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George H. W. Bush's Outsized Legacy

George H. W. Bush's Outsized Legacy

The American people made him a one-term president, but his legacy lives on.

While many foreign policy realists questioned such an action, the influential commentator Andrew Bacevich expounded a broader concept when he called the invasion “a classic assertion of a great power’s prerogative to policy its sphere of influence.” In that sense, the invasion comported with similar actions throughout the Caribbean by just about every president from McKinley to Reagan.

Finally, there’s Bush’s promise to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, delivered through his secretary of state, James A. Baker III, that if the Soviets would accept the reunification of Germany and its inclusion into NATO, the Western powers would forswear any intent to push NATO closer to the Russian border. This was memorialized in numerous memos recounting encounters between various Western figures and Soviet leaders. On February 9, 1990, Baker thrice invoked his now-famous “not one inch” assurance.

Had America and the European powers adhered to that promise, the history of U.S.-Russian relations since the Soviet collapse would have been much different from what we have seen over the past three decades. Instead, embracing the hegemonic liberalism that emanates from humanitarian intervention, the West pushed eastward as part of a broader strategy, as Chicago’s John Mearsheimer puts it, “to move all of Eastern Europe, including Ukraine, out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West.”

This has been hugely incendiary and continues to be. That America and Russia find themselves at the threshold of a new Cold War can be attributed most directly to this unnecessarily provocative policy. Had America and Europe adhered to the thinking and the measured approach of George H. W. Bush, the world would be a safer place today.

The first President Bush was a gentleman of the old school—patriotic in the most pristine sense, dedicated to public service and civic virtue, modest in outlook and demeanor, a man of bonhomie and good cheer. He earned his nation’s call to the White House. He did some good things and made some mistakes. But he was not a particularly successful president. He lost the support of his constituency, without which you can’t govern. The voters, after all, do the hiring and the firing.

Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington journalist and publishing executive, is the author most recently of President McKinley: Architect of the American Century, just out in paperback from Simon & Schuster.

Image: Vice President George H.W. Bush gives his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans, Louisiana in this August 18, 1988 handout photo obtained by Reuters November 30, 2012. George Bush Presidential Library and Museum/Handout via REUTERS​.