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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.