The Last Foreign-Policy President
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.
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.