Books: Brezinzski Grades the Presidents

For many veterans of the cold war, the demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s was a moment of happy vindication. For the famously dour and blunt Zbigniew Brzezinski, it was an occasion for deep concern. What would replace the certainties of the superpower rivalry? In "Out of Control" (1993), he worried that a decadent, materialistic United States would retreat from the world's growing anarchy. In "The Grand Chessboard" (1997), he lamented the absence of a new American geostrategy and set out his own plan for maintaining U.S. hegemony, an exercise that he repeated, more or less, in "The Choice" (2004).

Now, in "Second Chance" (234 pages. Basic Books), Brzezinski offers a reckoning, his assessment of the three presidents who have directed American foreign policy since the Berlin wall fell. He does not find much to praise. A scholar-diplomat who served as Jimmy Carter's national-security adviser, Brzezinski has long been a rare traditional "realist" in the Democratic foreign-policy camp. As he sees it, no administration of the post-cold-war era has developed an adequate blueprint for advancing America's interests and taming the globe's burgeoning ethnic, religious and economic conflicts.

On Brzezinski's "presidential report card," the first President Bush earns the highest mark, an overall grade of B for his deft management of the Soviet collapse, German reunification and the first gulf war. But the elder Bush lacked strategic vision, Brzezinski argues, and thus failed to use his successes to "transform Russia or pacify the Middle East." As for Bill Clinton, he gets credit for NATO expansion and intervening in the Balkans, but Brzezinski considers him a complacent naif for believing that globalization alone would solve many of the world's most urgent problems. For this abdication of hegemonic responsibility, Clinton earns a C.

No one familiar with Brzezinski's work or his outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq will be surprised to learn that George W. Bush is the dunce of his presidential class. His chapter on the current administration is titled "Catastrophic Leadership," and he gives Bush II a resounding F. But Brzezin-ski's tone changes dramatically in these pages. Detached appraisal gives way to caricature and denunciation. Bush is at once a simple-minded "Manichaean," obsessed with "good and evil," and a cynical manipulator, "propagating fear and paranoia" in order to win votes. He is guilty not only of "Islamophobic demagogy" but of using democracy promotion as a "subversive tool," meant to create an excuse for deploying force.

Brzezinski's usual sobriety deserts him even in describing Bush's manifest foreign-policy failures. The war in Iraq has certainly hurt relations with the rest of the world, but has it really "caused calamitous damage to America's global standing"? One might think so, judging by international polls, but the fact of American hegemony remains, as does the readiness of most world powers to cooperate with the United States across a range of issues. As for opinion of America, it is sure to rebound after 2008.

There is, finally, something petty in Brzezinski's unwillingness to recognize the wider aims of the Bush administration's policies in the Middle East. America, he writes, "needs to identify itself with the quest for universal human dignity, a dignity that embodies both freedom and democracy but also implies respect for cultural diversity." As a more dispassionate observer might feel obliged to note, these are precisely the themes that have been sounded again and again in Bush's rhetoric.

Of course, rhetoric is one thing and action another, and the administration has never been able to reconcile the two. But for all his scolding about strategic shortsightedness, Brzezinski has no inspired plan of his own. His realist instincts overwhelm his ideals, and so he concludes by rattling off a tired list of think-tank prescriptions, from forcing a deal between Israelis and Palestinians to engaging more deeply with China. One expects more than rote answers from a teacher so eager to hand out low grades to his ostensible pupils.