Little of what we call history is inevitable. What happens in this world is the result of what people choose to do or not do when presented with challenges and opportunities.
George H.W. Bush, the forty-first president of the United States, was presented with more than his share of challenges and opportunities, and the record is clear: he left the country and the world considerably better off than he found them.
I am writing as someone who worked for and often with the forty-first president for all four years of his presidency. I was a special assistant and the senior director for Near East and South Asian Affairs on the staff of the National Security Council. What this meant in practice is that I oversaw the development and execution of policy toward the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, as well as Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. I was also brought into many other policy deliberations. It was the busiest of times, but it was also an extraordinary professional and personal experience.
I am biased. George Bush was kind, decent, fair, open-minded, considerate, lacking in prejudice, modest, principled, and loyal. He valued public service and saw himself as simply the latest in the long line of American presidents, another temporary occupant of the Oval Office and custodian of American democracy, a post that would one day be filled by others.
His foreign policy achievements were many and significant, starting with the ending of the Cold War. To be sure, that it ended when it did had a great deal to do with four decades of concerted Western efforts in every region of the world, the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan, the deep-seated flaws within the Soviet system and communism, and the words and deeds of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
But none of this meant the Cold War had to end quickly or peacefully. Bush was sensitive to the predicament of Gorbachev and later Boris Yeltsin, and he avoided making a difficult situation humiliating for Russia. He was careful not to gloat or to indulge in the rhetoric of triumphalism. He was widely criticized for this restraint, but he managed not to trigger just the sort of nationalist reaction that we are now seeing in Russia.
He also got what he wanted. No one should confuse Bush’s carefulness with timidity. He overcame the reluctance and, at times, objections of his European counterparts and fostered Germany’s unification—and brought it about within NATO. This was statecraft as its finest.
Forty-one’s other great foreign policy achievement was the Gulf War. He viewed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s invasion and conquest of Kuwait as a threat, not just to the region’s critical oil supplies, but also to the emerging post–Cold War world. Bush feared that if this act of war were allowed to stand, it would encourage additional mayhem. Days into the crisis, on the South Lawn of the White House he declared this aggression would not stand, cobbled together an unprecedented international coalition that backed sanctions and the threat of force, sent half a million American troops halfway around the world, and—when diplomacy failed to bring about a complete and unconditional Iraqi withdrawal—liberated Kuwait in a matter of weeks with remarkably few U.S. and coalition casualties. It was a textbook case as to how multilateralism and the national interest could overlap.
Two other things are worth pointing out here. First, Congress was reluctant to act. The vote in the Senate authorizing military action nearly failed. Bush, however, was prepared to order what became Operation Desert Storm even without congressional approval, given that he already had international law and the United Nations on his side. He was that determined and that principled.
Second, Bush refused to allow himself to get caught up in the unfolding drama. The mission was to liberate Kuwait, not Baghdad. Fully aware of what happened when the United States expanded its war aims in Korea and tried to unify the peninsula by force, Bush resisted pressures to expand U.S. aims. He worried about losing the trust of world leaders he had brought along and the potential loss of life. He also wanted to keep the Arab governments on his side to improve prospects for the Middle East peace effort that was to come. Again, he was strong enough to stand up to the mood of the moment.
None of this is to say the forty-first president always got it right. The end of the Gulf War, in early 1991, was messy, as Saddam Hussein managed to hang onto power. A year later, the Bush administration was slow to respond to violence in the Balkans. It might have done more to help Russia in its early post-Soviet days. But as Congressman Steve Solarz, then a senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told me at the time, “You guys didn’t hit a home run. You got a triple. And triples aren’t bad.”
On the domestic front, Bush could point to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a major piece of civil rights legislation. He negotiated and set the stage for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Reversing his pledge not to introduce new taxes, Bush put the country on a path to a balanced budget and sustainable growth. My own view is that he was right to do so but erred in not explaining to the American people why he had gone back on his word. In politics, it is rarely enough to do the right thing, as Bush had done here; it is essential, too, to make the case for it.
One crucial last point: Bush assembled what is arguably the best national security team this country has ever had. Brent Scowcroft was the gold standard of national security advisors. James Baker was arguably the most successful secretary of state since Henry Kissinger. And with them were Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, Bob Gates, Larry Eagleburger, Bill Webster, and others of standing and experience.
This turned out to be the foreign policy dream team, not because of the presence of so many talented hands, but because the whole was made to work better than the sum of its parts. Good people alone are not enough. It takes good process as well. Good process doesn’t guarantee good policy, but it increases the likelihood it will emerge, just as bad process almost certainly leads to policy failure.
All of which brings us back to George H.W. Bush. He chose the people. He set the tone and the expectations. He listened. But he also led. If, as the saying goes, the fish rots from the head, it also flourishes because of the head. The United States flourished as a result of the many contributions of our forty-first president. We owe him our collective thanks. May his well-deserved rest be peaceful.