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Washington Journal: Book Review: A World Transformed

  • Charles Fenyvesi

Washington, 19 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The 600-page memoir just published by former U.S. President George Bush and his national security adviser Brent Scowcroft is titled "A World Transformed." During their tenure at the White House, the world was indeed transformed. But the question remains: by whom?

The book focuses on four crises: the collapse of the Soviet empire, the reunification of Germany, the rally for democracy at Tiananmen Square and the war on Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Unusually enough, the narrative is printed under the name of one or the other author; then there are also jointly authored texts which are set off in bold type.

To the reader, the world-shaking developments in the Soviet bloc appear as a result of unstoppable mass momentums which the co-authors acknowledge they had not foreseen. Repeatedly, they found the events not only beyond their control but beyond their comprehension as well.

They describe the leaders in the vortex of each transformation as driven by their own irrepressible impulses. In contrast, the American president is circumspect. Scowcroft, a close personal friend, seems to have only reinforced Bush's innate caution.

However, Bush kept in touch with the leaders. He is likely to go down in history as the first American president who picked up the telephone to confer with his counterparts around the world. Bush directly confronted and often quickly resolved problems which are normally handled by ambassadors and foreign offices, special assistants and country specialists.

Many foreign leaders reacted positively to this revolutionary extension of the idea of the hot line, which was originally a telex service linking the White House and the Kremlin, reserved for emergency messages at times of world-threatening crises.

One leader often at the other end of the White House telephone line was Mikhail Gorbachev, and his last act before moving out of his Kremlin office was to put through a farewell call to the man he liked to describe as "my friend George."

In his memoir, Bush enthusiastically confirms the friendship. "I didn't want to get too maudlin or too emotional," he says about that farewell conversation on Christmas Day, 1991. But Bush's words, as recorded in the cold print of his book, do appear emotional.

In the Baltic region and particularly in Lithuania, Bush feared a confrontation between communist hardliners cornered by reformers going too far, propelled by popular sentiment favoring independence. The authors keep citing the tragic precedent of the Soviets crushing the1956 Hungarian revolution while the Americans stood by.

But history did not repeat itself. Bush's fears of a brutal Soviet crackdown on dissidents proved unfounded, and those seeking independence from the Soviet Union ignored his counsels of restraint. In the end, few armed confrontations occurred, and bloodshed was minimal.

Scowcroft describes how anti-regime demonstrations in Romania in 1989 "frightened" Chinese leaders who had been prepared to accept the American roadmap for improvement of relations between Washington and Beijing. Scowcroft characterizes Chinese leaders as having "panicked" following the revolution that toppled Nicolae Ceausescu. The book calls the Christmas day execution of the dictator and his wife as "the culminating symbolic act at the end of the communist domination of Eastern Europe" -- an act which "many had not dared to imagine."

The two co-authors neither apologize for mistakes they might have made, nor do they play up their accomplishments. They do not try to justify their often-criticized policies such as supporting Gorbachev even after the end of his rule was in sight and endorsing the territorial integrity of the Soviet Union for far too long. Nor do they take credit for ending communist power in Europe.

Bush is not eloquent. He tends to ramble, but he runs out of words when it comes to characterizing Scowcroft. "Then, of course, Brent Scowcroft," Bush writes, and the incomplete sentence ends with three periods. Well, that just about sums up Scowcroft and Bush, America's 41st president and a low-key fellow who insists that though he did do the right things, he did not change the course of history. The book's message is that the courage of long-suppressed peoples transformed the world.