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New World Disorder

Although the Clinton administration certainly doesn’t want to admit it, 1999 will mark the eleventh year of the Bush administration—at least as far as foreign policy is concerned. Bush, James Baker, and Brent Scowcroft at first proclaimed that post-Reagan and post-cold war foreign policy would bring about, under US leadership, an alliance of the great powers of the UN Security Council to establish order and prevent aggression. But under Bush the hope of a US-led alliance started to give way to the current intermittent American effort to assume the role of international sheriff.

This was not the declared intention of the Bush administration. When Bush took power in 1989, he was eager to sweep aside much of the legacy of the Reagan years. He wanted to abandon America’s obsession with a Communist takeover in Central America, downplay the delusive search for American invulnerability exemplified by Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (so-called Star Wars), reject what he saw as Reagan’s foolishness in suggesting, at the Reykjavik summit, the elimination of all nuclear weapons from the earth. Above all, he wanted to deflect America’s allies from embracing Mikhail Gorbachev’s call for a “common European home,” which was intended to exclude the United States from the continent while preserving the two systems in place in Eastern and Western Europe.1 In the first year of the administration, Bush’s foreign policy was aptly labeled by his national security spokesmen as “status quo plus.”

Bush, Baker, and the national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, were cautious men in office during a decade of vast change—the collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, the unification of Europe, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and a triumphal war in the Persian Gulf. The United States found itself for the first time in its history a dominant power without any significant threat to its security. What was good for America, it seemed, was good for the world. But the Bush administration also be-queathed to the Clinton policymakers conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and in Somalia, and in their joint account of the foreign policy of the Bush years, the President and his national secu-rity adviser, astonishingly, do not mention the US record of failure in either country.

They deal solely with the great powers—the collapse of the Soviet empire; the unification of Germany; the massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989; and the unexpectedly easy American-led victory over Iraq in the Gulf War. Even when stated in modest tones their claims are triumphalist. The reality is more clouded; the legacy more troublesome. Still, Bush, Baker, and Scowcroft avoided disaster in bringing the cold war to an end—except for their failure to deal with the conflict in Bosnia before it degenerated into mass murder. In unwittingly following Talleyrand’s famous advice to foreign diplomatists, ” Surtout, pas de zèle,” they left America more powerful than ever before amid the ruins of the new world order they believed was in the making.

1.

A World Transformed is surprisingly readable (which may be thanks to James McCall, who is profusely thanked in the acknowledgments for his editorial work). It takes the form of alternating commentaries by Bush and Scowcroft, with flatly presented connective material to provide background. This seems clumsy at first but the voices of the two men come through and we see how different they are. Reading Bush’s contributions, especially the excerpts he gives from his diary, reminds one of the Candide-like air of naiveté of the former president, while Scowcroft presents himself as the prudent manager who more often than not has to rein in his impulsive master.

Throughout, Bush emphasizes his personal relationship with world leaders. For a self-styled realist, he fails to make the classic distinction between relations among persons and those among states, which Dean Acheson once warned was “more likely than not to be misleading if applied to the relations of one society to another.” Henry Kissinger argued with Bush that establishing personal relationships with foreign leaders should not be confused with protecting national interests. As Bush writes, Kissinger “pointed out that the leader of one country is not going to change a policy because he likes another leader.” But for Bush, “personal diplomacy and leadership went hand in hand.”

This point of view served Gorbachev very well; until the American and Soviet leaders met in ships on the stormy waters off Malta in December 1989, Bush was wary of Gorbachev’s sincerity. After that encounter, he supported Gorbachev wholeheartedly, but with little or no cash. The irony of the Bush years was the inability of the administration to find the financial means to advance its foreign policy objectives; Reagan’s crushing budget deficits left Bush little room to offer support to Russian and East European reformers.

In any case, in the first two years of Bush’s administration, US foreign policy was largely conceived as a response to the actions of Gorbachev and West German chancellor Helmut Kohl. The Soviet leader, anxious to save the Union by reforming socialism, consistently upstaged Bush by announcing dramatic arms cuts. For example, with no advance warning, Gorbachev, with Secretary of State James Baker at his side in Moscow, announced on May 11, 1989, a planned withdrawal of five hundred short-range nuclear warheads from Eastern Europe, even though Washington wanted to delay negotiations on nuclear forces until the issue of the overall balance of conventional forces was addressed. When Bush met with NATO secretary Manfred Wörner, on April 12, 1989, he was told by Wörner that “Gorbachev is driving history.”

As Gorbachev and Kohl moved forward, following each other’s wishes, Bush writes, he constantly consulted then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and French president François Mitterrand. Thatcher hectored Bush not to give in to Kohl’s plans for détente with Gorbachev, whereas Mitterrand’s advice, at least as reflected in Bush’s account, was consistently wise and helpful (even when the Quai d’Orsay was not). At a NATO summit in May 1989, after Bush put forward a plan for measured reduction of US and Soviet forces on the continent to a maximum of 275,000 each, Thatcher lectured Bush at dinner over German proposals to move quickly on cutting back short-range nuclear forces as well. “You’re not going to give in, are you?” she said. Bush did not.

The British prime minister in her memoirs is candid in recalling her distrust of Bush and Baker. She thought Bush was sometimes “exasperated” by her habit of talking about issues nonstop, believing that he ought to have been leading the discussion. Eventually, she learned “to defer to him in conversation and not to stint the praise.” More serious was her dislike of James Baker, whom she saw as primarily a political fixer and whose approach was “to put the relationship with Germany—rather than the ‘special relationship’ with Britain—at the centre.” She also believed, with some justification, that the State Department had “swallowed” the French argument that only a “united Europe,” which she opposed, could keep German power in check.2

In the meantime, while arms reductions were being discussed in Washington and Moscow, events were moving fast in Eastern Europe. Gorbachev had made it clear by June 1989 that he would not follow the Brezhnev Doctrine, which threatened Soviet intervention in Eastern Europe if the Soviet satellites should go too far in asserting their independence. By now, Poland and Hungary were moving to get rid of the vestiges of Communist rule, and Bush knew that both countries needed American economic aid to help them carry out reform and move toward a market economy. But there was painfully little money available, and Bush’s Treasury Department was reluctant to provide cash before the reforms were in place.

By late summer the Hungarians had opened the frontier with Austria and “vacationing” East Germans saw an opportunity to slip across the border to that country and then travel by train to the Federal Republic. When thousands did so, it became clear that a historical turning point was at hand. If the East German regime collapsed, that would mean a very real possibility of German reunification—which no government in the West expected, or much wanted. At Bush’s vacation retreat in Maine, in May 1989, Mitterrand had told Bush, “As long as the Soviet Union is strong, [reunification] will never happen.”

On November 9, 1989, however, the Berlin Wall fell. Keeping in mind a possible Soviet crackdown, Bush was cautious at expressing too much elation over the breach in the Iron Curtain. Asked by a reporter his reaction to the opening of the Wall, Bush said, “I am not an emotional kind of guy.” “Well,” said the reporter, “how elated are you?” “I’m very pleased,” Bush said evenly. That kind of remark did not make Bush sound like a forceful leader, but Gorbachev was warning him not to react in a triumphant way. Bush kept insisting in his diary that reunification was “a matter for the German people.” And that was certainly how Kohl—and even Mitterrand—saw it.

At the December summit meeting of Bush and Gorbachev at Malta, Gorbachev outlined a comprehensive geopolitical view of the world’s future. He hoped for a five-power global balance among an integrated Europe, a strong Japan and China, and the Soviet Union and the United States. Gorbachev also proposed, in effect, a new era of Soviet-American cooperation—one that would go far beyond the détente of the Nixon-Brezhnev years—when he suggested that both NATO and the Warsaw Pact should have more of a political than a military character. The Malta summit prefigured an understanding on the evolution of Eastern Europe and the two Germanies. Although Gorbachev was not ready to endorse German reunification, or—the unthinkable—the incorporation of a united Germany in NATO, it was clear from the meeting that the United States would neither oppose German unification nor speak openly to encourage it.

The Malta summit was less successful when it came to the future of the Baltic states. Bush was fearful, he writes, that the Soviets would use force to prevent Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia from trying to becoming independent; Gorbachev was equally fearful that Baltic independence could lead to the further dissolution of the Soviet Union. During the next few months the pressures for independence, especially from Lithuania, impeded Bush, because of domestic political pressures, from seeking aid for the Soviets.

All the Eastern European nations, including Romania, then seized the moment to free themselves from the Soviet Union’s imperial control, but, as Scowcroft admits, the Bush administration’s Eastern European policy had not been “among the catalysts of the changes.” Short of armed Soviet intervention, however, there was little that could halt the pace of events. What might have affected the character of political change over the longer run, on the other hand, was the shortage of American funds for economic aid. Scowcroft acknowledges that had the US been able to provide the reformers with the means to demonstrate to their people that these new changes would improve the material conditions of their lives,

they might have received firmer allegiance to the painful process of reform. As it has developed, reform sometimes has become increasingly equated with chaos and disorder rather than economic progress, with the result that reformers have occasionally been replaced by neo-communists promising order and stability.

These prophetic words were written before the collapse of the Russian economy and the free fall of the ruble. What neither Scowcroft nor Bush admits is that the profligacy of the Reagan years deprived Washington of such funds. And even if funds were available, the shortsighted, neoisolationist leaders of Bush’s own party would have resisted any serious expenditure on foreign assistance.

2.

The reuniting of Germany was certainly made smoother by Bush’s willingness to follow Kohl’s lead, notwithstanding Thatcher’s fears that reunification would cause trouble for Gorbachev. In fact, the Russian public was far less concerned about German reunification than it was about the issue of economic and social reforms in Russia itself. What really worried Baker and Bush, and West German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Helmut Kohl as well, was whether a reunited Germany would be able to stay in NATO. Fear of a neutral Germany, which had haunted the Western allies since the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949, now also became the overriding obsession of Gorbachev, who worried that an independent, unified Germany would eventually pose a threat to the USSR.

That Germany had to accept its postwar boundaries was taken for granted: Gorbachev could accept nothing else. Thatcher, Bush writes, believed that a reunited Germany would dominate Europe. Mitterrand said in reply that the only way to prevent German domination was to anchor Germany within NATO and the European Community.

Bush sided with Mitterrand. By February 1990 he was insisting that a reunified Germany be a member of NATO. To persuade the Russians that this was in their interest, Baker explained to Gorbachev in Moscow in May 1990 that it was important to keep Germany in NATO, “not out of any fear of the Soviet Union,” but as reinsurance against any resurgence of a German military threat to Western Europe or Russia. These words echoed the remark of Lord Ismay, the first secretary-general of NATO, who famously said that NATO was founded not only to keep Russia out but also to keep Germany down.

Gorbachev’s reluctance to accept a unified Germany as part of NATO sprang from his fear of critics within the Soviet military establishment. Having accepted the need for an American presence in Europe, he had little room for maneuver. Nonetheless, in a summit meeting in Washington in May 1990, Gorbachev finally accepted the American position: all countries had a right to choose their alliances, and if a united Germany chose to be in NATO, no other country had a right to block it. Scowcroft and Bush write that Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, the former chief of the Soviet General Staff and now Gorbachev’s principal military adviser, who was accompanying Gorbachev to Washington, was visibly appalled at Gorbachev’s concession.

The deal over Germany’s membership in NATO was finally concluded at a meeting between Gorbachev and Kohl at Gorbachev’s house in Stavropol in July. Kohl agreed to assume all of East Germany’s economic obligations to Moscow, provide East Germany a three-billion-dollar credit to subsidize German unity, and pay the costs of Soviet troops in East Germany during the transition period. By undertaking such commitments, and making Eastern currency equivalent to Western deutschmarks, Kohl added hugely to the financial burden West Germany would assume. The immense costs of reunification resulted in high interest rates on German bonds, forcing other European countries to raise their interest rates in turn. Germany’s European partners therefore paid a heavy price for unification. Bush and Scowcroft don’t say so, but one consequence of Kohl’s arrangements was high European unemployment—particularly in France—for the next seven years. Unlike the Americans, however, the Germans had the money available to buy off the Russians.

The cold war truly ended when the Germans struck a financial deal with the Soviets and the Kremlin accepted a united Germany within NATO, agreeing that German NATO forces—but not nuclear weapons—could be stationed in eastern Germany. Scowcroft is probably right in saying that Gorbachev finally decided that “an unattached Germany on the loose in Central Europe may have looked to him worse than one embedded in NATO.”

The abortive coup against the Soviet leader in August 1991 was a desperate attempt by the right wing to prevent the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and when Boris Yeltsin stagily mounted a tank to call for the restoration of the “legally elected organs of power,” his eventual ascent to power was all but assured. His willingness to dismantle the Soviet Union as such was another turning point in the politics of the cold war.

The Bush foreign policy apparat was divided over the breakup of the USSR. Baker believed a “peaceful” dissolution to be in America’s interest. But Bush was wary of “a number of independent republics” with “a weak center.” Today, the unacknowledged policy of the Clinton administration is to allow Russia a sphere of influence on the southern rim of the former Soviet Union. But the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 was decidedly a mixed blessing: the new Commonwealth of Independent States—nominally a group of republics that had formerly been part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—was in reality Yeltsin’s device for destroying Gorbachev, who could not accept the end of the Union.

Could the Bush administration have done anything to save Gorbachev? To Scowcroft, Gorbachev’s “fatal flaw” was his inability to make tough decisions and then stick with them. He “shrank from the task” of “selecting and enforcing a stern program of economic reform.” The same of course has turned out to be true of Yeltsin, notwithstanding his rhetoric. What Scowcroft does not say is that Gorbachev and his allies were doomed when the leaders of the major industrialized countries—the so-called Group of 7—refused economic aid to Russia at the London meeting in July 1991. Perhaps nothing would have worked. But the Bush administration had no cash, and the Germans were paying heavily to buy unification. In any event, the money that might have saved Gorbachev had been needed for Desert Storm—to send half a million troops and countless missiles to the Middle East to subdue the armed forces of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.

3.

For Bush and Scowcroft, the Gulf War was proof that a new world order had finally emerged. Mobilizing a military and political coalition under American leadership as the Soviet Union came to an end opened the way to American hegemony. Bush and Scowcroft write about it as if it was a splendid little war (as McKinley’s secretary of state, John Hay, described the 1898 war with Spain); it was just what America needed to recover from its Vietnam hangover. Before the actual engagement of troops, however, there were plenty of reasons to believe that the conflict would be neither splendid nor little: the size of the Iraqi armed forces posed the risk of thousands of American casualties. Nonetheless, Bush, whose ambassador to Baghdad had failed to warn Saddam Hussein that an attack on Kuwait would bring American reprisal, was determined to expel Saddam from Kuwait and destroy the Iraqi military. Moreover, he was prepared to use all the American manpower and weapons needed to accomplish these ends. He succeeded in the first aim, and failed badly in the second.

Bush soon turned the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 into a moral crusade. The main strategic concern of the US—that Iraq’s attack on Kuwait might be a prelude to an assault on Saudi Arabia and control of Persian Gulf oil—was consistently played down by the President. Seeking popular support for American resistance to Saddam Hussein’s act of aggression, Bush used language that compared Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait to the situation in the Rhineland when Hitler defied the Treaty of Versailles and marched in. This time, Bush asserted, there would be no appeasement: “If history teaches us anything, it is that we must resist aggression or it will destroy our freedoms.” In a later speech he evoked the emergence of “a new world order”—“free from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace.” This Wilsonian rhetoric set the tone that he used to promote the war, calling for “a world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle. A world in which nations recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice. A world where the strong respect the rights of the weak.”

The phrase “new world order,” we now learn, was suggested to Bush by Scowcroft while the two men were fishing for bluefish off Kennebunkport. According to Scowcroft, the President and he now believed that “the United States and the Soviet Union could, in most cases, stand together against unprovoked interstate aggression.” Scowcroft says in retrospect that the phrase “applied only to a narrow aspect of conflict—aggression between states,” and was subsequently “broadened beyond recognition.” But if this was the case, then Bush has only himself to blame. Heightened rhetoric usually leads to misunderstanding. Bush and Scowcroft never made clear their more limited goals in the region—not only to eject Iraq’s force from Kuwait and cripple his elite Republican Guard, but also to preserve Iraq as a counterweight to Iran. The closest any cabinet member came to acknowl-edging the heart of the matter was James Baker’s press conference in Bermuda on November 13, 1990, when he explained the economic stakes of Iraq’s invasion for the United States by saying the issue was “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Although Bush mentioned the economic threat of Saddam’s control of the Gulf in his August speech, neither he nor Scowcroft had put forward strongly enough what Scowcroft now describes as the “core of our argument,” which rested on “preserving the balance of power in the Gulf, opposing unprovoked international aggression, and ensuring that no hostile regional power could hold hostage much of the world’s oil supply.” At the same time Scowcroft writes rather grandiosely of the implications of this strategy for the future of the US. He writes that from the moment he and Bush came up with the Wilsonian phrase “new world order,” their “premise” was that the United States “henceforth would be obligated to lead the world community to an unprecedented degree” as it attempted “to pursue our national interests.”

To exert American leadership, however, did not necessarily mean to act unilaterally. Like Truman and Acheson when they decided to intervene in Korea in 1950, Bush and Scowcroft sought the UN’s blessing for their actions; this was considered “politically desirable.” But—also like Truman and Acheson—“never did we think that without its blessing we could not or would not intervene.” Echoing Richard Nixon, who feared that the United States, were it not to use force in Cambodia, would appear as a “pitiful helpless giant,” Bush wrote in his diary for November 28, 1990: “Our role as a world leader will once again be reaffirmed, but if we compromise and if we fail, we would be reduced to total impotence, and that is not going to happen. I don’t care if I have one vote in the Congress. That will not happen.”

In the end, the one-hundred-hour war was successful in forcing Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait. But from his book and other sources we learn that Bush did not want the kind of withdrawal that Gorbachev and his emissary Yevgeny Primakov had arranged in February 1991, after the air bombardment of Iraq had begun. According to Gorbachev, Saddam had agreed to withdraw “immediately and unconditionally from Kuwait, beginning the day after a cease-fire.” The Iraqis, Gorbachev said, would be out in three weeks. This was not good enough for Washington, Scowcroft writes. It was neither immediate nor unconditional. The Americans would not stand by and watch the Iraqis have their way in Kuwait during the month to come. The next morning, forty-five minutes short of the deadline for Saddam to withdraw, Gorbachev made one last attempt to stave off the ground war: the Iraqis were now prepared to leave in four days. It was still not good enough. The main obstacle to an agreement was Washington’s demand that Iraq also abandon its military equipment. At 8:00 PM, Washington time, February 24, the ground campaign began.

Unlike Clinton, who in November 1998 hoped that the threat of military action would force Saddam to accept inspection, Bush and Scowcroft feared that Saddam would promise to withdraw before the allied forces could destroy the Iraqi army. What Bush and Scowcroft wanted was more than Iraqi withdrawal. As Bush wrote in his diary, “We must disarm the Republican Guard.” Since Saddam Hussein had no air support for his troops, the allied aircraft, Bush thought, would have a field day. What the Americans did not know, however, was that the plan to trap the elite Republican Guard in Kuwait was not working. The Guard had not been sent to reinforce the Iraqi front lines. Consequently, as Scowcroft writes, “most of those troops would not be caught by the encirclement.”

With Kuwait’s liberation, Bush declared the war was over, the victory won. Of the US forces, only 79 had been killed in action; 212 were wounded, and 45 missing. The US military refused to discuss how many Iraqis had died both during and after the war. Anything resembling the body counts of the Vietnam War was to be avoided. It was left, several years later, to the US Bureau of the Census to estimate that, in addition to expected peacetime deaths, the Iraqis lost some 145,000 people as a result of the war. “Only 5,000 of these were civilians who died during the war,” the bureau said. “There were also 40,000 military deaths during the war and 100,000 postwar civilian deaths due to violence and health conditions.”3

In their book neither Bush nor Scowcroft considers the human costs of the war. Nor, it must be said, have most of the commentators on the war in the American press and in the many books on the subject that have since appeared. Bush and Scowcroft write only that after it was over they found that “more of the Republican Guard survived the war than we had believed or anticipated.” In addition, Saddam had more than twenty divisions in other parts of Iraq, ready to crush both the Kurds and the Shi’ites, whom Washington, in its broadcasts, had irresponsibly encouraged to rise up against him.

Saddam’s defeat did not break his hold on power. Except for the Kurd enclave in the north, Iraq remained intact, which is exactly what Bush and Scowcroft wanted. Their strategic goal was that Iraq should remain sufficiently strong to counter Iran in a balance of power in the Gulf. The possibility that Iraqis might work out a plausible and more democratic government of their own if Saddam Hussein was overthrown never seems to have been seriously explored by Bush or Scowcroft. For them, the Kurdish rebellion, however brave, did not serve the interests of the United States. On the contrary, the uprising “distressed” Bush and Scowcroft, since it allowed Saddam to rally his army to suppress the Shi’ites and the Kurds. Still for Bush and Scowcroft the war was a thoroughly satisfying exercise in power politics. After the war, as Bush and Scowcroft write: “We stood almost alone on the world stage….” And the Germans and Japanese underwrote most of the costs of the operation.

4.

Bush’s approach to international relations has been largely followed by Clinton, not only in Iraq but in his efforts to establish a working relationship with China. After the massacre of Chinese students and workers in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, Bush writes, he asked himself “how to condemn what we saw as wrong and react appropriately while also remaining engaged with China.” After suspending military sales and contracts to China, Bush therefore decided to send a letter to Deng Xiaoping, expressing his “great reverence for Chinese history, culture and tradition.” He explains that he was under great pressure to do even more than merely impose sanctions on China, but he “resisted that clamor.” Bush concluded his letter by asking Deng to show clemency toward the students and to find a way to let the dissident physicist Fang Lizhi, who had taken refuge in the American embassy, to leave the country. Bush believed the best way to get his message across to Deng was to have a distinguished American emissary talk to Deng personally. Who better than Brent Scowcroft, who knew Deng better than any of his colleagues?

On June 30, 1989, Scowcroft took off for the Middle Kingdom. Deng quickly made it clear to him that the problems between America and China “cannot be solved by two persons from the perspective of being friends.” Scowcroft calls his trip “useful,” but apart from Fang Lizhi’s departure into exile it is not clear that any tangible results came out of it. Two months after Scowcroft’s trip Bush admitted that he had made little progress. Deng finally replied in August that he was continuing to put down any rebellion; he brusquely criticized the United States for “permitting” the Chinese dissidents and students in the United States “to carry out their activities against the Chinese government.”

In November 1989 Bush wrote to Deng again, suggesting that he would send someone to debrief Deng after his meeting with Gorbachev in Malta; later Bush told the new Chinese ambassador that he wanted to send a team to China to see how to develop a “road map” which would “lead us back from the brink on which we had been poised since June.” That road map was finally completed by the Clinton administration, when the policy of “engagement”—“strategic dialogue” with China, which means no loud complaints about Chinese repression—was worked out under Madeleine Albright and national security adviser Samuel Berger.

Bush’s legacy in Somalia and Bosnia was far more troubling. He sent troops to Somalia in December 1992 to help carry out a UN-authorized humanitarian mission to feed a starving population. This turned into a political and military nightmare for Clinton when he took office six weeks later. The US humanitarian mission there might have never taken place had the television networks not stirred up popular opinion by showing starving Somalis. The Bush administration felt it had to do something but it did not adequately understand that the Somalis were not suffering from a natural disaster but were victims of a conflict between armed factions. The US tried clumsily to intervene in that conflict by having US Rangers—without the prior knowledge of the UN command—try to capture General Mohammad Aidid. When the corpse of an American soldier was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Clinton decided to withdraw the American military expedition by the spring of 1994.

With no clear national interest involved, Clinton was finally prepared to accept an unsatisfactory political solution to what had always been a political problem. Once Somalia had ceased to be important as a staging ground for cold war rivalries in East Africa, and the United States and the Soviet Union had stopped giving aid to its dictator, the country disintegrated into a collection of fiefdoms dominated by Aidid’s son. Bush’s Somalia intervention was a telling betrayal of the realist policies he, Baker, and Scowcroft advocated.

Far more serious was the Bosnian catastrophe. The attempts by Serbia to dominate through terror and conquest large parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina seemed to fulfill the requirements for military intervention in a post-cold war world, especially after Bosnian sovereignty was recognized by members of NATO at the end of 1991. If NATO’s mission was not to contain military conflict across borders, then what was NATO good for?

Yet the Bush administration set the pattern of futile and deceptive diplomacy in Bosnia that Clinton followed for years. It made condemning noises and refused to take effective action. When Secretary Baker met with Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic in June 1991, he told him that if he persisted in backing the Bosnian Serbs, “Serbia will stand alone. The United States and the rest of the international community will reject Serbian claims to territory beyond its borders. Serbia will become an international outcast within Europe for a generation or more.” This threat had little effect on Milosevic. Baker left the former Yugoslavia convinced that “civil war” was inevitable. The leaders he met with, in Baker’s words, “seemed to be sleep-walking into a car wreck, and no matter how loud you yelled—or in the case of Milosevic, practically slapped them in the face—they just kept on going.”4

According to Warren Zimmermann, Bush’s ambassador to Yugoslavia, that country “no longer enjoyed its former geopolitical significance.” Both Zimmermann and Bush’s deputy secretary of state, Lawrence Eagleburger, concluded, in effect, that “if Yugoslavia’s significance to the United States has heretofore been great, owing to the flourishing of the Cold War, then its significance must now be slight.”5

As a result of this “flawed premise,” as Mark Danner pointed out in his comprehensive analysis of the Yugoslav crisis in these pages,

In 1990 and 1991, when vigorous early diplomacy should have been brought to bear, the “principals” had their hands full preparing and directing the Gulf War; then, having triumphed in the Gulf with an ease none had anticipated, they had little interest in risking victory’s political rewards by undertaking what appeared certain to be a much more risky engagement in a country that seemed plainly to have outlived its importance.

Since the Bush administration was not prepared to take any military action to prevent Milosevic’s offensive against Croatia or Bosnian Muslims, the Serbian president was free to ignore Baker’s warnings. Danner is doubtless right that the autumn of 1991 was probably “the last chance” for the United States to halt the war which had begun between Serbia and Croatia at relatively low cost, and thereby “to prevent the outbreak of the much more savage war in Bosnia in March 1992.”

Bush, however, was unwilling to make use of what he had called the “reestablished credibility” of the United States following the Gulf War to intimidate the Serbs with any serious threat. Instead, he was only too happy in 1991 to pass on the responsibility for settling the Yugoslav conflict to the Europeans, who seemed willing to deal with it. “This is the hour of Europe,” said Foreign Minister Jacques Poos of Luxembourg. But the Europeans failed to impose a settlement in the former Yugoslavia. In the years that followed, the horrors of the Bosnian war eventually impelled the Clinton administration to use NATO forces to bomb the Serbs and then to send a substantial contingent of American soldiers to keep the peace.

President Clinton and his cabinet have largely accepted the rhetoric of Bush’s foreign policy. They view America as the “indispensable nation.” They see their task as one of trying to mobilize international institutions and allies to manage the post-cold war world in the sometimes thankless pursuit of stability. In fact, however, like Bush, Clinton has often found himself both unable to anticipate some major crises and without the power to forestall them. Whether in Kosovo or in Russia and other depressed parts of the world economy, the administration scrambles belatedly to deal with situations whose human costs and threats to international peace grow more grave each day.

In coping with those threats America’s much-cited status as the world’s one remaining superpower is often not much help at all. In crisis after crisis, the US government has been unable to make the kind of financial commitments that are needed for peacekeeping and international economic stability. In Bush’s case, the financial constraints were imposed because of the deficits Bush had inherited from Reagan; in the Clinton administration, a notoriously parochial Congress has denied or delayed monies needed for America’s contribution to international institutions, such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund. In the post-cold war period, a comprehensive US approach to international relations has yet to be conceived, let alone carried out.

November 19, 1998

  1. 1

    See Robert L. Hutchings, American Diplomacy and the End of the Cold War: An Insider’s Account of US Policy in Europe, 1989-1992 (Woodrow Wilson Center Press/Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), pp. 10-11.

  2. 2

    Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (HarperCollins, 1993), p. 783.

  3. 3

    Frank Hobbs, “Population Estimates for Iraq,” Population Studies Branch, Center for International Research, US Bureau of the Census, January 1992, cited in Robert A. Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Cornell University Press, 1996), p. 357.

  4. 4

    James A. Baker, III, The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War and Peace, 1989-1992 (Putnam, 1995), pp. 481-483.

  5. 5

    Cited in Mark Danner, “The US and the Yugoslav Catastrophe,” The New York Review, November 20, 1997.

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