Why we’ll miss George H.W. Bush, America’s last foreign policy president

There are many reasons to miss George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States. A World War II hero, he later served his country with great distinction in a number of important positions before becoming vice president and then president.

The outpouring of warm feelings first for his wife, Barbara Bush, who passed away earlier this year, and now for him, reflects not only the role President and Mrs. Bush played in American history but also the decency they represented in a political system that now has become full of indecency.

Strikingly, George H.W. Bush was also the last person elected president of the United States with any prior foreign policy experience.

George HW Bush as a senate candidate in 1964. AP Photo/Ed Kolenovsky
He entered office with one of the most impressive resumes of any president, having served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, ambassador to the United Nations and Ronald Reagan’s vice president.

He left office with an impressive list of achievements, including the unification of Germany within NATO. As historian Jeffrey Engel has reminded us in his excellent recent book, “When the World Seemed New,” this was far from assured. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President Francois Mitterand were deeply opposed to Germany’s unification, while Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev opposed not only unification but the incorporation of the former East Germany into NATO. Germany’s leadership in Europe as a force for democracy and human rights since those years has clearly vindicated President Bush’s instincts to support West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in his efforts in 1990.

A major high point of the George H.W. Bush presidency, however, was also the harbinger of disappointments to come: the swift military victory that reversed Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and seemed to herald a new era in world affairs – but left Saddam Hussein in power.

In 1991, it seemed America could do anything it wanted to in the world – politically, diplomatically and militarily. But no one could have imagined 27 years ago the role that Iraq would come to play in American foreign policy in the ensuing years and the loss of American lives, money, standing and self-confidence that resulted from U.S. involvement in that country.

A New World Order?

Bush with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev at Camp David on June 2, 1990. AP Photo/Marcy Nighswander
A month after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, in September 1990, Bush and Gorbachev issued a joint statement noting that “no peaceful international order is possible if larger states can devour their smaller neighbors.” That same month, Bush declared, “We’re now in sight of a United Nations that performs as envisioned by its founders.”

The problem was that while the United Nations was set up to prevent powerful states from invading weaker neighbors, as Germany and Japan had done in the 1930s and 1940s, the main challenges of the post-Cold War world – prior to Russia invading Ukraine in 2014 – were different. They were mainly internal challenges: failed states and civil wars in places like Somalia, Rwanda, the Balkans, Afghanistan and eventually Iraq after the disastrous U.S. occupation following the 2003 war.

The U.S. effort to put together an international coalition against Iraq in 1990 was stunning. Secretary of State James Baker met with every head of state or foreign minister whose country held a seat on the U.N. Security Council. That meant not just meeting with those countries that had permanent seats like the Soviet Union and China, but also those holding rotating seats such as Ivory Coast, Romania and even Cuba.

Baker’s efforts were successful. The Security Council passed U.N. resolution 678 on Nov. 29, 1990 and established Jan. 15, 1991 as the deadline for Iraq to withdraw its troops from Kuwait or face a U.S.-led international coalition to force its withdrawal.