states and in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Bush's newfound ardor for Gorbachev also meant that he remained blind to the significance of the emergence of Boris Yeltsin. Bush never wanted the Soviet Union to collapse. His adherence to realism meant that he saw upheaval and chaos in the aftermath of a Soviet breakup. Hence, Yeltsin was an annoyance, a nuisance who spelled trouble, as Bush saw it. The right to ethnic self-determination among the various republics meant little or nothing to Bush.

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