Deep Shallow

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.

But remaining insouciant toward human rights was a piece of Bush's policy toward China. After Tiananmen Square, Bush went out of his way to cozy up to the Chinese leadership. He wrote a letter to Deng Xiaoping declaring, "I have tried very hard not to appear to be dictating in any way to China how it should manage its internal crisis. I am respectful of the differences in our two societies and in our two systems." Indeed he was. His naivete is stunning. "You see, rightly or wrongly, it was the students who captured the imagination of so many people around the world. They are young and, like students everywhere, they are idealistic. . . ."

The fact is that Bush had an obligation to the victims at Tiananmen--an obligation to state that the behavior of the Chinese government was unacceptable and reprehensible. Instead, he secretly sent Scowcroft over to lead a toast to the Chinese. So solicitous was the administration of China's feelings that it even immediately sent a Secret Service detail to efface any remnants--posters, flowers, a replica Goddess of Democracy--that had been placed in a small park in front of the Chinese embassy in Washington.

The same flaccidity governed the Bush administration's approach to Iraq. Certainly, booting Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and pulling the Gulf War coalition together was no small feat. It was Bush's great moment. But realism prevailed once again in going up against Saddam. Maybe it would have been a mistake to go to Baghdad, though Saddam's plans for biological weapons make that look more and more attractive. But Bush and Scowcroft wanted to maintain a balance of power in the region and were reluctant to upset the Arab allies. Their view of the Iraqi opposition--"Iraqi malcontents," as Scowcroft terms them--makes for painful reading. These were hardly malcontents but courageous Shiites and Kurds who responded to the administration's call for an uprising. Their fate was grisly: chemical gassing by Saddam's forces by helicopters that the administration did not stop, even though the action violated the peace accords. In retrospect, Bush lamely admits, "it might have been salutary to have rapped the Iraqis on the knuckles at their first transgression."

Perhaps what comes through most noticeably in Bush's and Scowcroft's account is their lack of historical imagination. They were able to execute many of the technical details of other treaties with aplomb, but they feared change more than they embraced it. They seem to have been peculiarly blind to the aspirations of the peoples living in the Soviet Union or China. Bush was stuck in the past, in an age when great powers cut diplomatic deals while the populace silently looked on. Whether it was being caught flat-footed when the Berlin Wall came down or when students protested in Tiananmen Square, the brand of realism orchestrated by Bush and Scowcroft does not appear to have been all that realistic.

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