Former President George H. W. Bush and former National Security Advisor Brent Scocroft wrote a book called “A World Transformed,” published in 1998 by Alfred A. Knopf Publishers. This is a review of that work.
What alerted me to this book was an article from FOX NEWS on-line:
“Bush 41 Foresaw Iraq Occupation Problems in ’91
Wednesday, August 25, 2004
WASHINGTON ? Not many people foresaw the postwar difficulties the administration has endured in Iraq. Of the few who did, two stand out, both lions of the Republican Party. One was President George H.W. Bush. The other was his secretary of state, James A. Baker.
“Incalculable human and political costs” would have been the result, the senior Bush has said, if his administration had pushed all the way to Baghdad and sought to overthrow Saddam Hussein after the U.S.-led coalition ousted the Iraqi army from Kuwait during the Persian Gulf war in 1991… The senior Bush’s thoughts are outlined in “A World Transformed,” published well before his son became president. ”
I checked the book out of my university library to find out exactly what he said about invading Iraq. As I flipped through the book, I noted that he wrote about most major (and publicized) foreign policy decisions, including the so-called “velvet revolutions” that ended Communism in the former USSR and Eastern Europe. I’m studying Eastern Europe, especially politics in that region around 1989 and after, and wanted to know the official U.S. policy thinking about what happened there.
O.k. Enough preamble. Let’s get to the meat of the book. It is a heavy tome, just short of 600 pages. It is written in an interesting format: Bush and Scowcroft alternate first person voices (e.g. George Bush: I said this to Brent… Brent Scowcroft: I said this to George …) and those passages written jointly are in boldface. Bush and Scowcroft rarely contradict each other, but this format affords opportunities for differing views on the same subject. They write about their “thinking” during the events during Bush’s presidential tenure, supposedly an “insider’s account.”
The writing is accessible, and does offer some interesting insights, such as the high degree of dissension within the cabinet and congress over how much financial aid to give to post-communist countries. How Bush argued that while they’d like to help out, the “partisan budget battles” and the extremely high deficit they inherited from the Reagan administration “tied their hands” in giving financial aid to Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, et al. It seemed that for most of the revolutions in Eastern Europe (and there is debate whether they were truly “revolutions”), the official U.S. policy was to do as little as possible for fear of antagonizing the USSR. Most of their foreign policy decisions were based on not antagonizing the USSR.
The other major insights come from the detailed account of how the first Iraq War was considered and waged. The FOX NEWS article (from an associated press release) is somewhat misleading. While Bush warned that marching into Baghdad and occupying the country would be bad mostly from a foreign policy standpoint. This time, they were not afraid of antagonizing the USSR, but the whole league of Arab nations who were the watchdogs of the coalition. Bush was only able to put troops in Saudi Arabia in exchange for the promise that he would stick to the UN resolutions that outlined what Iraq must do to stop the War (withdraw from Kuwait, etc.). In addition, the first President Bush was very much concerned about the stability and long term health of the U.N. As a supporter of the U.N. and an advocate of the U.S. being not only a part of it, but a leader in the world, the first President Bush tread very carefully and stuck to the intitial goals, despite pressures from within to do more. Bush did, however, forsee one crucial aspect of occupying Iraq which, hauntingly, rings true today:
“To occupy Iraq would instantly shatter our coalition, turning the whole Arab world against us, and make a broken tyrant a latter-day Arab hero. It would have taken us way beyond the imprimatur of international law bestowed by the resolutions of the Security Council, assigning young soldiers to a fruitless hunt for a securely entrenched dictator and condemning them to fight in what would be an unwinnable urban guerilla war. It would only plunge that part of the world into even greater instability and destroy the credibility we were working so hard to reestablish.” [emphasis mine-- ed.].
Most of what is outside the italics pertains to the particular situation and not to today’s war, though the sentence immediately after the italics seems to be happening today. Within the italics, the part of “condeming [young soldiers] to fight in … an unwinnable urban guerilla war,” is an apt description of today’s Iraq occupation.
Scowcroft offers a more academic tone to the book. That he frames foreign policy questions in a way that gets at the heart of the matter illuminates the complexities while making them understandable. Understandable, at least, from the official U.S. foreign policy side, which is exactly what the book is about. Bush, on the other hand, has an irksome way of introducing almost every foreign leader at the time (with the exception of Syria, Lebanon, PLO, etc.) as “a friend,” giving the false impression that foreign policy debates are merely discussions among pals. Gorbachev must’ve been his bestest buddy as this exchange between the two, the first time George Bush is able to communicate with Gorbachev after the 1991 August coup, illustrates (p. 531):
“My dearest George. I am so happy to hear your voice again,” said Gorbachev.
“My God, I’m glad to hear you. How are you doing?”
And so on. The greatest insight is how deeply the Cold War affected foreign policy decisions. It gives an almost emotional account of how the U.S. leaders, including the cabinet and congress, thought about the USSR and how these deeply held convictions colored every move they made.
I can’t say I recommend the book to all audiences. Because it is an extremely partisan account (Democrats were all partisan bastards and the Republicans were the only ones that made sense), it glosses over the mistakes of the Bush administration, and is therefore an unreliable account of history. Hearing Bush tell it, the American people were schmucks for voting for anyone but him in 1992. However, if you want to know how the top U.S. leaders felt about the events between 1989 and 1991 or, at least, what they are willing to reveal, I suggest a careful reading between the lines. That’s where the insights really lie.
Waterglass is 25% full on this one.
UPDATE: First, read the book before commenting on what you read in a review. And second, figure out the difference between “difficult” and “debacle.”