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.

A QUARTER century after Bush left office, nostalgia for his presidency—and his brand of pragmatic and humble internationalism—is being shaped by historians, the most important of which is Jon Meacham’s monumental biography published two years ago. (Another worthwhile entry is the surprisingly moving and insightful appreciation written by a notable amateur historian, George W. Bush, in his 2014 book 41.) There have been numerous assessments of Bush’s foreign policy, including insider narratives of German reunification or the Middle East peace process, as well as doorstop memoirs, including one cowritten by Bush and his national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft; by former CIA director Robert Gates; and by James Baker (full disclosure: I assisted Baker with the research for his 1995 memoir). But by far the most comprehensive—and compelling—account of these dramatic years thus far is Jeffrey Engel’s When the World Seemed New.

Engel, a former professor at the George H. W. Bush School of Government at Texas A&M who now teaches at SMU, has made a career studying Bush. This is the fourth book he has written or edited on Bush’s foreign policy, and his work benefits from encyclopedic knowledge of the archives and hours spent talking with most of the key players, especially Bush himself. Engel’s mastery of his subject leaps off every page, and while clearly admiring, he is no court historian. On the contrary, he gives an unvarnished assessment of where Bush got it wrong. Yet after reading this lively book, the overall impression is one of great appreciation for a president and team of advisers that handled momentous events skillfully. Because so many things broke America’s way, as if everything were foreordained by destiny, in hindsight Bush does not get the credit he deserves.

Bush prized personal relationships—“Where would we be without friends?” he often asked—and the most important one of his presidency was with an unlikely partner, Mikhail Gorbachev. Initially, Bush and his core team (especially Scowcroft) were suspicious of the motives behind the Soviet leader’s glasnost and perestroika. They worried that instead of genuine accommodation, Gorbachev was relaxing tensions only to buy time, drive a wedge between the United States and Europe, and renew Soviet strength. They saw it as détente all over again—“once burned, twice shy,” was how Scowcroft later described their suspicions—and were frustrated that in 1989, the energetic Gorbachev seemed to be driving the agenda.

Ronald Reagan left office believing Gorbachev was for real, saying that all his talk about the Soviet Union as an evil empire was from “another time and another era.” Bush was less convinced. He had only met Gorbachev a few times—including, as Engel reminds us, during Gorbachev’s electrifying 1987 visit to Washington—and found him to be a showboat. Bush and his advisers were uneasy with Reagan’s warm embrace of the Soviet leader, and sought to pump the brakes on change. “We must take the offensive,” Bush told Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney just weeks after entering the White House, adding, “We cannot just be seen as reacting to yet another Gorbachev move.”

The evolution of Bush’s relationship with Gorbachev in 1989 is an important story, and it dominates the first half of Engel’s book. One watches as Bush warms to the Soviet leader, growing to sympathize with his plight and admire his courage. Bush’s initial suspicions were quickly overtaken by events, as Gorbachev stood by and watched Soviet influence unravel in eastern Europe. Yet Bush remained cautious. He resisted the temptation to celebrate historic events like the fall of the Berlin Wall, worried that such triumphalism would backfire. He wanted Gorbachev to become a partner—not a defeated, embittered enemy full of grievance. Publicly and privately, Bush said he wanted to handle things “properly” and exercise restraint. Stability mattered above all else.

Much of this can be attributed to Bush’s leadership style. But Engel offers an important twist from half a world away that, up to now, has been underappreciated. He shows how the June 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square had a major influence on how Bush reacted to events in Europe, fueling worries about what may happen when similar regimes confronted protesters. Bush thought he understood China—having led the diplomatic mission in Beijing in the 1970s, he had close relationships with many of its key leaders, especially Deng Xiaoping—and believed that China was on the right track. This is an example of when Bush’s reliance on personal relations did not work out so well.

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.

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