October 1998

Looking back at Bush

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When historians look back at the Bush administration, foreign policy will dominate their attention. During Bush's four years in the White House, U.S. – Soviet relations changed dramatically, the Gulf War tested the post-Cold War NATO coalition, Germany was reunified, and the political map of Eastern Europe re-drawn. In their thorough new book, former President George Bush and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft share primary documents and personal notes detailing how the United States influenced these and other international developments. Although the nuances of U.S. – Soviet relations may not captivate the average reader, Bush and Scowcroft bring energy to the subject by recording not only committee meetings and public statements, but agreements reached over lunch at Camp David or while boating in Kennebunkport. The narrative alternates between Bush's recollections and those of Scowcroft, both of whom lace their commentary with anecdotes. Although A World Transformed is anything but light reading, it is not devoid of humor. Early on, Bush spends two pages on The Scowcroft Award for Somnolent Excellence, exposing the tendency of certain high officials to fall asleep during meetings. Throughout the book, Bush emphasizes the informal relationships he cultivated with world leaders as crucial to his foreign policy. Maintaining close communication with leaders like Gorbachev, Thatcher, Kohl, and Mitterand afforded Bush numerous opportunities to influence their decision-making on world affairs. As Bush illustrates, for example, the Gulf War coalition held together in part because of the strong personal bonds between Western leaders.

On Iraq and the developments leading up to operation Desert Storm, A World Transformed is comprehensive. From the first alert until the final shot, Bush and Scowcroft are meticulous in recording key conversations and strategic decisions along the way. In addition to clarifying how the crisis began, the authors offer insightful analysis. The Gulf War became, in many ways, the bridge between the Cold War and post-Cold War eras . . . Superpower cooperation opened vistas of a world where, unlike the previous four decades, the permanent members of the UN Security Council could move to deal with aggression in the manner intended by its framers. About halfway through the book one wonders how domestic policy was conducted if our leaders were so deeply involved in international affairs. And one cannot help but notice the conspicuous absence of Vice President Quayle from the book's pages. He is mentioned only a few times and rarely seems to have played a significant role in important decision-making. In any case, it is hard not to admire the commitment of Bush and Scowcroft to the task of comprehensive documentation. Their book will give historians a new tool for understanding the turmoil that defined the world during the Bush administration.

Jeremy Caplan is on staff at The Paris Review.

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