America’s last ‘foreign policy president’ laid to rest
George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States, died November 30 at age 94. His one-term presidency — he was elected in 1988 but defeated for re-election by Bill Clinton in 1992 — covered one of the most consequential 4-year periods in US foreign policy history.
With the able assistance of Secretary of State James Baker, Bush presided over the fall of a global empire, the Soviet Union, without major violence (a rare historical occurrence); the reunification of Germany (after Bush tempered opposition from France, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union; a remarkable UN-backed coalition to expel Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait; and an Arab-Israeli peace conference in Madrid that set the stage for the Oslo Accords.
Douglas Brinkley, a prominent US presidential historian, said on CBS News: “George Herbert Walker Bush was the finest foreign policy president the United States had after Harry Truman and I don’t say that lightly.”
Bush’s defeat in 1992 ushered in a new generation of US leadership. Bush was the last US president to have served in World War II and, significantly, the last president to boast any real foreign policy experience. He served in the US Congress, as CIA director, as US ambassador to the United Nations, chief US diplomat in China (before the United States had an official ambassador in Beijing) and, for eight years, as vice-president under President Ronald Reagan.
Since Clinton’s victory over Bush, the only foreign policy experience any subsequent US president could claim was Barack Obama’s brief tenure on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as a first-term senator from Illinois.
Despite Bush’s foreign policy successes, which were widely admired by the US public, he lost election to Clinton, a charismatic young former governor of Arkansas whose campaign centred on, as a sign posted in his campaign headquarters stated, “It’s the economy, stupid.” The United States had slipped into a mild economic recession during the last year of Bush’s presidency.
Every presidential election campaign since 1992 has focused primarily on domestic issues and US foreign policy has gone from one that could be described as “strategic” under Bush to one best described as “bumbling” (at times, the terms “incoherent” and “self-defeating” come to mind).
In the Middle East, Bush will be most remembered for the coalition he and Baker put together to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in a lightning-quick war, although most of the fighting was done by US troops. Even the Soviet Union and Syria joined in backing the UN resolution that Bush insisted on securing before the war began.
An internationalist, Bush did not want to proceed without the stamp of global approval. After the United Nations backed him, Bush said: “We’re now in sight of a United Nations that performs as envisioned by its founders.”
Bush was later criticised for not taking the war all the way to Baghdad and ousting Saddam from power, something US troops easily could have accomplished. However, he knew that his UN mandate was limited to liberating Kuwait and — unlike his son, George W. Bush, in 2003 — he knew that overthrowing Saddam would destabilise Iraq.
Following the war, Bush used his new leverage over Arab Gulf states and the United States’ standing as the world’s dominant power to bring together Arab nations and Israel in Madrid to discuss a comprehensive peace. The Palestinians were represented as part of the Jordanian delegation. Like most such public, multilateral gatherings, little was accomplished other than the simple and not insignificant fact of having all the actors in the same room.
The fact that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir had to be dragged to Madrid reluctantly offered a stark sign that Israel’s right-wing government was not serious about peace with the Arabs. Moreover, Bush and Shamir had a nasty fight over whether the United States would offer loan guarantees to help settle Soviet Jews in Israel. Bush refused to allow such guarantees to be used for settlement in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, the first strategic rift between Israel and the United States in decades.
The pro-Israel lobby in Washington carried out a blazing attack on Bush, including spreading unfounded rumours that he was anti-Semitic. The Israeli public, however, fearful that Shamir was damaging Israel’s close ties to Washington, voted the Likud leader out of office in 1992 in favour of Yitzhak Rabin, who gave a green light to the diplomatic process that culminated in his White House handshake with PLO leader Yasser Arafat.
Bush was born into a prominent New England family. His father served as a US senator from Connecticut, his son George W. Bush served two terms as president but left office as one of the least popular presidents in history. Another son, Jeb, served two terms as governor of Florida before being trounced and verbally humiliated by Donald Trump in the 2016 Republican Party presidential primaries.