EIGHT YEARS AGO, ON A FINE, WARM DAY LATE in August, two men decided to go fishing for bluefish off the coast of Maine. One was George Bush, then the president of the United States; the other was General Brent Scowcroft, the president’s national security adviser. Just three weeks earlier, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had overrun Kuwait. Since then, the White House had been in a frenzy of activity to respond to this thuggish aggression on the other side of the world. This little fishing expedition, four hours of peace without ringing phones and urgent visits, was the first time the two men had been able to reflect on all that had happened and, in particular, on the fact that the Soviet Union, or what was left of it, had joined the United States in a coalition opposing Iraq. “We started to talk about what this meant for the future,” Bush told me in a recent interview. “One of the hallmarks of the world up to then was the automatic opposition between us and Russia anytime there was conflict, and that paralyzed the ability to do anything. Here was the first time since the founding of the United Nations that the two of us were on the same side. And Brent and I started speculating on what kind of world it would be if the two countries could cooperate. And that was where the term ‘new world order’ came from. We talked about how to move the world in that direction in the way we conducted our affairs.”

Today it might appear that the world has changed yet again, that our most worrisome threats come not just from rogue nations but from stateless terrorists with their lethal conspiracies and secret organizations. It was such ruthless zealots who bombed the World Trade Center in New York, the federal building in Oklahoma City, and our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. But after reading A World Transformed, by George Bush and Brent Scowcroft (published in September by Knopf), it is clear that these kinds of threats are an extension of the events in the book rather than something entirely new. Our missile attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan make this book an essential guide to the new world we find ourselves in today.

At 566 pages, A World Transformed is a massive book, but then so are the events it describes—the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union, the unification of Germany, Tiananmen Square, and the Gulf War. There are alternating passages by Bush and Scowcroft that tell what they were doing and thinking as events unfolded and the world changed before their eyes, as well as passages of straight narrative that fill in any gaps and keep the story moving along. Bush and Scowcroft clearly like, respect, and trust each other, but they had different roles to perform, and their views were not always identical. These differences give the book an engrossing tension.

Bush is more personally revealing than Scowcroft. He recalls that he first learned that Iraq was invading Kuwait when he was sitting in the basement of the White House getting a deep heat treatment. He had hit a bucket of golf balls that day, and by late evening, his shoulder hurt. Sometimes Bush is so corny it’s funny. He refers to his diary as “dear diary,” and as American forces gather for the attack on Iraqi positions in Kuwait, he writes, “Gosh, darn it, I wish Powell and Cheney were ready to go right now.” He is certain from the first that Saddam Hussein must leave Kuwait and never wavers from that, but he is constantly uneasy, reluctant to use force unless compelled to do so, hoping that diplomacy or sanctions will solve the crisis. Early in August, as the 82nd Airborne was arriving in Saudi Arabia and ground troops were heading for the same destination, Bush decides to give a televised address to inform the nation of his determination that Saddam must leave Kuwait. But this strong stand, which he knows he must take, fills him with anxiety: “Seated at my desk in the Oval Office before I went on the air, I felt a little nervous. I held out my hand to see if it was shaking. I was surrounded by technicians, cameramen, and aides, but I don’t think anyone noticed. I was pleased when I saw it was still steady.” Twelve days later, Bush decides to delay temporarily firing on ships defying the embargo on Iraq. He telephones Margaret Thatcher to inform her of his decision, although, he writes, “I wasn’t looking forward to it.” She seems to behave toward him like an imperious schoolteacher. “Well, all right, George,” she tells him, “but this is no time to go wobbly.”

General Brent Scowcroft, while not eager to go to war, is more matter-of-fact about using force. “Not all wars are avoidable,” he writes calmly, “and this was perhaps one of them.” He works tirelessly and becomes quickly frustrated with those who did not understand the importance of the crisis as early as he did. It is almost as if Bush and he were playing good cop, bad cop with Hussein. When I suggested this to him and the president, Scowcroft said, “Well, I was forced into that role.”

If Bush felt uneasy about using military power, he was quite confident and natural in a different but equally important area—making friends. Bush was able to put together a coalition that included our European allies, certain Arab states, and Soviet Russia because he had worked hard to build personal relations. He knew the Russians; he knew Margaret Thatcher; he had invited François Mitterrand to Kennebunkport, Maine (“The best thing I ever did for U.S.-French relations”); he was close with Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Mubarak had told Bush to call the small Gulf emirates from time to time just to acknowledge their importance to the United States. Bush did, and they did not hesitate to stand with him when the time came. And he knew the Saudi royal family, who, it turned out, doubted our resolve in the Middle East. In 1979 we had sent a squadron of F-15’s to them but then announced that the planes were unarmed. We had sent Marines into Beirut in 1982, but we pulled out quietly in 1984 after a successful terrorist attack on the Marine barracks. But the Saudis believed Bush when he gave his word.

Bush had a more difficult time building consensus at home. After Desert Storm’s quick success, it is easy to forget that there was loud and determined opposition to the war right up to the moment it began. Here, Bush shares with every president the inevitable frustration with the dreaded media. He believes, with some justification, that the American media paid too little attention to the atrocities Iraq was committing against Kuwaitis, which would have helped put popular opinion more on his side. He also believes that Hussein cleverly duped and exploited reporter Peter Arnett in Baghdad, in effect using CNN as a way to broadcast propaganda in the United States. After Bush orders the first bombing attack on Baghdad, he and Scowcroft settle in to watch it on CNN, just like everyone else in the world. When I mentioned this to the two of them, the former president said, “Not only that, Saddam was watching too. A lot of the reason he acted the way he did was because he believed we wouldn’t use force because he saw the demonstrations each day in front of the White House and he thought that was the will of the American people. He heard speeches on the Senate floor and read back to us the same language in some of those speeches, but he miscalculated their importance.” Scowcroft added that CNN is a new and complicating factor in international diplomacy whose importance is still underrated.

Bush went on vacation in the midst of the Gulf crisis and got criticized. President Clinton interrupted his vacation to order the missile attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan, then returned to Martha’s Vineyard, for which he was criticized as well. Bush believed that “a relaxed George Bush was the best possible signal to send” to Hussein, and Clinton must have felt the same way. Bush was incensed when some commentators suggested that he was sending the military to the Gulf to call attention away from the bitter budget fight in Congress: “It implied that I was willing to play politics with the lives of our sons and daughters in the Gulf.” The suggestion, strengthened by the plot of the movie Wag the Dog, has been made that Clinton ordered the missile attacks to take attention away from his troubles with Monica Lewinsky and Kenneth Starr. He must find it as infuriating as Bush did.

Bush and Scowcroft had, as Scowcroft writes, “started self-consciously to view our actions as setting a precedent for the approaching post—Cold War world. . . . The United States henceforth would be obligated to lead the world community to an unprecedented degree.” Bush concludes by saying the “challenge of presidential leadership in foreign affairs is not to listen to consensus, but to forge it at home and abroad.” And our enemies are different now. They are, as Bush said in our interview, “the pariah states, terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the international narcotics cartels, instability, unpredictability, starvation.” We must face these enemies because neither we nor anyone else can do well in a world of chaos. Clinton is popular abroad, so perhaps he has done well enough in keeping up our relations with the nations of the world. But at home, he has done little or nothing to build a national consensus about what we are doing in the world and why we are doing it. If he can escape from his current troubles, it’s not too late, even now. Perhaps he could start by reading A World Transformed.