When the World Seemed New: George H. W. Bush and the End of the Cold War by Jeffrey A. Engel

When the World Seemed New: George H. W. Bush and the End of the Cold War

Based on unprecedented access to previously classified documents and dozens of interviews with key policymakers, here is the untold story of how George H. W. Bush faced a critical turning point of history—the end of the Cold War.The end of the Cold War was the greatest shock to international affairs since World War II. In that perilous moment, Saddam Hussein chose to invad...

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When the World Seemed New: George H. W. Bush and the End of the Cold War Reviews

  • John Plowright

    “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven!” wrote William Wordsworth in response to the outbreak of the French Revolution, and those in the West who lived through the presidency of George H. W. Bush from 1989 to 1993, were likely to have echoed that sentiment given the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the spread of democracy in its former Iron Curtain satellites. For a brief moment everything seemed possible, including the creation of a new a

    “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven!” wrote William Wordsworth in response to the outbreak of the French Revolution, and those in the West who lived through the presidency of George H. W. Bush from 1989 to 1993, were likely to have echoed that sentiment given the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the spread of democracy in its former Iron Curtain satellites. For a brief moment everything seemed possible, including the creation of a new and better world order.

    Jeffrey A. Engel’s ‘When the World Seemed New’ reviews this heady period. It is subtitled ‘George H. W. Bush and the End of the Cold War’ but actually reviews Bush’s overall record on the world stage, which also includes the US interventions in Panama and Somalia; the First Gulf War; and negotiations for NAFTA and the expansion of NATO, although Engel regards Bush’s keeping lines of communication open with China despite the horrors of Tiananmen Square as “his single greatest diplomatic achievement”.

    Engel has already published on several of these subjects and this book is based upon declassified documents and private interviews with key American players in addition to consulting the research of others in the public domain. Moreover, Engel has the ability to express his thoughts clearly and to express his argument with gusto.

    That argument, in essence, is that Bush is “underappreciated” as a world statesman and that he was, in fact, a “grand strategist”, who not only had a plan but translated it into reality.

    Now it is obviously perfectly possible to make out this case if, like Engel, you admit that others (most notably Gorbachev) may have had as great, or even a greater, impact upon events; if you characterise Bush’s vision in relatively modest terms; if you admit that Bush was fallible; and if you are flexible regarding the application of time-scales in which to assess his achievements.

    There is, however, a paradox in Engel’s approach. It is central to his defence of Bush that he exercised self-restraint and cautioned others to do likewise. Thus in “ignoring cries from critics demanding more public exultation at all the apparent victories of their democratic era, Bush tempered the hopes and fears of his age with caution”. Indeed, one of the two quotations which Engel places between the Contents and the Introduction, is the following from Bush (being interviewed by foreign journalists on 21 November 1989):

    “And so, I come back to the word of prudent - managing of what we do and what we say - and resist flamboyant actions. Things are moving our way. … Democracy? Freedom? They are moving our way. And so, we don't need to be out there trying to micromanage the desire for change.”

    That is to say, it is central to Engel’s revisionist appreciation of Bush that a large part of his success consisted of benign inactivity and specifically in counselling no crowing over America’s “winning” of the Cold War and the spreading of “its” democratic values, yet in making the case for Bush Engel cannot always resist the temptation to express patriotic pride. Thus one sentence (ignoring the British Empire) postulates that “If one ranks the American empire as the world’s most powerful, rivalled only by imperial Rome in its heyday, then for a brief moment … George H. W. Bush was the most powerful man in human history.” More tellingly still, Engel at one point refers to the Soviet Union having “surrendered”. In other words, he indulges in the kind of language which he praises Bush for condemning.

    On a more mundane level Engel’s book is also open to criticism. Take, for example, his account of Bush’s role in relation to the First Gulf War. He defends Bush from the charge that he should have gone on to Baghdad and overthrown Saddam Hussein by pointing out that this would have exceeded the UN mandate, would have broken up the coalition, and that the US had no plans for occupation and reconstruction. These are all perfectly valid points. However, Engel also claims that Bush believed that, “Democracy would come to the Middle East in time … believing its residents as subject to the stream of history as any other”: a claim that ignores the fact that Washington encouraged the Kurds in the north and the ‘marsh Arabs’ in the south to rise up against Saddam but then offered them no practical assistance.

    As Richard A. Clarke writes in ‘Against All Enemies’:

    “What I cannot understand is how anyone can defend the Bush administration’s decision to stand by and let the Republican Guard mass-murder the Shi’a and the Kurds. We had it within our power to resume the bombing of the Republican Guard and regime targets. Our Arab coalition partners and the world in general would have had to respect an American decision to renew hostilities for the limited purpose of stopping the slaughter. If we had bombed the Republican Guard and defended the Shi’a and Kurds, the Bush calculus that Saddam Hussein would fall without our occupying Baghdad might have proved true. Since we did not, a moral outrage was committed and Saddam Hussein stayed in power, and the US had to keep forces in Saudi Arabia to defend against a renewed strike on Kuwait by a reconstituted Republican Guard.”

    In short, Engel puts up a spirited defence of Bush which makes interesting reading but ultimately his attempted enhancement of Bush’s reputation on the world stage is achieved by dodging some difficult questions. In bigging up Bush, Engel is thus sometimes guilty of beating around the bush.

  • Dawn Wells

    Mr Engel has written a very informative and interesting book about President HW Bush, it tells of the many highlights during his presidency and all the good things that happened during that period. It is in short a book written about him being under appreciated.

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