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Grading on a Global Curve

By Gene Mirabelli

Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower

By Zbigniew Brzezinski

Basic Books, 234 pages, $26.95

The Iraq war has produced more books in a shorter time than any other conflict in American history. Most of the works are engagingly written accounts of the deceitful run-up to the invasion, the major combat operations of the war itself, or the daily slaughters which continue to this hour. They are vivid, often fascinating and even astonishing books.

Of course, they’re also depressing. They reveal the blinding self-delusion, arrogance and lethal incompetence of the president and his advisors. Worst of all, these books leave us wondering how, or even if, the United States can get back to where it was as the leader among nations, the world’s most admired country.

Zbigniew Brzezinski believes the United States has one more chance—but only one—to rescue itself from its foreign-policy catastrophe. Second Chance is a clear-eyed, almost bleak, assessment of the three presidents who have guided this nation from the time it became the world’s unique superpower to its current frightened, embattled and lonely position.

Brzezinski is best-known as President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor. He’s also one of those who warned about the likely dire consequences if Bush II invaded Iraq. Currently, he’s a member of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University. He’s always had the air of an acerbic academic and it’s not surprising to find the last chapter of his book contains a “Presidential Report Card” on global leadership for Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II.

The three presidents haven’t done very well. Professor Brzezinski is fair, but he doesn’t grade on a curve and doesn’t give a lot of As. Bush I and Clinton got A for their work in Atlantic Alliance, and Clinton also got an A- in Global Trade/Poverty. Bush II’s highest grade was a B- in Post-Soviet Space. Bush II also got the only F grades, an F in Middle East and another F in Environment. No one makes the dean’s list. Overall, Bush I emerges with a solid B, Clinton gets an uneven C, and Bush II fails.

Bush I came to office with the greatest experience in government and global affairs, and did better than his successors when it came to world leadership. Furthermore, during his presidency, the Soviet Union continued to fragment, presenting him with successive challenges (which he handled well), and also some missed opportunities. His Iraq war, which many liberals and pacifists opposed, now looks like a shining example of how to overcome global threats by rallying consensus and exercising diplomacy and leadership.

Brzezinski believes that “Bush’s unconsummated success in Iraq became the original sin of his legacy: the inconclusive but increasingly resented and self-damaging American involvement in the Middle East.” Brzezinski knows full well why we didn’t occupy Baghdad, but he wishes Bush had somehow lured or expunged Saddam from power. Above all, Brzezinski faults the president for not tackling the Israeli- Arab conflict—an unending source of grievance and of growing hatred toward the United States.

The American public dumped Bush I because of his domestic policies, his laissez-faire attitude toward hard times at home. Clinton came into office focused on domestic issues. Brzezinski makes the case that Clinton’s foreign policy was an extension of his domestic policy, and maybe that aspect was more pronounced in Clinton than in other presidents. He faced no immediate challenges like the breakup of the Soviet Union and he had an attitude which Brzezinski characterizes as “optimistic determinism”—globalization is going to make everything better for everybody. He points out that Clinton did achieve important foreign-policy victories, most notably in the Balkans. Unfortunately, by the time the president became deeply interested in foreign affairs, he was beset by what the author discretely refers to as “personal difficulties.”

The sections on Bush I and Clinton are refresher courses for us forgetful students, and in this review we can skip what we already know quite well, namely Bush II’s years in office, which Brzezinski has entitled “Catastrophic Leadership.” Let’s move to the conclusion: “Beyond 2008.” Will America have a second chance? “Certainly,” says Brzezinski.

That’s good news. Because if the United States does not regain the position it had, does not succeed in inspiring other nations to follow the path we lay out, does not become the leader, then sooner or later some other nation will. Although George W. Bush has soiled the reputation of his country, exhausted its military and depleted its treasury, there’s still no other nation capable of the leadership role. Not yet, anyway.

In Brzezinski’s view, we need to reconfigure our foreign-policy-making process, and that requires a reformation of our political process to eliminate or greatly reduce the corrupting influence of money. Furthermore, to lead by example, we need to remake American society so it becomes more equitable and humane—not less so, as it has during the past several years. We must also become stewards and not merely exploiters of the planet’s natural resources. Finally, of course, we must become more aware of the rest of the world before we can actually lead it.

In television interviews, Brzezinski doesn’t come across as a charmer. Quite the contrary. He has a sharp tongue and the demeanor of a straight-edge razor, but on foreign-policy issues he’s been right again and again and again. It's a good bet he's right this time too.

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