Widely known as one of the the most successful single term presidents, George H.W. Bush was the last World War II combat veteran to serve as president. He lost re-election in 1992 because, in the middle of an economic downturn, voters perceived him as paying less attention to domestic economic problems than the challenges of foreign policy.
But presidents don’t get to choose the world they must confront. And Bush’s presidency occurred in the years of massive global transformation that tested America’s ability to manage relations with adversaries, rivals and allies: the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Chinese massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the overthrow of communist governments in Eastern Europe and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The latter of course opened the door to German reunification, but this was opposed at first by France and the United Kingdom, as well as the Soviet Union. President Bush’s direct and sustained personal engagement with those countries’ leaders overcame that opposition and allowed for reunification to occur.
Another attribute that characterized Bush’s presidency was a real understanding of the importance of multilateral efforts, especially in the use of force. Operation Desert Storm is a prime example. In 1990-91, he assembled a broad coalition of 39 countries — a majority of then-NATO members, most Near Eastern states, as well as Argentina, Sierra Leone and Senegal — to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s army. Bush also understood that the cost of the effort needed to be shared by allies, who contributed most of the funding.
Bush had an abiding respect for the limits of American power and the dangers of mission creep. In the last days of the Gulf War, he resisted entreaties to exploit the opportunity to overthrow Saddam Hussein by having U.S. forces press on to Baghdad, whose approaches were largely undefended. He knew that to do so would wreck the coalition just as it achieved its strategic objective (the liberation of Kuwait), and would have undermined the credibility of the U.S.; coalition members had signed up for liberating Kuwait, not the overthrow of the Iraqi regime. He did not allow the heady success of Desert Storm to blind him to the risks posed by the invasion and occupation (unplanned) of a major Arab state — in contrast to the 2003 decision of his son, President George W. Bush, a dozen years later.
As president, the elder Bush embodied the traditional American ideals of humility, respect for the interests of others, and the disciplined use of power. In my humble opinion, it is uncertain the hubris that came with the new status of being the world’s sole “superpower” would have been as turbo-charged in a second Bush term. While President Bill Clinton’s U.N. Ambassador (and later Secretary of State) Madeleine Albright proclaimed that “we stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future,” Bush, who resisted referring to himself publicly in the first person “I,” would not have encouraged members of his administration to talk about America’s role in the world in the same terms.
Bush was supremely prepared to be president, with experience as ambassador to China and to the U.N. as well as CIA director. He made optimal use of foreign policy, defense and intelligence agencies, relying on their expertise; had strategic vision while empowering his Cabinet members; and oversaw an effective interagency process for the formulation of foreign and national security policy.
His willingness to compromise — most notably his agreement with a Democrat-controlled Congress to hike taxes — contributed to losing his re-election race in 1992 by fueling conservative support for Ross Perot, the independent presidential candidate who garnered 19 percent of the vote, most of which would have gone to Bush in a two-way race. However, his early dislike of Bill Clinton eventually transformed into a real friendship.
No president has a perfect foreign policy batting average, but history is likely to judge George H.W. Bush, the first baseman of Andover and Yale, as one of our better all-round players.
Kenneth Hillas is an adjunct professor of global politics and U.S. foreign policy at the University of Maine. His views do not reflect those of the university.