George H.W. Bush: The Gold Standard

George H.W. Bush, the 41st President of the United States, has died. He was a Mainer at heart. After losing his wife, Barbara, he told intimates that he wanted to live long enough to have one more summer in Maine.

At a minimum, he had one of the most remarkable and consequential careers of anyone in the history of this republic. Born into a blue-blood, New England family, he was the son of a senator and a scion of Yale, who saw combat in World War II and went to Texas to make his fortune in the oil patch. Success came easy and he soon grew bored with business and turned his ambitions toward politics and government — public service. He did not always succeed. He ran for the Senate twice and lost. But he was elected to Congress, where he made friends across the aisle and demonstrated a particular aptitude for international affairs. In 1971, President Nixon selected him to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. As in Congress, he made friends. His secret was a simple one: he listened to people and made a genuine effort to understand their concerns and perspectives, even when they clashed with U.S. policy.

The only time I met George Bush was during this moment in his career. I was a young international relations professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. As part of the curriculum, I took a class on a field trip to the U.N. in New York. I wrote ahead and asked if Ambassador Bush would speak to my students. He responded that he certainly would and we met with him for over an hour. He was perfect for the occasion — informed, articulate and responsive to student questions and interests. These were the early days following Nixon’s opening to China but before formal diplomatic relations were established. This left a critical interregnum when China and America, deeply estranged for over two decades, were starting a delicate dance of getting to know you. President Ford selected Bush to be the first de facto U.S. ambassador in Beijing at this critical time. By all reports, he thrived, building bridges to a communist leadership that had viewed America as a mortal enemy. The same capacity to listen and understand that I had observed with my students served him well.

By this time, Bush was on every short list for every top job. When the Ford administration needed a new CIA director, the call went out to him. His tenure there was brief (the incoming Carter administration wanted its own choice) but while he was there, he became an unabashed cheerleader for the work of the CIA and for the analysts and spies who did that work. The CIA loved him. As a new presidential election loomed, Bush decided to go for the White House. He lost his campaign for the Republican nomination to Ronald Reagan, but became Reagan’s choice for vice president and remained in that post for eight years. This established him as Reagan’s heir apparent and in 1988, he was elected president.

The Bush presidency was not a long one; it lasted just one term. However, those four years turned out to be an absolutely seminal time in the modern history of the world. Among earthshaking events that defined the times, two stand out: The fall of the Berlin Wall followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union bringing an end to the Cold War and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and the decision to use American armed forces to drive Saddam Hussein’s army back into Iraq. It was America’s (and the world’s) great good fortune that George Bush was president at this fateful time.

His response to the largely unexpected disintegration of the Soviet empire was quintessential George Bush — low-key and restrained. There was not a hint of gloating or triumphalism. He understood that he had a counterpart in Mikhail Gorbachev, who was trying to manage an almost impossible situation but was desperately determined to produce a peaceful outcome. Bush and his advisors had the wisdom to understand what Gorbachev was trying to do (when many experts thought it was all a charade) and offered Moscow not just one lifeline, but many. The result was a strategic miracle: the unwinding of a nuclear-armed, totalitarian empire without a shot being fired.

In the case of Iraq, the easiest course would have been to condemn the invasion of Kuwait and apply economic sanctions on Iraq and nothing more. Unlike many, George Bush saw the stakes as very high (including Saddam Hussein’s control of much of the world’s oil supply) and he chose a high-risk option. He deployed U.S. forces over thousands of miles in an expeditionary assault against a dug-in Iraqi army. The resulting campaign was brilliantly planned and executed forcing the Iraqi army into retreat with minimal American casualties. Bush then faced a critical decision — whether to pursue the defeated Iraqi forces into Iraq, itself, or stop at the border. He declared that U.S. objectives had been achieved and an invasion and occupation of Iraq would be fraught with unintended consequences. It is a supreme irony that 11 years later his own son, as president, would launch an invasion of Iraq under the pretext that Saddam Hussein had somehow been involved in the 9/11 attacks and was developing nuclear weapons. Neither was true. The father’s former national security team publicly warned against the Iraqi invasion. They were not listened to and America has paid the price in terms of thousands dead and trillions spent.

Students of U.S. security strategy generally agree that the team and the process under George H.W. Bush was the best America has ever had. The policy they produced was informed and careful but there was nothing timid or indecisive about it. The results speak for themselves.

As for the man, he was the ultimate public servant. He devoted his life, first and foremost, to his country, not himself, not his family, not his business interests, not his ego — his country.

Marvin Ott

Marvin Ott

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.
Marvin Ott

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