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

Instead of rushing off to Europe to meet Gorbachev, Bush’s first trip abroad as president was to Asia, stopping in China to rekindle relationships. Yet the visit got mired in controversy around the Chinese government’s handling of a prominent prodemocracy activist—whom they blocked from attending a U.S. embassy reception, igniting a media firestorm. Bush got tagged with being weak on upholding liberal values (or what Bill Clinton later described as coddling the “butchers of Beijing”), which only grew worse with his lackluster response after the tanks rolled into Tiananmen, in which he labored to maintain ties with the Beijing leadership rather than sever them.

Engel offers fresh insight into the ways the Tiananmen massacre influenced Bush’s approach to the end of the Cold War, revealing how often Bush expressed concerns that such brutality would repeat itself in Europe. As prodemocracy movements metastasized, Bush worried that if he pushed too hard too soon, Communist leaders would take a page from Beijing’s playbook. This only reinforced Bush’s careful instincts—and is a key reason why he did not “dance on the wall” in November 1989, recognize Lithuania’s independence in 1990 or Ukraine’s in 1991, or immediately declare the Soviet Union dead after the August 1991 coup. And importantly, the fact that violent antidemocratic crackdowns did not occur in Europe further convinced Bush that his gut was right.

HOWEVER, BUSH’S penchant for first doing no harm—or what Engel describes as his “Hippocratic diplomacy”—did not always apply. Importantly, when grappling with what to do about a divided Germany and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Bush proved willing to take big gambles—and the reasons he did so are revealing.

By championing Germany’s reunification, Bush pushed nervous partners in the UK, France and the USSR, who worried about the strategic implications of renewed German power. The cautious move would have been to keep Germany divided, or at least to slow its pace toward reunification and keep the new country neutral. Yet Bush surprised even his advisers with his vehement support for German unity. He thought the German people should be able to decide their own destiny—and that Washington should help them do so.

More important, Engel argues, Bush believed that keeping a unified Germany in NATO was vital to maintaining U.S. leadership. He worried that the end of the Cold War would make it harder to sustain American power and make the case for institutions like NATO. He lamented the “euphoria” about the peace dividend and dismissed the “weirdos” on the right and left who “don’t want our troops in Europe at all.” Engel quotes Bush’s diary entry from the time: “I’ve got to look after the U.S. interest in all of this without reverting to a kind of isolationist or stupid peace-nik view on where we stand in the world.” The decision to keep a reunified Germany in NATO—which planted seeds for the alliance’s enlargement over the next two decades to twenty-nine members—proved controversial, and is the source of Russian grievances against the West today (although Engel does a masterful job debunking Moscow’s assertion it was misled by the Bush team on NATO’s future).

In Iraq, Bush overcame his initial hesitation to settle on a bold objective to force Saddam out of Kuwait. “Operation Just Cause,” the U.S. invasion of Panama in December 1989 to oust Manuel Noriega and restore democracy, had already set the template for American intervention abroad. No doubt Bush could have dismissed Baghdad’s move as a Gulf family squabble, or embraced more cautious goals like deterring Iraq from invading Saudi Arabia, but the president overruled more cautious advisers (such as Baker and Colin Powell) and heeded the counsel of national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, who decried the perils of inaction, not to mention British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who warned him that this was “no time to go wobbly.” Bush didn’t. He knew the risks, and even worried that if he failed he could be impeached. But Bush believed that by working with the Soviet Union and other powers to right wrongs, the post–Cold War world could work as one neighborhood with rules that would be enforced.

For a time it looked like this might work. Yet the Gulf War’s aftermath proved more complicated. With Saddam left in power, the war’s outcome seemed incomplete, and the American military would remain militarily engaged in Iraq for the next three decades (no-fly zones in the 1990s; an invasion and occupation force in the 2000s; the anti-ISIS coalition in the 2010s). And the era of superpower cooperation proved short lived. Engel describes how Gorbachev acceded to Bush’s requests, not because he fully bought into the idea of a new order, but because he needed Western financial assistance and had few cards to play. Gorbachev had earned Bush’s trust as a partner, but soon found himself diminished—and when 1991 ended, Gorbachev, like his country, was gone.