BEING POPPY A Portrait of George Herbert Walker Bush
By Richard Ben Cramer
192 pp. Simon & Schuster. (2013)
Cramer’s original opus was a more than 1,000-page-long accounting of the 1988 presidential election, “What It Takes: The Way to the White House,” in which he delved into the idiosyncrasies and flaws of George H.W. Bush, Joseph Biden, Gary Hart and three other candidates running for the presidency in 1988. In that book, Cramer “set out to write neither campaign history nor political biography,” wrote our reviewer. His main goal was to “examine what leads a person to enter the cement mixer of presidential politics and what happens to him once he does.” “Being Poppy” is drawn from those pages, isolating the story of George H.W. Bush’s candidacy into a slimmer offering.
THE FAMILY The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty
By Kitty Kelley
705 pp. Doubleday. (2004)
In this cross-generational family saga, “Kelley reminds readers just how long the Bushes have been with us, sweeping like cattle raiders toward the sources of power.” She opens with Prescott Bush (1895-1972), the elder Bush’s father, and then spends considerable time on H.W. and his namesake son. Kelley depicts George H.W. Bush as “hungrier for power than we remember and willing to do just about anything to achieve it,” said our reviewer, adding that “it is startling to read Kelley’s account of Bush (whose father was relatively progressive on racial issues) campaigning hard against the civil rights movement and calling Martin Luther King ‘a militant.’”
DESTINY AND POWER The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush
By Jon Meacham
836 pp. Random House. (2015)
Meacham gained unprecedented access to the Bush family patriarch for this biography, in which he covers 41’s personal life — including the tragic death of his daughter from leukemia as a toddler — as well as his political career. Both of our reviews, though largely positive, wrote that Meacham’s biography was sometimes too forgiving of its subject’s flaws and controversial decisions, such as his nomination of Justice Clarence Thomas. Still, the book broke new ground, particularly in reporting Bush’s criticisms of Dick Cheney, whom he credited for his son’s administration’s harsh rhetoric against foreign nations. “But the pleasures of this panoramic book (it clocks in at 800-plus pages) have little to do with the news it breaks,” wrote our reviewer. “They’re about psychological portraiture, enabled by the artful use of Mr. Bush’s diaries — they’re surprisingly rich — and the author’s many probing interviews with Mr. Bush over the years.”
A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A3 of the New York edition with the headline: Here to Help; Three Books on the Legacy of George H.W. Bush. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
The Group of 20 summit in Argentina is taking place at a moment when the United States still stands at the center of the world. The U.S. economy is booming, the dollar is almighty, American technology companies continue to dominate the new digital economy, and the U.S. military remains the unrivaled master of land, sky and sea. But there are forces, both short-term and long-term, that are working to erode this hegemony.
As Morgan Stanley’s Ruchir Sharma has pointed out, the global economy looks as if it’s at “peak America.” U.S. stocks have outperformed the rest of the world this decade, and that sort of trend rarely lasts. The current recovery is now the second-longest in history, and it is due for a downturn. Interest rates are rising, corporate profit growth is slowing, and budget deficits are surging. Even President Trump seems aware of the likelihood of a dip, which is why he has been preparing the ground for it, blaming the Federal Reserve for raising interest rates.
But there are broader structural realities at work as well. While the United States continues to outperform other advanced economies, the “rise of the rest” also continues, with China, the world’s second-largest economy, growing at three times the pace of the United States. A quarter-century ago, China accounted for less than 2 percent of the global economy. Today, it is 15 percent and rising. China boasts nine of the world’s 20 most valuable tech companies.
This economic reality is having a geopolitical effect. China is the largest trading partner of major economies in Latin America, Africa and Asia. That gives it clout. Its “Belt and Road Initiative” is designed to extend Beijing’s influence across Asia and beyond, creating not just a market but also a string of allies and dependencies. It has expanded its control over the South China Sea in ways that neither the Obama administration nor the Trump administration has been able to block or counter.
Anywhere one goes in the world these days, leaders talk about the United States’ retreat from the world stage. They note that it began before Trump. Most date it to the aftermath of the Iraq War, spanning the administrations of George W. Bush, Barack Obama and now Trump. And while the Trump administration is bellicose in its policies, especially on trade, they are all in service of a Fortress America mentality that seeks less engagement with the world, politically and economically.
Foreign leaders also note that the United States is likely to be increasingly constrained by its mounting budget woes. The Financial Times’s Gillian Tett points out that the U.S. government now spends $1.4 billion a day on its debt, 10 times more than the next major industrialized country does. As interest rates rise and more Americans reach the age of collecting Social Security and Medicare, the federal government will be unable to fund much else. Ezra Klein has quipped that the American government is “an insurance conglomerate protected by a large, standing army,” and that is becoming truer every day.
American retreat will not produce a better world. It will be messier and uglier. To get a glimpse of it, look at the Middle East today. As the United States has withdrawn from its traditional role as the region’s power-broker — maintaining relations with all sides and striving to achieve some degree of stability — Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are all jockeying for influence. The United States has simply subcontracted its policy to Riyadh, encouraging the Saudis’ reckless behavior and resulting in the world’s gravest humanitarian crisis, the war in Yemen, where 12 million people are on the verge of famine.
At a time when these forces of entropy are intensifying, when the United States does face real constraints on what it can do internationally, the wisest strategy would be to bolster the international institutions and norms that the United States built after World War II, both to maintain some degree of stability and order and to preserve and extend American interests and values. The smartest path to constraining China comes not from a head-on policy of containment but rather from a subtle one that forces Beijing to remain enmeshed and interdependent with the international community. China recognizes this and tries hard to free itself from multilateral groups, preferring to deal one-on-one with countries where it will always tower over its negotiating partner.
And yet, nothing animates the Trump administration more than its opposition to multilateralism of any kind. And so, as the world gets more chaotic, the forces that could provide order are being eroded. And as is so often the case, China simply watches quietly and pockets the gains.
North Korea may be the most secretive and totalitarian country in the world, as well as the wackiest. As a result, it inspires some of the best fiction and nonfiction, so the upside of the risk of nuclear war is an excuse to dip into literature that offers glimpses of this other world — and some insights into how to deal with it.
Thousands of North Koreans have fled their homeland since the famine of the late 1990s, and many are writing memoirs recounting their daily lives and extraordinary escapes. A leading example is IN ORDER TO LIVE: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom (Penguin, paper, $17) by Yeonmi Park, with Maryanne Vollers. Park is a young woman whose father was a cigarette smuggler and black market trader. As a girl, she believed in the regime (as did her mother), for life was steeped in propaganda and anti-Americanism. Even in her math class, “a typical problem would go like this: ‘If you kill one American bastard and your comrade kills two, how many dead American bastards do you have?’”
What opened Park’s eyes was in part a pirated copy of the film “Titanic.” The government tries hard to ban any foreign television, internet or even music, and North Korean radios, which don’t have dials, can receive only local stations. But the black market fills the gap, with handymen who will tweak your radio to get Chinese stations, and with illegal thumb drives full of South Korean soap operas.
I’m among those who argue that we in the West should do more to support this kind of smuggling, because it’s a way to sow dissatisfaction. Indeed, what moved Park was the love story in “Titanic”: “I was amazed that Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were willing to die for love, not just for the regime, as we were. The idea that people could choose their own destinies fascinated me. This pirated Hollywood movie gave me my first small taste of freedom.”
In the end, Park’s father was arrested for smuggling, and the family’s life collapsed. Park and her sister went hungry and had to drop out of school, and she survived eating insects and wild plants.
So at age 13, Park and her mother crossed illegally into China — and immediately into the hands of human traffickers who were as scary as the North Korean secret police. They raped her mother and eventually Park as well, and both struggled in the netherworld in which North Koreans are stuck in China — because the Chinese authorities regularly detain them and send them home to face prison camp. Park and her mother were lucky, finally managing to sneak into Mongolia and then on to South Korea.
Another powerful memoir is THE GIRL WITH SEVEN NAMES: A North Korean Defector’s Story (William Collins, paper, $15.99) by Hyeonseo Lee, with David John. She is from Hyesan, the same town as Park. It’s an area on the Chinese border where smuggling is rampant, where people know a bit about the outside world and where disaffection, consequently, is greater than average.
Still, Lee’s home, like every home, had portraits of the country’s first two leaders, Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il, on the wall. (The grandson now in power, Kim Jong-un, hasn’t yet made his portrait ubiquitous.) Lee begins her story recounting how her father dashed into the family home as it was burning to rescue not family valuables but rather the portraits of the first leaders. There’s an entire genre of heroic propaganda stories in North Korea of people risking their lives to save such portraits.
Like other kids, Lee grew up in an environment of formal reverence for the Kim dynasty. At supper she would say a kind of grace — to “Respected Father Leader Kim Il-sung” — before picking up her chopsticks.
“Everything we learned about Americans was negative,” she writes. “In cartoons, they were snarling jackals. In the propaganda posters they were as thin as sticks with hook noses and blond hair. We were told they smelled bad. They had turned South Korea into a ‘hell on earth’ and were maintaining a puppet government there. The teachers never missed an opportunity to remind us of their villainy.
“‘If you meet a Yankee bastard on the street and he offers you candy, do not take it!’ one teacher warned us, wagging a finger in the air. ‘If you do, he’ll claim North Korean children are beggars. Be on your guard if he asks you anything, even the most innocent questions.’”
Hmm. No wonder my attempts at interviewing North Korean kids have never been very fruitful.
Lee escaped to China at age 17 and started a new life in Shanghai but remained in touch with her family. One day her mom called from North Korea. “I’ve got a few kilos of ice,” or crystal meth, she said, and she asked for Lee’s help in selling it in China. “In her world, the law was upside down,” Lee says, explaining how corruption and cynicism had shredded the social fabric of North Korea. “People had to break the law to live.”
It’s fair to wonder how accurate these books are, for there’s some incentive when selling a memoir to embellish adventures. I don’t know, and in the case of “In Order to Live,” skeptics have noted inconsistencies in the stories and raised legitimate questions.
So how did North Korea come to be the most bizarre country in the world? For the history, one can’t do better than Bradley K. Martin’s magisterialUNDER THE LOVING CARE OF THE FATHERLY LEADER: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty (St. Martin’s Griffin, paper, $29.99). Martin recounts how a minor anti-Japanese guerrilla leader named Kim Il-sung came to be installed by the Russians as leader of the half of the Korean peninsula they controlled after World War II. Martin discovers that Kim’s father was a Christian and a church organist, and Kim himself attended church for a time. That didn’t last, and Kim later banned pretty much all religion — though he became something of a god himself, quite a trick for an atheist. But do North Koreans really believe in this “religion”?
Judging from defectors I’ve interviewed and much of the literature on North Korea, many do — especially older people, farmers and those farther from the North Korean border. That’s partly a tribute to the country’s shameless propaganda, which B.R. Myers explores in his interesting book, THE CLEANEST RACE: How North Koreans See Themselves — And Why It Matters (Melville House, paper, $16). He notes that North Korea produced a poster showing a Christian missionary murdering a Korean child and calling for “revenge against the Yankee vampires” — at the same time that the United States was the country’s single largest donor of humanitarian aid. Myers argues that North Koreans have focused on what he calls “race-based paranoid nationalism,” including bizarre ideas about how Koreans are “the cleanest race” — hence the title — bullied and persecuted by outsiders.
For a more sympathetic view of North Korea’s emergence, check out various books by Bruce Cumings, a University of Chicago historian, like KOREA’S PLACE IN THE SUN: A Modern History (W.W. Norton, paper, $19.95). Cumings argues that North Korea is to some degree a genuine expression of Korean nationalism. I think Cumings is nuts when he says, “it is Americans who bear the lion’s share of the responsibility” for the division of the Korean peninsula. But his work is worth reading — unless you have high blood pressure, in which case consult a physician first.
Whatever the uncertainties about the accuracy of recent North Korean memoirs, it’s absolutely clear that some stories about North Korea are fabricated — because they’re fiction. Today’s political crisis with Pyongyang is a great excuse to read Adam Johnson’s THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON(Random House, paper, $17), which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2013. Johnson tells the story of a military man turned prisoner turned celebrity turned villain, dealing for a while with utterly confused American visitors — an account so implausible and bizarre that it’s a perfect narrative for North Korea.
The other fiction that I’d recommend is the Inspector O series by James Church, the pseudonym of a well-respected Western intelligence expert on North Korea. Inspector O is a North Korean police officer who investigates murders, a bank robbery and various other offenses, periodically dealing with foreigners and turning down chances to defect.
Inspector O is a complex, nuanced figure who understands that the regime he serves is corrupt, brutal and mendacious, but he remains loyal. That’s because he is a deeply patriotic and nationalistic Korean, and he resents the patronizing scorn of bullying Westerners. I think many North Korean officials today are an echo of the conflicted nationalist Inspector O.
Ever since Washington unveiled its ‘rebalance’ strategy for the Asia Pacific, debate has emerged in Canada over the need for a similar ‘mini-pivot’ towards the region. Despite its large Western coastline, Canada does not self-identify as a Pacific state due to enduring ties to Europe and the Atlantic.
But East Asia is increasingly the focus of Canada’s efforts to diversify trade partners and secure access to emerging markets. This is exemplified by the 2015 Canada–Korea Free Trade Agreement, China recently becoming Canada’s second largest trading partner, and Ottawa’s support for and participation in the now terminated Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations.
Still, growing economic relations in East Asia have not been accompanied by any sustained political or strategic engagement despite the abundance of security interests of direct relevance for Canada. These interests include promoting global and regional stability amid shifting power configurations, resolving outstanding regional maritime disputes and North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile capabilities (motivating renewed discussions about Ottawa joining Washington’s Ballistic Missile Defence program). East Asian states’ growing interest and involvement in the Arctic — particularly China — is also a source of speculation and debate within Canadian strategic circles.
Successive governments have spoken eloquently of Canada’s long and enduring interests and involvement in East Asia. But Canada’s presence has been sporadic and on a downward slope since its zenith in the mid-1990s. Canadian engagement with the region has been ‘fair-weather’, whereby the degree of participation is not determined by enduring interests but as a function of available resources and the absence of competing foreign policy demands.
But there may be glimpses of a more concerted and sustained Canadian effort to remain regularly engaged with East Asia. Prime Minister Trudeau’s high-profile visits to Japan and China within the first year of his tenure along with the ongoing six-month deployment of two Canadian naval warships to the region are positive signs. Defence officials, in particular, explain the recent deployment as signalling the strategic importance of the region to Canada and as reinforcing a commitment to regional peace and security. Despite the navy’s declining size and capability, major deployments to East Asia are planned for the next two years.
While it is premature to extrapolate any emerging trends from these plans, a number of scholars advocate regular naval deployments for Canada to pursue maritime diplomacy as an ambitious but attainable avenue to achieve staying power in the region. This would also provide in-theatre capability for Canada to conduct a wide spectrum of operations ranging from combat to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
But even with the recent comprehensive refit of Canada’s last remaining major class of surface ships and a large-scale shipbuilding strategy to recapitalise the Canadian Navy, Canada’s naval forces will remain highly limited both in numbers and capabilities for the next 10–15 years.
Maritime diplomacy enables and supports but does not in and of itself constitute a regional strategy. While Ottawa is in the midst of a defence policy review largely focused on constructing a fiscal framework for major procurement projects, there appears to be little appetite to conduct a foreign policy review to guide and inform the use of military power in Canada’s international affairs.
Some have voiced aversion to any increased strategic interaction in East Asia, arguing the presence of even a small Canadian naval force will unnecessarily antagonise China and hamper economic relations. It would also put warships at risk in an increasingly tense geopolitical environment, be seen as an unwelcome interference in regional issues, and ultimately as a disjointed venture given the now uncertain trajectory of US regional policy.
Despite some reasonable concerns, Canada should also not avoid the region due to fears of being dragged into a local conflict or that national interests do not warrant such an investment. Canada has direct economic and political ties to the region and has a larger interest as a middle power supportive of a rules-based international system. Canada has also been criticised for too little engagement with the region, not too much. But such a maritime diplomacy strategy also requires Ottawa to acknowledge the reciprocal freedoms of other states to access maritime regions sensitive to Canada, especially the Arctic.
Any augmentation of strategic interactions also presents the challenge of perceptions that Ottawa’s presence is an extension of US policy in the region, especially regarding how military power is employed. While a close ally with the United States and sharing common international interests, Canada is never going to be a major player in the region given its limited ability to project power and influence. Ottawa is ill-suited to adopt similar strategies to Washington in this respect.
Instead, Canada does have an ability to participate in the regional political discourse, especially regarding areas of tension. For example, as an Arctic state, Canada could positively contribute to advising on structures for joint management by competing claimants over disputed areas, such as in the South China Sea. But Ottawa should not confuse a regional strategy with a strategy specifically about this or other disputed areas. Canada must first build and strengthen relations with the region to promote the necessary political conditions to address outstanding territorial and maritime disputes.
Maritime diplomacy is not the only avenue towards increasing relations with East Asia. But it does allow Canadian leaders to signal a visible presence and commitment to the region and creates an impetus for Ottawa to construct a more comprehensive, clear and independent foreign engagement strategy. Whether the recent dispatching of warships is the start of a real determination to shed its fair-weather status is yet to be seen.
Adam P MacDonald is an independent researcher based in Halifax, Canada.
COMMENT: Mr. Tillerson is an excellent choice given his wide international experience as Exxon’s CEO. Politicians in Washington DC should come off their high horses and vote to confirm the President-Elect’s nominee. It would be disappointing if the US Senate voted against his confirmation because politicians like John McCain and others, democrats and republican alike, would oppose his nomination on the grounds that he is perceived as having a cosy relationship with Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin.
Senators John McCain and Marco Rubio
Are they assuming that he is not a patriot and will, therefore, compromise his country’s interests to Russia? How more naive can these experienced legislators can be. Former Secretaries of State Condolezza Rice and James Baker III and ex-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates think he is an excellent choice because of his wide commercial and managerial experience. Managing a huge State Department bureaucracy is a challenge and to my mind, no one is better qualified than Mr. Tillerson to manage it. –Din Merican
Rex W. Tillerson is Secretary of State–A Good and Refreshing Choice
WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald J. Trump on Tuesday officially selected Rex W. Tillerson, the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, to be his Secretary of State. In saying he will nominate Mr. Tillerson, the President-Elect is dismissing bipartisan concerns that the globe-trotting leader of an energy giant has a too-cozy relationship with Vladimir V. Putin, the President of Russia.
A statement from Mr. Trump’s transition office early Tuesday brought to an end his public and chaotic deliberations over the nation’s top diplomat — a process that at times veered from rewarding Rudolph W. Giuliani, one of his most loyal supporters, to musing about whether Mitt Romney, one of his most outspoken critics, might be forgiven.
Instead, Mr. Trump has decided to risk what looks to be a bruising confirmation fight in the Senate.
In the past several days, Republican and Democratic lawmakers had warned that Mr. Tillerson would face intense scrutiny over his two-decade relationship with Russia, which awarded him its Order of Friendship in 2013, and with Mr. Putin.
The hearings will also put a focus on Exxon Mobil’s business dealings with Moscow. The company has billions of dollars in oil contracts that can go forward only if the United States lifts sanctions against Russia, and Mr. Tillerson’s stake in Russia’s energy industry could create a very blurry line between his interests as an oilman and his role as America’s leading diplomat.
Mr. Tillerson has been publicly skeptical about the sanctions, which have halted some of Exxon Mobil’s biggest projects in Russia, including an agreement with the state oil company to explore and pump in Siberia that could be worth tens of billions of dollars.
Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said on Saturday that Mr. Tillerson’s connections to Mr. Putin were “a matter of concern to me” and promised to examine them closely if he were nominated.
“Vladimir Putin is a thug, bully and a murderer, and anybody else who describes him as anything else is lying,” Mr. McCain said on Fox News.
Mr. Trump has fanned speculation about his choice for Secretary of State for weeks. In the end, he discarded not only Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Romney, but also an endlessly changing list that at times included Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee; David H. Petraeus, the former Army general and C.I.A. director; and Jon M. Huntsman Jr., the former Utah governor and presidential candidate in 2012.
Mr. Romney, Mr. Petraeus and Mr. Corker, the three leading runners-up, all received calls late Monday informing them of Mr. Trump’s decision, according to people familiar with the President-Elect’s final choice.
He settled on Mr. Tillerson, a deal maker who has spent the past four decades at Exxon, much of it in search of oil and gas agreements in troubled parts of the world. A native of Wichita Falls, Tex., who speaks with a strong Texas twang, Mr. Tillerson, 64, runs a company with operations in about 50 countries, and has cut deals to expand business in Venezuela, Qatar, Kurdistan and elsewhere.
If confirmed as Secretary of State, Mr. Tillerson would face a new challenge: nurturing alliances around the world that are built less on deals and more on diplomacy.
That could prove to be a special test when it comes to Russia, where Mr. Tillerson has fought for years to strengthen connections through business negotiations worth billions of dollars. Under his leadership, Exxon has entered into joint ventures with Rosneft, a Russian-backed oil company, and donated to the country’s health and social programs.
In his new role, Mr. Tillerson would have to manage the difficult relationship between the United States and Mr. Putin’s Russia, including the economic sanctions imposed after Moscow intervened in Ukraine and occupied Crimea. Last month, President Obama and European leaders agreed to keep sanctions in place until Mr. Putin agrees to a cease-fire and to the withdrawal of heavy weapons from front lines in eastern Ukraine.
Other Republicans who have challenged Mr. Tillerson’s potential selection include Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who expressed concern in a Twitter post on Monday about his relationship with Mr. Putin.
Mr. Trump favored Mr. Giuliani, the former New York Mayor, initially, but quickly grew weary of his penchant for drawing outsize media attention. Mr. Trump was also troubled by reports of Mr. Giuliani’s business entanglements overseas. And some of the president-elect’s closest advisers, including his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, saw Mr. Giuliani as a poor fit for the job.
That led to interest in Mr. Romney, who had called Mr. Trump a “fraud” and a “phony” during the campaign. Mr. Romney had also highlighted Russia as a danger to United States interests during the 2012 race.
Mr. Trump and Mr. Romney made peace, meeting twice and speaking periodically by phone. But some of Mr. Trump’s advisers, including his last campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, warned publicly in a series of television interviews that some of his supporters would quickly drift away if Mr. Romney were chosen for the job.
Mr. Tillerson emerged as a contender on the strong recommendations of James A. Baker III, the Secretary of State under President George H W Bush, and Robert M. Gates, the former Defense Secretary, according to a person briefed on the process.
Mr. Kushner and Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, argued strongly for Mr. Tillerson, and the President-Elect was intrigued.
Mr. Trump met with Mr. Tillerson for more than two hours on Saturday at Trump Tower in Manhattan. To his aides, Mr. Trump described Mr. Tillerson as in a different “league” than his other options.
Mr. Romney acknowledged late Monday night in a Facebook post that he had been passed over, writing, “It was an honor to have been considered for Secretary of State of our great country.”
“My discussions with President-elect Trump have been both enjoyable and enlightening,” Mr. Romney wrote.