Courtesy Reuters

The Prudence Thing: George Bush's Class Act

No one is under oath when writing their memoirs, but this joint account by former President George Bush and his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, has better credentials than most. They not only had privileged access to official documentation, as well as their own sources, but also were generously helped by former staffers like Richard Haass, Condoleezza Rice, and Philip Zelikow. Furthermore, the two authors separate their observations, which take the form of individual comments on a central narrative. This structure gives the work a freshness that makes it readable as well as authoritative. In short, it is a good buy, both for scholars and the general public.

That said, the book contains few surprises. The three years it covers, from January 1989 to December 1991, were among the most momentous of the century, including as they did the liberation of Eastern Europe, the Tiananmen Square massacre, the unification of Germany, the Gulf War, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. They have already been microscopically examined by scholars, journalists, and memoir writers. But the view from the Oval Office is unique, even if the events are already familiar. In particular, the book tells us nothing that we did not know about President Bush himself. Both in background and personality, he was well fitted for the task of navigating the rapids through which the United States and the world passed during those three stupendous years. He was a thorough professional, having spent the best part of two decades in high office in Washington. He knew how government worked and how the world worked. As vice president he had come to know most of the world's leaders -- usually at the funerals of their predecessors -- and was on friendly terms with many of them. Unlike some of his own predecessors, he was not dependent on policy experts he did not trust or cronies trusted by nobody else. As a man born to the senatorial (if not the presidential) purple, he accepted power easily and carried it graciously. He assembled a team as professional as himself, among whom Brent Scowcroft was preeminent.

A GENIUS FOR FRIENDSHIP

Scowcroft had also been a Washington insider for 20 years and understood both the importance and the limitations of his role. Hard-working, strong-minded, yet self-effacing, he knew that his task was not to make policy ...a la Kissinger (whose offers of help he politely rejected), but to create harmony among the able people who constituted the presidential team and present the president with practicable choices of action. His relationship with the president was like that between a general and his chief of staff. Like all such successful relationships, it deepened into close friendship.

Indeed, friendship was the clue to Bush's success, and he had a genius for it. It went far deeper than the backslapping camaraderie with which some Americans try to establish relationships with foreigners, which is usually deeply resented. Clearly, Bush not only liked but understood people, including those of different cultures. That made them tend to like him. He was, admittedly, lucky in the leaders with whom he had to deal. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl shared Bush's informal tastes and anyhow knew the importance of keeping the United States on his side during the delicate process of German reunification. Margaret Thatcher never concealed her suspicion of Bush's tendency, as she saw it, "to go wobbly," but her determination to preserve the "special relationship" between Britain and the United States kept her in line. Francois Mitterrand was another matter altogether: Had Bush not charmed the French president during an informal weekend in Kennebunkport, the persistent efforts of the Quai d'Orsay to rock the boat might have caused a great deal more trouble.

But most important of all was the friendship with Mikhail Gorbachev. It was not just that Bush, like Thatcher, found it easy to do business with him. From the very beginning, he admits, "I liked him." Under other circumstances, Bush would no doubt have kept these feelings under close control, but in solving the problems that lay before them, a relationship of close confidence could do nothing but good. Scowcroft was professionally more cautious. It took him some time, as it took many other Americans, to realize that Gorbachev was "for real." He feared that Gorbachev was launching a dangerously successful charm offensive to disarm the West, and warned Bush accordingly. As the year wore on, however, it became clear that Gorbachev's concessions over arms control and Eastern Europe were not only sincerely meant but bitterly opposed within his own entourage. The support of Gorbachev against his internal enemies became a firm plank of Western policy.

Nonetheless, even Bush was determined that Gorbachev should not be allowed to shape the future unilaterally with his dramatic concessions. Bush was initially criticized for his apparent lack of ideas, and he disarmingly confessed that he was not good at "the vision thing." During the first six months of his presidency, however, he badgered his staff to produce ideas that would enable him to preserve the initiative. But by the summer of 1989, events in Europe were moving so fast that "the vision thing" became largely irrelevant. All the United States could do, in Bush's words, was encourage, guide, and manage change. This required seat-of-the-pants planning, not a Wilsonian vision of a new world order.

SWALLOWING TOADS

The fundamental question was how to keep the Soviet Union on board -- first while the people of central and Eastern Europe struggled to free themselves from communism, then while Germany pursued reunification, and finally to ensure that a united Germany remained within NATO. This task involved convincing the Soviet leadership to swallow a prolonged meal of toads, and only the most assiduous personal diplomacy could have persuaded even Gorbachev to do so. The determination to do nothing to humiliate the Soviet Union was fundamental to Bush's policy, and it is clear that this was based not only on prudent recollections of what happened in a humiliated Germany after World War I but on Bush's own gentlemanly inclinations. He stifled all manifestations of triumphalism after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Bush also made it clear to Gorbachev that he understood Moscow's dilemma when the Baltic states demanded their independence. He encouraged the states of Eastern Europe not so much to distance themselves from the Soviet Union as to liberalize their own political and economic systems. The achievement of Bush during this delicate period of transition was not that he did the right things but that he avoided doing the wrong ones.

The problems presented by the reunification of Germany were more complex, if less dramatic. Here, whether the Americans liked it or not, the initiative lay largely with Kohl. Had there been less confidence between Kohl and Bush, the entire alliance might have fallen apart. Doubts about the wisdom of unifying Germany were widespread among all the allies, not least the United States, but Bush himself did not share them. As he put it, he was "comfortable" with the prospect and therefore prepared to back Kohl in a policy that was not entirely welcome even to all the chancellor's fellow citizens in the Federal Republic. As it was, toads had to be swallowed not only by the Soviet Union, but also by close U.S. allies like Britain and France. Thatcher did not conceal how much she disliked the taste, but having made her protest, she fell in line. So did Mitterrand, whose "special relationship" with Germany was as important to France as that with the United States was for Britain. A final problem was how to reshape NATO so as to convince the Soviets that the West no longer presented a threat, thereby easing their withdrawal from Eastern Europe. Again, Thatcher protested but acquiesced, while the French were able to say that, since they did not belong to the military structure of NATO, it had nothing to do with them. Scowcroft reflects that in these negotiations Britain and France might have been handled more tactfully, but it probably would not have made much difference to the outcome. Although neither liked taking a back seat, the reality is that the key players were Kohl, Gorbachev, and Bush. So long as they agreed, nothing else mattered.

NO WOBBLES HERE

The Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany was signed in Moscow on September 12, 1990. Six weeks earlier, Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, and the White House was already busy dealing with that crisis. Presidential diplomacy was at even more of a premium here. Bush was careful to touch base, as he put it, not only with President Husni Mubarak of Egypt, King Hussein of Jordan, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, and President Turgut Uzal of Turkey, but also with the rulers of the smaller Arab emirates, and most important of all, with Gorbachev. It was Gorbachev's promise of cooperation in the Persian Gulf that led Bush to express premature hopes for a new world order in which the superpowers would collaborate in preserving world peace. Although initially cautious about the use of force, Bush was always sufficiently determined about the need for firm action to require no lecturing from Thatcher about being "wobbly." When on August 5 he declared, "This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait," he meant what he said. But it was not until the end of September that reports of atrocities in Kuwait convinced him that the defeat of Saddam was a moral as well as a prudential imperative and that his task was to mobilize the forces of the United Nations -- not just to preserve the rule of law but for a crusade against evil.

At that point his own compass was set, but his real troubles were just beginning. As it became increasingly clear that economic sanctions were not working, the use of military force became unavoidable. Bush's domestic critics, who had accused him of indecision, now complained about a policy that they feared would lead to another Vietnam and enormous casualties. Even the hard-won U.N. Security Council resolution of November 29, authorizing its members to "use all necessary means" to restore peace and security, had so little effect on a deeply divided U.S. public that the Senate vote to authorize the use of force passed by only three voices. Meanwhile, many of the allies were wavering, sending emissaries to Baghdad in a vain attempt to extract concessions that would redound to their own political advantage. It needed all of Bush's strength and self-confidence to hold the course and go through with the conflict that he knew to be necessary and believed -- in the teeth of much expert military opinion -- would be brief. The only way of managing this crisis, he saw, was by fighting a successful war.

TRIUMPH WITHOUT VICTORY

Yet here again Bush was modest in his objectives. He knew that there was little point in dictating peace to Baghdad, hounding Saddam into exile, or martyring him by execution and thereby assuming responsibility for governing a resentful Iraq -- even if his Arab allies would have tolerated it, which they emphatically would not. If the Iraqi people and their Arab neighbors could not deal with Saddam themselves, it was no responsibility of the United States. Prudence, rather than gentlemanly restraint, dictated Bush's actions. It may have left unfinished political business, but it also left an unblemished military triumph. The role of the United States as the world's leader had, as Bush intended, been reaffirmed. "We could now," as even the cautious Scowcroft expressed it, "consider the possibility of a new world order, one based on U.S.-Soviet cooperation against unprovoked aggression."

Alas for the vanity of human wishes. Even as the Gulf War was being fought, it was clear that the basis of Gorbachev's domestic support was precarious. The last section of the book traces the reaction in the White House to its erosion and to the erosion of the Soviet Union. Bush did not, of course, allow his deep friendship with Gorbachev to interfere with his duty of establishing as close relations as possible with his successor, Boris Yeltsin. But the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the descent of its successor states into chaos eliminated Moscow as a serious partner for the United States. Bush's own successor, Bill Clinton, was to have a different order of priorities and confront even more complex international problems. In retrospect, 1989-91 now seems as briefly euphoric as 1944-45. George Bush acknowledges in these memoirs how lucky and privileged he feels to have been president during those years, but it can equally be said that the United States, and the rest of the world, were very lucky to have had him as president. He was a hard act to follow.

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