The Last Foreign-Policy President

US President George Bush toasts Russian President Boris yeltsin in Moscow January 3 after signing a historic START-2 treaty

George H. W. Bush's four years in office presented challenges as complex and as numerous on the international stage as faced by any president in American history over the course of the entire administration.

January-February 2018

Jeffrey A. Engel, When the World Seemed New: George H. W. Bush and the End of the Cold War (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), 608 pp., $35.00.

IT WAS the kind of parade Donald Trump dreams about. On June 8, 1991, hundreds of thousands of spectators flooded Washington’s National Mall to watch over eight thousand troops and a packed trail of tanks, jeeps, helicopters, fighter jets and missiles (as well as a capability few had seen before, a surveillance drone) on display to celebrate the U.S. military’s overwhelming victory against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. According to the New York Times, it was the biggest military spectacle in Washington since Dwight Eisenhower marched victorious American GIs down Pennsylvania Avenue to celebrate the end of World War II. The happy crowds honored the troops, and they also cheered their triumphant commander in chief, George H. W. Bush.

At that time President Bush was riding high. His approval rating topped 90 percent, and the smashing military success seemed to end the nation’s long Vietnam hangover. Bush was known to be a cautious leader, memorably caricatured by comedian Dana Carvey with the phrase “wouldn’t be prudent,” but he had taken a huge risk by deploying half a million troops to force Iraq out of Kuwait. He had endured a bitter political debate over the war—one that most Democrats opposed—and came out better than even he expected. Basking in this accomplishment, Bush observed that “there is a new and wonderful feeling in America,” a pride that would end the bitter partisanship of the Cold War. And, he hoped, the Gulf War would prove a harbinger for a different kind of global politics—as he famously called it, a “new world order.”

The cornerstone of this new order would be a fundamentally different relationship between the United States and Soviet Union. Just a few years earlier, a crisis like Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait would have quickly escalated into a superpower showdown. But this time proved different. Instead of lining up on opposite sides to defend their proxies, the United States and Soviet Union stood together to punish Saddam and, for the first time, agreed in the UN Security Council to authorize American-led military action in response. To James Baker, Bush’s close friend and secretary of state, that was the moment the Cold War ended.

Yet in the midst of this triumph, Bush privately sensed trouble ahead. He worried that with the Soviet Union in history’s dustbin, many Americans would ask why foreign policy mattered anymore, doubting if the sacrifices required for U.S. global leadership were still worth it. Politically, Bush knew he was vulnerable. His advisers warned of the “Churchill parallel,” when another leader had brought victory in war only to get tossed out of office. Of course, such concerns proved prescient, as Bush spent his doomed 1992 reelection campaign whipsawed by fierce currents—represented then by Bill Clinton, Ross Perot and Patrick Buchanan—that would define American politics for the next quarter century.

Bush was proudly a “foreign-policy president,” which politically was part of his problem. Full of restless energy—he appeared always on the move and was known for playing speed golf—he seemed to prefer dealing with the world and less interested in problems at home. He relished the global stage and practicing “Rolodex diplomacy” with many foreign leaders on speed dial, but in domestic affairs could come off as aloof and out of touch, whether by seeming mystified by a grocery-store scanner or conspicuously looking at his watch during a 1992 presidential debate, as if he had somewhere more important to be.

Yet when reflecting on the dramatic global events that accompanied the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet empire—such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, German reunification, the Gulf War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union—one must conclude that we were lucky to have such a foreign-policy president at that time. (Pause for a moment and reflect on having Michael Dukakis in the White House during these years.) While in many ways any president who fails to get reelected after one term, like Jimmy Carter and Herbert Hoover, is by definition a failure, such a verdict doesn’t quite work for Bush. He presided over a remarkably successful era for America in the world, and today, Bush’s global leadership is heralded and his administration praised as a master class in how foreign policy should be made and implemented.