Turmoil and Triumph:  My Years as Secretary of State
By George P. Shultz
Charles Scribner’s Sons

These sprawling memoirs of George Pratt Shultz are, at their best, a first hand description of what he calls: ‘’life… in the cockpit of the free world.’’ As Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State from 1982 to 1989, Shultz was an interventionist of sound, stern and swashbuckling tendencies, as high-spirited as was dedicated.

Drawing on skills developed not only while Secretary of Labour and the Treasury under Richard Nixon, but also as president of a major corporation (Bechtel), Shultz approached foreign policy armed with a grassroots common sense. Moreover, despite a reputation for restraint and dialogue, Shultz could advocate force when it came to combating terrorism. For months now, he’s been calling for punitive air strikes against the Serbian forces in the former Yugoslavia, likening Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s four rules for American military intervention to a ‘’counsel of inaction.’’

In other words, if George Shultz were in Christopher’s position, he’d most probably be arguing forcefully that it is the moral responsibility of the US to take charge and act, with or without the Europeans.

In Triumph and Turmoil, Shultz sets before us a unique ‘’living history’’ with moments of revelation and high drama. He shatters and myths and provides a cool and complex account of an era in world affairs in which vast transformations that have yet to be concluded were set in motion.

Often at ideological battle with both CIA Director William Casey and UN Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick – who pressed Reagan ‘’never to negotiate with the enemy’’ – as well as with Secretary of Defence Caspar W. Weinberger, Shultz still manages to shed light on the conflicts without resorting to acrimony or vitriol.

‘’I would come to recognise as a standard Pentagon tactic: when you don’t want to do something, agree to do it,’’ Shultz writes, a line which reinforces the intention expressed in the foreword: ‘’to present the reality as I experienced it, warts and all –a foray into how things happened in Washington during the years that were on the hinge of history.’’

It’s hard to say whether he’s achieved this, simply because many of the questions raised on that ‘’hinge if history’’ have yet to be resolved. The Middle East is no closer to a peace process today than it was when Shultz became Secretary of State eleven years ago. And in Chapter Nineteen – ‘The Intensity of Central America,’ Shultz writes: ‘’By supporting the Contras, we were not seeking the overthrow of the junta but to create sufficient pressure on the Nicaraguan regime to distract it from adventures in El Salvador and to induce it to accept region-wide provisions for peace and stability.’’ This in itself, was, and remains, the tip of the iceberg - argument-wise - but Shultz has naturally declined to kick-start such a thorny and tempestuous issue.

From the Israeli invasion of Lebanon to the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism, to the struggle to oust Noriega, to inevitable tensions with China, to a rancorous dispute with Europe in relation to the construction of the Siberian pipeline, and of course, US-Soviet relations, Turmoil and Triumph a wide range of global issues.

There’s also a surprisingly close-up look at the power struggle between the State Department and the National Security Council - and the White House and the CIA(!) – a battle that climaxed with the Iran-Contra debacle. Was President Reagan aware his agents were offering Iran a ransom of arms to buy back hostages? Was George Bush a full participant in that demeaning decision - despite his frequent protestations of being ‘’out of the loop?’’

The answer to both questions, according to George Shultz, is a dismaying yes. His eyewitness evidence shows that Reagan clearly lied – by sticking to a script that (by the same token) clearly denied reality. Bush on the other hand, lied only to investigators and the public.

For this revelation alone, these memoirs deserve credit.

Candid, insightful, though perhaps somewhat pedestrian at times, Turmoil and Triumph is an essential book for anyone remotely interested in foreign affairs, the diplomacy of the Reagan years and the lies and deceit that still echo as a result of Iran-Contra.