Up until now, George Herbert Walker Bush was best known for serving one term as United States President himself, and for his son George Walker Bush serving two terms as President a decade later. However there is far more to “Bush 41” and his record, including that one term that coincided with the end of the Cold War…
And the rise of a “new world order” that would eventually give rise to the worldwide disorder that we live in today.
George Bush may have come from an America of the past, yet his “vision thing” helped the world move forward.
In January 1987, a Time Magazine story on then Vice President George H.W. Bush detailed his struggle in getting his message across on the national stage. The story included what would become the ultimate “money quote” that would haunt Bush for the rest of his political life: “Recently he asked a friend to help him identify some cutting issues for next year’s campaign. Instead, the friend suggested that Bush go alone to Camp David for a few days to figure out where he wanted to take the country. ‘Oh,’ said Bush in clear exasperation, ‘the vision thing.’ The friend’s advice did not impress him.”
Though Bush would become the nation’s 41st President two years later, that quote would return to bite him in 1992, when political reporters would contrast Bush’s lack of a compelling “vision thing” with then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton‘s (D) captivating narrative of “a place called Hope”. Yet while that “vision thing” never materialized in the form of electrifying stump speeches or messianic overtures on the campaign trail, it actually did materialize in the form of sound foreign policy that guided the nation and the world for the next quarter-century.
For example in May 1989, Bush traveled to Germany and declared, “Decade after decade, time after time, the flowering human spirit withered from the chill of conflict and oppression; and again, the world waited. But the passion for freedom cannot be denied forever. The world has waited long enough. The time is right. Let Europe be whole and free.”
While tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union had already begun to thaw, Bush accelerated the end of the Cold War by utilizing what would later be known as “soft power” to assuage Soviet concerns of American imperialism, allow for the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, encourage reformers inside the U.S.S.R. as they pursued the “glasnost” that would soon spark the collapse of the Soviet Union, and aid (what at the time seemed like) the transition to liberal democracy in Russia and Eastern Europe.
Bush was an American Republican, yet he was also an internationalist who understood the value of diplomacy and multilateral relationships.
About a year before the Soviet Union collapsed, “Bush 41” confronted another global crisis in a way that future Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama would later take to heart. On August 2, 1990, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of Kuwait in retaliation for the unresolved dispute over some $30 billion in debt accrued during the Iran-Iraq War and Iraq’s economy suffering the effects of falling oil prices. In a marked show of thoughtful restraint, Bush responded to the former U.S. ally by calling on Hussein to cease his acts of aggression, then took his case to the United Nations when Saddam continued his assault on Kuwait.
It was only after Bush won the support of the United States Congress and the United Nations Security Council when Operation Desert Storm commenced on January 17, 1991. And even though some forces within his administration advocated the toppling of Saddam and conquering of Iraq, Bush resisted their overtures and committed to sticking with the limited mission of removing Iraqi troops from Kuwaiti territory that the U.N. Security Council approved. And even though Bush privately supported the concept of “regime change” in Iraq, he ultimately declared ceasefire on February 28, 1991, and subsequently declined to involve U.S. troops in the Iraqi uprisings that ultimately failed to oust Saddam that year.
Though the end result disappointed the neoconservative wing of the “Bush 41” White House, many of the same officials (such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld) found their way into the “Bush 43” White House and successfully convinced Bush’s son, then President George W. Bush, to “finish the job” by invading Iraq in March 2003. While they originally sold the war as a “preventive measure” to halt Saddam Hussein’s alleged involvement with terrorist organizations and attainment of weapons of mass destruction, their real motive became clearer after the war began, and after investigators found no evidence of Saddam possessing the kinds of weapons of mass destruction that the younger Bush’s administration claimed he did.
In hindsight, the elder Bush’s decision to scale back American intervention in Iraq has largely been hailed as the wiser one, as the larger Mediterranean region continues to suffer the reverberations of the second Iraq War, from the ongoing instability in Syria to the rise of ISIL/ISIS and the refugee crisis that’s now embroiling much of the European Union. In addition, the elder Bush’s strategy of building a multilateral coalition to eject Iraqi troops from Kuwait enhanced America’s reputation as a “good actor” on the world stage, a reputation that would take a major hit once the younger Bush eschewed the United Nations and many of America’s traditional allies to invade Iraq in 2003… And a reputation that would ultimately be ripped apart by current President Donald Trump‘s insistence on his “America First” agenda that has resulted in the dismantling of the “new world order” that “Bush 41” heralded a quarter-century ago.
As flawed as his story is, Bush played a critical role in our history.
Make no mistake: While “Bush 41” accomplished plenty on foreign policy, his overall record was far from perfect. While the AIDS crisis began nearly a decade before he became President, Bush exacerbated Ronald Reagan’s record of neglect with his victim shaming. And speaking of Reagan, Bush tapped into the same vein of “economic anxiety” that would eventually form the foundation of Trumpism, and he didn’t stop with that one “Willie Horton ad”. Yet while Bush attempted to turn the page by nominating Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court, he and a majority of U.S. Senators instead turned a blind eye to the fundamental problem of abuse of power that would later cause another “war on women” with Trump’s selection of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court… And that blind eye may have led Bush to abuse his own power against women for the next two decades.
Yet as flawed as Bush’s history may be, his story is a part of America’s story, as flawed as it all too often is. It’s a story of justice and progress, yet it’s also a story of pain and suffering. The story may often involve our giving into the devil beside us, but it’s ultimately the story of us listening to our better angels and striving to become better people.
The story of George H.W. Bush includes some cautionary tales that we’re only beginning to realize now, yet his story also includes a number of triumphs that harken to a “kinder, gentler” time for the Republican Party and the nation. Like John McCain, “Bush 41” often used his power to make the world a better place. It’s a slice of our history, warts and all, that’s best kept remembered.
Cover photo by Robert Martinez, and made available by the U.S. Air Force.