World Politics Review | 8.12.08
By Alan W. Dowd

August is when official Washington shuts down and heads off for vacation. Congressmen and senators travel to their districts to politick, especially in these even-numbered years, and presidents travel to their ranches or beach houses or, this year, to the Olympics.

But that wasn’t the case during the administration of George H.W. Bush. In fact, it was during these dog days of summer that the elder Bush was busiest. The 44th president could learn a thing or two from the 41st—about what to do and what not to do.

It’s regrettable that Bush’s presidency is usually mentioned in relation to—and overshadowed by—someone else. After all, he has been called Reagan’s third term, Gorbachev’s partner, Clinton’s predecessor, W’s father. But the elder Bush was much more than an adjunct to others. He navigated a critical turning point in world history, and in the 15 years since his departure, America has been reminded again and again of just how difficult it is to make and execute foreign policy.

His presidency was not perfect—none of them are—but there were two Augusts when Bush shined. The first came in 1990, after Saddam Hussein sent his army into Kuwait.

Bush refused to accept the invasion as a fait accompli, as some of his advisors suggested at the time. In taking that stand, he also refused to follow the path taken by previous administrations, when other faraway countries fell to tyranny and Washington’s wise men looked the other way.

Within 30 hours of Iraq’s invasion, Bush had drawn “a line in the sand” and convinced the UN Security Council to pass a unanimous resolution condemning it. Within 50 hours, Bush’s secretary of state, James Baker, had cajoled his Soviet counterpart, Eduard Shevardnadze (a Georgian, more on that in a moment), to issue a joint statement condemning the attack—an act of truly historic significance, given that the Iraqi army occupying Kuwait was equipped with Soviet warplanes, tanks and guns.

What followed those initial diplomatic masterstrokes was without precedent or parallel: dozens of nations pledged military, financial and intelligence assistance; Moscow and Washington worked together; a UN-sanctioned embargo took shape; Arab states stood up against another Arab state; the insular Saudi regime opened up to the world; the UN was suddenly revived from its Cold War coma. And much of it was the byproduct of Bush’s personal connections with these nodes of power.

Bush called the UN’s role in the Iraq crisis “one of its finest moments.” Citing Iraq as a model, he believed the world had “a real chance to fulfill the UN Charter's ambition of working to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”

Yet what Bush described as “pax universalis” was a mirage. What began with such promise and unity of purpose steadily unraveled and led to a long and costly war, which America is still waging today.

“The mission of our troops is wholly defensive,” Bush declared as elements of the 82nd Airborne and US Air Force arrived in Saudi Arabia to defend against an Iraqi invasion. “Hopefully, they will not be needed long.” That was August 8, 1990.

Less than seven months later, Kuwait was liberated. But Saddam, though badly weakened, was still in power. Bush and his advisors reckoned that the dictator would fall in short order. But they declared a ceasefire before the US-led juggernaut could destroy key units of the Republican Guard, which were vital to Saddam’s survival. And survival was victory for him.

Since a wounded Saddam could not be left unattended and an oil-rich Saudi Arabia could not be left unprotected, US troops took up long-term residence in the Saudi kingdom. (They didn’t begin withdrawing until late 2003.) The presence of foreign troops in the Muslim holy land would spawn a fringe terror group known as al Qaeda, which launched a global guerilla war against America. That triggered America’s global war on terror, which led back to Iraq, which is where America finds itself today.

Deflecting criticisms of the war’s untidy conclusion in their 1998 book A World Transformed, Bush and his national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, argued that shutting down the ground war at the hundred-hour mark was the right thing to do. “The United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land,” they concluded. Of course, that’s effectively what happened, at least in the eyes of Osama bin Laden and his followers.

America’s waist-deep intervention in the Middle East, which began 19 Augusts ago, serves as a sobering reminder of many truths: America’s global leadership role is necessary but costly; even the most successful policies have unintended, unforeseen consequences; and unfinished business inevitably has to be completed by someone. Iraq has now been a part of America’s story since 1990. The elder Bush handed it off to Bill Clinton, who handed it off to the younger Bush, who will soon hand it off to yet another president.

Hardliners and Soft Landings
A year after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, in August 1991, hard-line elements launched a coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. What followed would cap the greatest triumph of Bush’s presidency and one of the greatest triumphs of US policy in the post-World War II era: the peaceful disintegration of the Soviet empire and Soviet state.

As the hardliners held Gorbachev hostage in the Crimea, Bush fell back on personal diplomacy to respond to the crisis. As he recounts in A World Transformed, he called Major of the UK, Mitterrand of France, Kohl of Germany, Kaifu of Japan, Mulroney of Canada and even Gorbachev himself.

As he was connected by phone with Bush and Scowcroft, Gorbachev, the leader of Lenin’s atheist empire, was moved to say, “There is a god!” In fact, the last leader of the Soviet Union trusted Bush more than he trusted his own ministry chiefs, army or security forces.

Following Bush’s lead, the world rejected and isolated the coup-plotters, sent clear signals to the Russian people that America was on their side, offered support to Boris Yeltsin and helped Gorbachev gracefully exit the stage.

It was a diplomatic grand-slam that few presidents could have pulled off. Bush was the right man in the right place at the right time. As David Halberstam later put it in War in a Time of Peace, “In those turbulent, unpredictable days, dangerous because this was the last gasp of a dark empire, and old adversaries are often most dangerous in their dying moments, Bush and his team seemed to have perfect pitch.”

Moreover, it pays to recall that Bush had already orchestrated a bloodless end to America’s longest war—the Cold War—and paved the way for Europe’s reunification.

By 1990, even Moscow wanted America to stay in Europe in order to promote stability: “It is important for the future of Europe,” Gorbachev astonishingly told Bush, “that you are in Europe. We don’t want to see you out of there.”

But by December 26, 1991, the USSR had ceased to exist, and Gorbachev was out of a job. A year later, so was Bush.

What can the presidency of George H.W. Bush teach us today?

Experience Matters
Bush had been a congressman, ambassador to the UN, envoy to China, CIA director and vice president. In other words, he knew the world. An anecdote in A World Transformed captures this well: During the Malta Summit, as Gorbachev introduced his delegation, it dawned on Bush that he had met everyone in the summit room.

Owing to his experience, Bush knew what diplomacy could—and couldn’t—do. He recognized thatdiplomacy had to have a purpose. Photo-op summits may make a president look good, but they do America no good. As Scowcroft explained, Bush understood that rogue regimes and other outliers used “cosmetic summits” as propaganda tools. What was true in the 1980s and 1990s remains true today.

Use the UN Sparingly
The 44th president should learn from the 41st that the UN is most effective when it legitimizes US efforts—not when it constrains or shapes them. As Robert Kaplan has observed, “the UN has always been most credible when it was an accomplice of US foreign-policy goals.”

The elder Bush allowed Europe and the UN to botch the early phases of Bosnia, though he did act in Panama without UN authorization—and rightly so. His successor and his son did likewise from time to time. Odds are the next president will have to bypass the UN as well.

The good news is that the next president will have a host of pro-US governments to partner with—Britain, Germany, Italy and even France; the Czech Republic and Ukraine; Canada, Mexico and Colombia; Japan, South Korea and India; and yes, Iraq and Afghanistan. Plus, media mantras notwithstanding, a larger portion of the world is open to US policies and principles today than it was when the elder Bush took office—if for no other reason than this: there is no Soviet Union bankrolling America’s enemies today. And for that, the elder Bush deserves some of the credit.

The US Must Lead
Bush was an internationalist and a realist. His political opponents used both against him throughout 1992. Yet for all his realpolitik after Tiananmen and Vilnius, for all his rhetoric about pax universalis, Bush was idealistic enough to believe that the US is not just another country between Albania and Zimbabwe on the UN roster. He knew that the US must lead.

With another August crisis upon us, it’s a safe bet that the younger Bush has talked with the elder about the war in Georgia. Russia’s thrust into Georgia is far more politically complex than Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Even so, Washington must send a strong signal to Moscow that actions have consequences. From bolting the CFE Treaty, to bullying Poland, the Czech Republic and Estonia, to battering Georgia, Russia’s actions have grown increasingly bellicose.

Doubtless, the elder Bush would advise working the phones, building a coalition and drawing a line.