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 being an exemplar for the post–Cold War world, the Gulf War proved to be a high-water mark. By the time Bush left office, the unraveling was underway: whether in the Balkans, as Bosnia ripped itself apart; or in Somalia, where U.S. troops were deployed in late 1992 to help keep the peace; or in Sudan, where in early 1992 the Al Qaeda leadership issued its first fatwa against the West; or at home, where in 1992 Los Angeles erupted in riots and the presidential contest was rocked by a nationalist candidate who argued for “America First” (Buchanan) and a billionaire huckster who campaigned against free-trade deals like NAFTA and promised to clean up Washington (Perot). Engel’s narrative ends in 1991, and while it is already long, one is left wanting to read more about how these less-triumphant events shaped Bush’s legacy.

Revisiting this history a quarter century later, what’s striking is how out of step Bush’s prudent Hippocratic approach to foreign policy is with Republicans today. Bush had a fundamental optimism about America in the world, and believed that with the right kind of leadership, the United States could be a force for good. He frequently expressed frustration with all the “tough talk” that dominated Washington punditry, remained wary of the foreign-policy establishment and pushed back on getting “stampeded” into doing things that might get headlines but risked fueling instability. He carefully tended to his alliance partners, was willing to talk to adversaries, and seemed incapable of boast and bombast. He was confident in American power, yet had a keen sense of its limits. And he was willing to use force, but careful not to overextend the military or bluff his way into an unintended conflict. For all this, Bush would be derided as out of step, as lacking ambition, as a wimp.

Republicans still admire Bush, but few advocate for a foreign policy that would emulate his. That certainly applies to the current occupant of the White House—a person who offered himself up to Bush in 1988 as a possible vice-presidential running mate, an idea Bush found “strange and unbelievable” (little did he know how much of an understatement that would prove to be) and whom he more recently dismissed as a “blowhard.” In fact, the closest champion there is to Bush’s pragmatic internationalist style of foreign policy is not any Republican. It is Barack Obama.

These two presidents—one a New England patrician turned Texas oilman and pillar of the Republican establishment, the other an African American from Hawaii who became a Chicago community organizer—are an unlikely pair, but their fundamental optimism and outlook on the use of American power in the world is strikingly similar. Obama made no secret of his admiration for Bush and his foreign policy, telling Jon Meacham that Bush was “one of our most underrated presidents,” who deserved great credit for managing the end of the Cold War “in a way that gave the world its best opportunity for stability and peace and openness.” In many ways, their two presidencies are fitting bookends to the quarter-century post–Cold War era, ending with Trump.

So they also share a sense of tragedy—as well as a lesson for the future. In the final pages of Engel’s important book, he sums up Bush’s legacy as one of “promise.” And one might say that Obama’s enduring legacy will be “hope.” The problem for both these leaders, however, is that what the American people want most is fulfillment. The great value of this book is that it reminds us of the extraordinary history of the Bush 41 era—and what steady, pragmatic and humble leadership can deliver.

Derek Chollet is executive vice president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and author of The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World.

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