The heartfelt words of grief and condolence began to roll in only minutes after George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States, passed away at his home at the age of 94. Bush Senior, as he was often called, was a foreign policy giant among his peers, with a résumé (congressman, CIA director, ambassador, vice president, president) that none of his presidential successors have come close to matching. The world was extremely fortunate to have him in the White House when the Berlin Wall came crumbling down and the Soviet Union fell apart. He was a man who knew the world, who established relationships with foreign leaders on multiple continents over a period of decades, and who understood that good statecraft is defined as much by caution, prudence, and wisdom for the big picture as it is by toughness and machismo.
What will George H.W. Bush be best known for? The reunification of Germany after nearly five decades of being carved in two is no doubt at the top of the list. Bush’s management of a crisis and opportunity no one saw coming was a masterful display of his intellect, realpolitik, and grace. As former U.S. ambassador to Germany John Kornblum wrote in Politico last weekend, “Bush seemed immediately to understand what was going on” while many of Europe’s politicians were still scrambling with their hair on fire. Germans, Europeans, and Russians alike deeply appreciated Bush’s dexterity and humility during this time of immense change, especially when many cold warriors in Washington were eager to dance on the Soviet Union’s grave.
Others will likely cite the swift and decisive conclusion of the 1991 Gulf War, a conflict that resulted in a humiliating surrender by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein after only 100 hours of ground combat. The elder Bush’s most significant accomplishment, however, may very well be a decision he didn’t make: authorizing a U.S. invasion of Baghdad to remove Saddam Hussein from power.
It’s difficult to put into words just how courageous this choice was at the time. By the time American aircraft began striking Baghdad in January 1991, Saddam was a household name in America—a 20th-century villain who had mercilessly invaded a smaller neighbor to subjugate its people and steal its natural resources. The Iraqi dictator was compared to the most ruthless despots in memory, from Adolf Hitler to Joseph Stalin. Nobody (except Saddam’s sociopathic sons Uday and Qusay) would have missed Saddam had a U.S. bomb happened to level one of his palace residencies while he was sleeping. Neither was there much concern that killing Saddam or removing his Baathist regime from power would be an especially gruesome task for U.S. Armed Forces. The same Iraqi military Saddam had once boasted about had been relegated to a frightened ragtag crew surrendering to American forces in the desert and a graveyard of smoking tanks on the roadside. The momentum of the U.S.-led military campaign was epitomized by the nickname of the American general commanding it: “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf.
President Bush, however, wasn’t an “emotional kind of guy.” While he knew that the United States could easily dispatch the Iraqi strongman, he also realized that doing so would open a Pandora’s Box of known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. There was no guarantee that Baghdad would resemble Paris 1944, with millions of happy Iraqis joyously waving American flags and climbing on the tanks to kiss American GIs on the cheek. The notion that Iraq would succumb to a Western-style democracy overnight was, to put it generously, fanciful. And the multilateral coalition that the Bush White House had assembled—which included a number of Arab allies—would have likely broken apart had Washington made the decision to advance into the Iraqi capital. So instead, Bush agreed to a ceasefire in order to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the war. As a man with deep experience acquired over years of service in the U.S. government, he recognized that going further than what the U.N. Security Council resolution permitted would not only be a breach of international law but a slippery slope to a long-term American occupation in the heart of the Arab world.
As Bush’s secretary of state James Baker explained in the pages of The Los Angeles Times five years after the Gulf War concluded, “[a]ll our political and war aims, as enunciated by the Bush administration throughout the crisis, had been achieved. Our strategic objective was accomplished: Kuwait was liberated, and Hussein’s ability to threaten his neighbors in the future was substantially diminished.” Seven years later, on the eve of the very war of choice he’d wisely avoided more than a decade earlier, Bush 41 remained confident in his decision to end the Gulf War when he did. “I believe we would have lost faith back then with our allies if we’d said we were just kidding; we’re now going to march into Baghdad,” he said. Up until he took the oath as vice president, it was a sentiment that former defense secretary Dick Cheney wholeheartedly agreed with.
The tragedy of Bush 41 is that his son George W. Bush was his opposite in many ways. Whereas Bush Senior viewed strategic restraint as a positive quality, Bush Junior derided it as appeasement to the evil forces seeking to dominate the world order. The United States would have been far better served if the son had taken the father more seriously. Fortunately, it isn’t too late for America’s current and future leaders to do so.
Daniel R. DePetris is a foreign policy analyst, a columnist at Reuters, and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative.