The three stooges?

'Superpower' presidents get bad grades from Carter's national security adviser

Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower By Zbigniew Brzezinski Basic Books 234 pages; $26.95 When the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States emerged as the world's only superpower. Three presidents - George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush - were anointed Global Leaders. According to Zbigniew Brzezinski, president Jimmy Carter's national security adviser and now a professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, these men had a chance to forge a truly cooperative transatlantic alliance, bring stability to the Middle East, reduce the threat of terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and broker a coherent response to environmental and ecological crises. How did they do? "In a word, badly." In Second Chance, Brzezinski explains why he gives the elder Bush, "the policeman," a grade of B; Slick Willie, "the social welfare advocate," a C; and flunks "W," "the vigilante." Acknowledging that leadership rests on "the interaction of fate and chance," as well as character, intellect and organizational skills, Brzezinski puts a premium on strategic vision. He accepts, perhaps too readily, George H.W. Bush's confession that he lacked "the vision thing." More persuasively, he faults Clinton for a casual approach "not conducive to strategic clarity," and Bush, fils, for "a simplistic, dogmatic world-view." Beneath Brzezinski's unsparing critique of all three Global Leaders is dissatisfaction - and anger - at America's "self-damaging" involvement in the Middle East. The United States, he claims, bears responsibility for the perception in the region that it always acts on Israel's behalf. Brzezinski's Bush I was a skilled, sophisticated and cautious practitioner of traditional power politics. He tried to forestall the dismantling of the Soviet Union, telling Ukrainians in 1991 that "freedom is not the same as independence." But as events raced past him, Brzezinski acknowledges, Bush adapted, sometimes brilliantly. He recognized the Baltic states almost immediately. He helped persuade Gorbachev to accept German reunification. And he worked effectively to make sure that the Soviet nuclear arsenal did not go on sale at an international arms bazaar. To be sure, the Bush Administration let Yugoslavia drift and did little to prevent nuclear proliferation in South Asia and North Korea. But it seems unfair to conclude that Bush was a tactician who did not apply his nation's political influence or moral legitimacy strategically. Of course, Bush also put together the coalition that expelled Iraq from Kuwait. With 20/20 hindsight, Brzezinski now indicts the president for leaving Saddam Hussein in power, suggesting, improbably, that an ultimatum - go into exile or your forces will be decimated - might have worked. Nor did Bush, who had "more leverage than any president since Eisenhower," craft a comprehensive peace formula for the Middle East. He should have put on record a US commitment to: no right of return for Palestinians, no significant Israeli expansion beyond the 1967 borders, a formula for sharing Jerusalem, and a demilitarized Palestinian state. Whatever the merits of his suggestions, Brzezinski's label for Bush's "failures" - "original sin" - is incendiary and inaccurate. In contrast to Bush, Brzezinski suggests, Bill Clinton offered "an appealing vision of the future," preaching about globalization "with apostolic conviction." He helped establish the World Trade Organization. His assistance in the orderly enlargement of NATO was "the most constructive and enduring achievement of his presidency." It created a "felicitous atmosphere" for intervention in Bosnia and Serbia. And yet, Brzezinski acknowledges, "globaloney is no substitute for geostrategy." Susceptible to "enemy du jour" vacillation, Clinton faltered in Somalia and Rwanda, made no effort to mediate the war in Chechnya, and waived human rights stipulations to grant most-favored-nation status to China. And Clinton left the Middle East more volatile than he found it. Between the historic handshake of Rabin and Arafat in 1993 and the Camp David Summit in 2000, Brzezinski insists, Clinton "drifted from impartial commitment to a fair settlement, to an increasingly one-sided pro-Israel posture." With key officials in his administration increasingly recruited from pro-Israeli research institutes and lobbies, the president played into the hands of Israelis determined to create "accomplished facts" on the ground to force concessions from the Palestinians. The "Clinton Parameters" at Camp David were "momentous and remarkable," but the president did not press them during the negotiations. Arafat's objections, Brzezinski concludes, made it easy to pin the blame on him. Brzezinski makes no effort to conceal his contempt for the current President Bush. Despite a seasoned foreign policy team, Bush brought to the complexities of foreign policy a Manichean perspective - and a "destructive decisiveness" that took the United States from its zenith in world public opinion following 9/11 to its nadir. Bush II has done nothing right. The Iraq adventure has done colossal damage. Overwhelming majorities in Jordan, Turkey, Indonesia, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority and Pakistan now regret that Saddam's military did not more effectively resist American forces. Nor has "the decider" been any more effective in the rest of the world. He continued to praise Vladimir Putin long after the Russian president retreated from democracy. His tacit endorsement of India's nuclear program troubled China and sent the wrong signal to North Korea and Iran. And his environmental non-policy has alienated just about everybody. And Bush has made charges of collusion between American imperialists and Israeli occupiers even more credible. In 2002, Brzezinski asserts, Bush encouraged Sharon's violent response to a suicide attack which, in effect, derailed Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's peace initiative. And the president has stopped pressing Israel on deadlines for a Palestinian state. Brzezinski would not be surprised if oil exporters "began to solicit protection" from China. Brzezinski offers two consolations: Had the Iraq war been more successful, the United States would probably now be in Iran and Syria; and Americans, he writes, should remember that presidents of the United States are limited to two terms in office. But it's a long way until November 2008 - and while he's waiting, Brzezinski can do little more than beat about the Bushes. The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.