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  • The Curse of Insight
  • Henning Vaglum (bio)
A World Transformed By George Bush and Brent Scowcroft. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998, 576 pp. $30.00.

Let this be a warning to any current or aspiring foreign policymaker: insight will not always be the best foundation for action. Consideration of the diverse possible consequences of one’s actions will rarely be a useful guide for focused policymaking. Whereas insight may direct one to cautious and pragmatic behavior, often leading to wise decisions, it rarely creates heroes—nor will it win elections. Insight is not always a blessing.

George Bush occupied the White House during the most important and dramatic years of the latter half of this century. In A World Transformed, the former president and Brent Scowcroft, his national security advisor, provide an account of their role in this eventful period. A World Transformed is an appropriate title. The Bush administration witnessed the implosion of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, the reunification of Germany, the studentmassacre in Tiananmen Square, and the Persian Gulf War. One would think that strong leadership was crucial in transforming the world from static bipolarity, through a chaotic period, towards a new world order. George Bush was a veteran of foreign affairs when he assumed the presidency in 1988: he had already served two terms in Congress, headed the U.S. liaison office in Beijing, directed the Central Intelligence Agency, represented the United States as ambassador to the United Nations, and served two terms as vice president. When Bush set foot in the Oval Office, he was well prepared for the task of conducting foreign policy. However, after [End Page 247] reading A World Transformed, one isnot left with the image of Bush as a great shaper of world events, but ratheras a well-intentionedand competent president carefully trying to surf an enormous wave of international change. His insight did not prove to be a blessing.

Me, Myself, and We

A World Transformed has three voices. Bush and Scowcroft take turns presenting and analyzing the significant series of world events that came their way. In addition, a narrative summarizing and seeking to draw integrative conclusions on behalf of the Bush administration provides a wider perspective and contributes additional information and interpretation. The presentation and structure of A World Transformed at times leaves the reader with the impression that the third voice presents objective historical truths. This is, of course, not an objective history, and is not meant to be. The structure may therefore be somewhat misleading. Yet, this three-way structure makes the work surprisingly readable. Scowcroft’s crisp and consistently skeptical analysis juxtaposed with Bush’s entertaining anecdotes gives the work a fine balance. And, while the third voice is sometimes made redundant by Scowcroft’s extensive interpretation, the book is well written and thoroughly researched.

Among the numerous issues raised in this book, two stand out anddeservespecial attention: the pervasive image of Bush as the prudent statesman and the question of when to end the Gulf War.

The Prudent President

To the public, Bush appeared the opposite of his predecessor: where Reagan had been bold and decisive, Bush was pragmatic and irresolute. This image of Bush was brilliantly portrayed by Dana Carvey on Saturday Night Live throughout most of Bush’s time in office. In this portrayal he is the prudent president “staying the course,” muddling his syntax, and accomplishing very little. Reagan’s legacy, on the other hand, is one of great success in foreign affairs. Bush is remembered for “no new taxes,” Dana Carvey, and the increasingly tarnished Gulf War victory. Reagan is the president who won the Cold War with a crystal clear hawkish stance on relations with the Soviet Union. The paradox is as follows: whereas Bush was competent and educated in foreign policy, Reagan had only a vague conception of international affairs. Reagan’s decisions on the larger policy framework were based [End Page 248] primarily on political intuition; he then sat back and let his administration conduct foreign policy within this focused framework. Ronald Reagan did not suffer from the curse of insight.

There are at least two possible explanations for this paradox. The...

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pp. 247-251
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