Caution Killed George H.W. Bush’s Presidency

BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT

When George H.W. Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan as president of the United States in 1988, many believed that the American Right was unstoppable. Reagan had positioned the United States well: the economy was fully recovered from the doldrums of the 1970s; the Cold War was ending; and culturally, the conservative movement had become a dominant force again (after having been on the outs since the 1968 cultural revolution).

Yet, for the minority of Americans on the Right (and certainly the majority of those on the Left), George H.W. Bush’s ascendance to the Oval Office was the realization of a nightmare many had been resisting since the 1970s, when George H.W. Bush first seriously ran for president (against Ronald Reagan in the highly contentious 1980 presidential election).

Today, many look back fondly on George H.W. Bush’s single term in office. Many–even modern Leftists–acknowledge that the 41st president had a keen grasp on foreign policy. And, President Bush, Sr. certainly did surround himself by an impressive array of foreign policy thinkers (individuals such as Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell, James Baker, and Dick Cheney come to mind).

This is especially true when compared against how George H.W. Bush’s son, America’s 43rd president, fared when he was in office from January 2001 until January 2009.

George H.W. Bush himself was certainly a bright man with much experience–and success–that made him very attractive as a presidential candidate. Indeed, these qualities made George H.W. Bush an excellent Director of Central Intelligence during the Ford Administration, as well as a wonderful ambassador to China.

They certainly made him a fantastic success in business. But, as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has proven in his two presidential runs, the qualities that make an individual highly successful in Corporate America do not always translate well into the highest elected offices of the federal government.

Fact is, from beginning-to-end, George H.W. Bush’s presidency was defined by missed opportunities, half-fulfilled expectations, and a listlessness from the president himself that beguiles (or should) even the most ardent supporters of the 41st president.

Many acknowledge that it was Bush’s domestic policies–specifically his mishandling of the recession that befell the country following the successful management of the Gulf War in 1991–that ultimately took down Bush.

To be sure, Bush’s handling of the economy was nowhere near as committed as was his management of foreign policy. Yet, even in the area where George H.W. Bush was supposedly very strong–foreign policy–I believe he was lacking.

What About That “Vision-Thing”?

George H.W. Bush was famous for having quipped that he lacked that whole “vision-thing” that so many American presidents possessed, regardless of party. For Bush, as opposed to his immediate predecessor (and as opposed to even his own son, George W. Bush), there was no need for a consistent, overarching worldview on governance. Bush’s only ideology was an overabundance of caution.

Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister, had been so concerned about Bush’s cautious personality that she warned him not “to go wobbly” on her in the run-up to Desert Storm.

It is absolutely true that leaders should possess a degree of caution–especially on matters of war and peace. Yet, Bush’s caution was paralyzing. Like a great CEO, Bush was steadfastly committed to maintaining stability more than he was interested in pushing the proverbial boundaries in pursuit of a grand strategy.

Pursuing stability–like caution–is a worthy quality in a leader. But, just like an overabundance of caution is dangerous, becoming mired in a ceaseless quest for stability–for stability’s sake–in an endlessly dynamic situation (such as the one that the world found itself in during the collapse of the Soviet Union) is, in fact, a mindless pursuit.

George H.W. Bush, like most politicians, was an excellent tactician. He understood the details of a given matter, and he could intellectualize the policy. However, being detail-oriented; having an overabundance of caution; and lacking any coherent worldview (other than “stability”) lends itself to chaos not clarity. Like President Donald Trump today, George H.W. Bush did not need a doctrinal approach to the world.

However, he needed to better understand what the lack of having a general vision would do for his presidency and the world. Far from being the grand strategist that his supporters (and even some Leftists, who loathe the current American president) believe, George H.W. Bush simply could not get out of his own way–and the world suffered for it.

Desert Drizzle

Take, for example, the way that George H.W. Bush went about his opposition to Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait. Initially, Saddam Hussein had properly been incensed that the Kuwaitis were slant-drilling. This is a process whereby one drills for oil in one location, but purposely sucks up the oil from an adjacent location.

Following their eight-year-long war with Iran, Iraq was broke. Saddam Hussein rightly saw the oil of Iraq as his greatest hope for rehabilitating the country’s ailing economy. Yet, his attempts to extract more oil for sale on the global market were complicated by the Kuwaitis illegal actions.

After diplomacy to resolve the issue with Kuwait failed, Saddam went to the American embassy to inquire how Washington would view an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. In an infamous meeting with the American ambassador, April Glaspie, the Americans indicated that they would, in fact, support Saddam Hussein’s territorial ambitions.

Writing in 1992 on the matter, Angelo Codevilla recounts:

“The consensus in the administration was that he wanted nothing that was incompatible with U.S. interests. On July 24, 1990, Baker cabled instructions to Glaspie for her dealings with the Iraqi government. The next day she met with Saddam and followed her script: the U.S. sought good relations with Saddam; the President would not be unhappy to see the price of oil rise to $25 a barrel; the U.S. had no opinion on the substance of conflicts between Arab states, and specifically on Saddam’s quarrel with Kuwait.”

Then, other representatives from the Bush Administration made public comments indicating that the president was nominally supportive of Saddam Hussein’s annexation of neighboring Kuwait. In fact, then-Assistant Secretary of State John Kelly is recorded as having testified to the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) that, “the U.S. had no obligation to intervene on behalf of any country in the Persian Gulf.”

Further, as Codevilla reminded his readers in 1992, Ambassador Glaspie is recorded as having remarked that, “being surprised that Saddam had taken all of Kuwait. She and the administration had expected him to take only a part, and had not been particularly concerned.”

It was only after then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher performed her “backbone transplant” on Bush-41 that he came around to the concept that Saddam was Hitler incarnate (mustache and all). According to Thatcher, Kuwait was the equivalent to the Rhineland in 1939, and the Baathist tanks rolling into the country were the Panzers rolling across the Rhineland and onward for the rest of the Europe.

Yet, unlike the World War II comparison, Kuwait was not some peaceful European state. In fact, Kuwait was–and has been–run by a vicious autocracy that was fully engaged in illicit practices against their larger, more powerful Iraqi neighbor.

While Saddam should not have invaded (thereby disrespecting international law), this was not some unprovoked incident (whereas the Nazi annexations of Europe were in contravention of agreements they had signed with the victorious allies at the end of the First World War–namely that Germany would not rearm, let alone seek annexations of its dispossessed territories).

And, herein lies the fatal flaw of possessing the highly unwanted double features of an overabundance of caution and lack of strategic vision: George H.W. Bush got pushed around. A lot. By his own allies!

The greater question, then, should be what the Hell was Thatcher seeing in Saddam?

According to The Guardian:

“First, [Thatcher said to President Bush], Britain and the US were not in the business of appeasing dictators – an obvious reference to her successful stand against Argentina’s junta in the Falklands crisis, as well as Winston Churchill’s defiance of Hitler. Second, she warned that if Saddam were not stopped, Saudi Arabia and most of the west’s oil reserves in the Gulf could soon be under his control.”

You see, the British, Europeans, and the Asian states are all disproportionately reliant on oil flowing from the Middle East. Any disruption in the oil flow–and any potential disruption–are looked upon negatively.

For these countries, then, it is essential for them to not only protect existing oil flows, but to work assiduously to open new sources in the region (which is why the Europeans so readily embraced former President Barack Obama’s ill-advised executive agreement with Iran over their illicit nuclear weapons program in 2015).

It was Saddam’s purported (non) threat to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that most concerned Thatcher and her allies. For America’s part, a majority of its oil is imported from neighboring Canada, Mexico, and other Latin American states.

Further, the Iron Lady saw Desert Storm as a chance to reaffirm her close ties with the United States (to her credit, Thatcher was not only the last British Prime Minister under which the United Kingdom truly “punched above its weight” in world affairs, but also when the British leadership fully respected the “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom).

More importantly, according to recently declassified documents from the Thatcher era, the British government agitated heavily for Desert Storm because it represented an “unparalleled opportunity” to sell arms the Gulf States (which were believed to have been ostensibly threatened by Iraqi revanchism).

The Guardian further reports:

“The documents include confidential briefings from Alan Clark, then defence procurement minister, to the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, as he toured Gulf states on the eve of the war. The government’s efforts reaped dividends. The war provided a significant fillip for arms sales to the region and helped nurture a strong relationship that continues to this day.”

You can take the empire out of the British Empire, but you can’t take the empire out of the British, I suppose. That’s not always bad, by the way. But, it is important to keep in mind Thatcher’s interests in Iraq in 1991 were not necessarily aligned with Bush’s.

Had Bush had a proper understanding of the geopolitical realities (as his supporters insist he did), he would have seen the complications that supporting Thatcher’s militant fantasies would have caused for American foreign policy in the region.

Keep in mind, also, that Bush’s close friend and secretary of state, James Baker, was the leading “dove” at the time. Baker was viscerally opposed to the war-footing that his boss was putting the country on.

While he didn’t approve of Saddam’s irredentism in Kuwait (neither do I, by the way), Baker wanted to use a containment approach to Saddam’s growing regional power. He wanted to establish a sort of NATO for the Mideast aimed at stunting any further Iraqi aggression.

Naturally, what worked for Europe in the Cold War was unlikely to have worked in the Arab world, for various reasons. Ultimately, I disagree with Baker’s assessment. The goal should not have been “defense” against Saddam.

If, as Bush and Thatcher clearly came to believe, Iraq was a clear-and-present danger, then the world should have gone to war. But, as Angelo Codevilla has argued for more than two decades, the United States should have recognized the problem: Saddam Hussein’s rule itself.

This is especially true, given the nature of the Baathist regime in Baghdad. Once Saddam believed Ambassador Glaspie (speaking on behalf of George H.W. Bush) had given Iraq the green light to invade Kuwait, he giddily whipped his country into a war fever, cited Iraq’s historical claim on Kuwait (the so-called “nineteenth province” of Iraq), and annexed the tiny country.

Within a year, however, the American-led coalition would liberate Kuwait and crush the bulk of the Iraqi Army–leaving the country itself in tatters and Saddam totally isolated. The Bush Administration, naturally, claimed victory.

Yet, Angelo Codevilla argues differently in the Claremont Review of Books:

“Calling [Desert Storm] a success, as [Eliot] Cohen did in a 1992 debate with me in the pages of Commentary magazine, ignores the reality that waging war on Saddam Hussein had made an enemy where there hadn’t been one, and, above all that, doing so inconclusively. Far from firming up any order, it had destroyed respect for America while energizing jihad. The Gulf War succeeded in carrying out U.S. government policy all right. But it was dumb. The idiocy of its authors—George H.W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Colin Powell—became less deniable as the years rolled by and the complications snowballed.”

Codevilla is correct.

And, as former Reagan Administration Ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, rightly worried in her posthumous 2007 book, Making War to Keep Peace, it was with George H.W. Bush that the fundamental concept of respecting the national sovereignty of all states was initially violated.

This set a dangerous precedent going forward, when the United States was increasingly pulled into intractable, winless ethno-religious tribal conflicts within other countries based on “humanitarian” grounds.

What the Heck Was That About?

Rather than being the harbinger of a new world order, predicated on the “rule of law” as opposed to the “law of the jungle,” as former President Bush surmised in 1991, the Iraq War was ignoble end of the American “unipolar moment.”

Sure, American power would go on from Desert Storm (from 1991-2007) as the unchallenged world hegemon (a position that I personally enjoy, but that is utterly untenable when the hegemon wastes its time, blood, treasure, and prestige on unwinnable tribal conflicts, such as the United States did).

Although, America’s actions in Desert Storm would convulse would-be rivals, such as China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea into taking a more strenuous footing against the United States, for fear of American military power. In the case of China, there exists a straight line from Desert Storm to the current revolution in military affairs, coupled with their quest to dominate the Asia-Pacific. We showed our hand to the world and we encouraged fear to consume rivals to such a degree that they were committed to long-term strategies of overcoming America’s military might.

What’s more, our overwhelming display of firepower in Desert Storm further induced Europe and our other allies into complacency. In other words, no matter what happened, they assumed we had the ability and means to rout any potential threat to ether them or us.

And, as Codevilla has postulated over the years, the conflict was inconclusive. Yes, George H.W. Bush gets credit for tethering America’s ends to its ways and means in Desert Storm. He should get due credit. But, Codevilla correctly points out that George H.W. Bush turned a semi-partner into an intractable foe.

Point in fact, everyone believes that the liberation of Kuwait ended Desert Storm. It did not. As I argued at American Greatness last year (on the fourteenth anniversary of the Iraq War), rather than Desert Storm and the 2003 invasion of Iraq being two separate conflicts involving Saddam Hussein, they were merely the bookends of a “war in three acts” that lasted nearly 20 years!

Remember, the United States (along with the British) maintained a No-Fly Zone over northern Iraq (with the British maintaining a southern No-Fly Zone), effectively partitioning the country, protecting the Kurdish and Shiite diasporas that existed in the northern and southern regions of Sunni-dominated Iraq under Saddam.

Even after Desert Storm ended and George H.W. Bush lost the presidency to the plucky upstart former governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, the United States intensified its militarized position in Iraq.

To start, Saddam Hussein–the once-proud, secular, Arab nationalist and socialist–had taken to writing the Qur’an in his own blood. It was during this time, also, that Saddam had attempted to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush (just to prove how kooky he became). And, it was during this time that Saddam also doubled-down on his funding of the families of Palestinian suicide bombers.

Meanwhile, the Clinton Administration piled on with onerous sanctions. But, rather than strangle the Baathist regime as intended, the sanctions merely deprived the Iraqi people of the basic needs for survival. During the 1990s, as Iraq was starved–and the Baathists solidified their grip on power–any real opposition group to Saddam Hussein’s rule were either cleaved away, thanks to the No-Fly Zones, or were weakened by the sanctions.

Ultimately, these moves set the stage for a disastrous line of policy which would lead to the equally disastrous Iraq War of 2003 that toppled Saddam’s regime, and mired the United States in an unwinnable war (leading to the destabilization of the region, the rise of ISIS, and the breakout of Iran from its proverbial containment).

The intractable position on Iraq that the United States took set the stage for the corrupt Oil-For-Food Program at the United Nations. It also highlighted differences between the United States and its European allies–namely the French and Germans, but also its other partners, like Russia–because many of these European states did important business with Saddam’s regime.

These fissures between the United States and some of its most important allies would become exacerbated by the Iraq War of 2003 and help to form the transatlantic divide that we are still reeling from today–and may never fully recover from, given current events (the migration crisis deeply impacting Western Europe and the rise of Russia).

All of this could have been avoided, had George H.W. Bush actually been the brilliant foreign policy president–had he possessed that whole “vision thing”–that his supporters insist that he had.

Where was this vision in 1991?

How did Bush, Sr. not know that Saddam was planning to annex Kuwait (especially when Saddam slunk into America’s embassy and shared his desires for Kuwait)?

Would it have been so bad if Saddam had taken Kuwait?

Naturally, certain “experts” insist that Saddam had to be stopped. His commitment to Pan-Arabism–and his obsession with Stalin–made him an inherently dangerous fellow. To be sure, Saddam was one of the most evil men in modern history. And, yes, he was known to fund the families of Palestinian terrorists who donned suicide vests, and killed innocent Israelis.

But, was he a threat to the United States?

I don’t think so. His desire to come to Ambassador Glaspie before committing his annexation of Kuwait indicates that he wished to continue (at least, at that point) operating in Washington’s good graces–as he had done since the Reagan Administration.

What’s more, the entire American position on Saddam’s annexation of Kuwait was predicated on a rather mercantilistic view of oil. After all, the only real reason that anyone outside of Kuwait was seriously concerned with Saddam’s illegal actions was because he threatened to upend the flow of oil out of the region.

Well, that was the assumption, at least.

But, would Saddam have truly gone beyond Kuwait? Could he have achieved such a feat, given his logistical and financial limitations at that time? Surely, he would have had to wait some period of time before moving on from his annexation of Kuwait.

Based on his Baathist ideology and his personality, it does seems likely that Saddam would have eventually embraced larger delusions of grandeur. If you give a mouse a cookie, he will want a glass of milk inevitably.

Also, we know that he tried to move his forces into Saudi Arabia from southern Kuwait in during the Battle of Khafji. American forces repulsed his attempts. Yet, that was in retaliation for the American-led coalition attack against Iraqi forces in Kuwait. There is little evidence suggesting that Saddam intended to strike into Saudi Arabia at any time before the start of war in 1991.

Evoking Codevilla again in 1992:

“There is no evidence of any kind that Saddam intended an attack on Saudi Arabia immediately, or ever. The Saudis did not initiate the request for U.S. troops. The Bush administration persuaded the Saudis to ask. The Saudis were much impressed by the [satellite] pictures of Iraqi armored divisions in Kuwait. Those armored divisions had the capacity to invade Saudi Arabia. While Saudi foreign policy was quite capable of living with this situation, King Fahd, reasonably, preferred not to. He reasonably (but mistakenly) concluded that if the United States was willing to bring a quarter of a million men halfway around the globe, it would be for the purpose of getting rid of Saddam. It seems that neither the King nor the U.S. government made an effort to clarify what the troops were to do. (Between the summers of 1990 and 1992 the Saudis seem to have switched views on the desirability of overthrowing Saddam at least three times.)”

Although, even if Saddam had managed to conquer Saudi Arabia (that’s a big if–especially in what was then the short term), we must inquire as to whether that would have been a total foreign policy disaster for the United States?

If the goal was to ensure the free flow of oil, and if Saddam had remained in America’s orbit, would it have mattered if Saddam rather than the House of Saud controlled the oil out of Saudi Arabia (as well as Kuwait and Iraq)?

Likely not.

It’s important to note that it is highly unlikely Saddam would have been able to seriously threaten–let alone annex–Saudi Arabia any time soon after his annexation of Kuwait. He was still recovering from the Iran-Iraq War, and he still needed to recoup his economic losses from that war by getting the Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil production back online. Conquering Kuwait was but the beginning of restoring Iraqi economic power.

And, if George H.W. Bush–who did manage the cobble together an amazing coalition to fight Saddam–was so threatened by the “destabilization” of the Middle East from Saddam’s illegal actions, why did he not play for keeps? Especially considering that, as noted above, the United States effectively eviscerated Iraq in the intervening decade between the end of Desert Storm and the start of Operation Iraq Freedom in 2003?

This was precisely what my colleague, Angelo Codevilla, had argued in 1992. Somehow, the supposed strategic mastermind, George H.W. Bush, couldn’t make up his mind whether Saddam Hussein was “not a threat” (as he and his advisers forcefully argued all of the way up until the day before the Iraqi annexation of Kuwait), or Saddam was Hitler 2.0.

And, when the Americans did finally enter into the fight, they played small-ball. Sure, given our recent experience trying to occupy and rebuild a post-Saddam Iraq, it is likely that the United States would have faced true hardship had Bush ordered his generals to push up to Baghdad.

However, unlike in 2003, the Iraq of 1991 was a fundamentally different place. The people there had not been totally beaten down and broken by a decade of international sanctions, increased authoritarianism from Baghdad, and the unseemly betrayal of the United States (to sign an armistice with Saddam, George H.W. Bush had inexplicably abandoned the uprising Kurds and Shiites at the moment they had heeded his call to throw off the shackles of Saddam’s rule).

Any American occupation of Iraq in 1991 would have likely seen the rapid flowering of a truly stable Iraq, since those Iraqis who could have taken the lead in rebuilding their state would have been invigorated to do so. By the time the United States entered in Iraq, it was more akin to present-day North Korea than it was to post-Mussolini Italy.

Alas, we did the worst possible things: we invaded, reinstalled an autocratic and unpopular Kuwaiti royal family, pissed off the jihadist lunatics by maintaining American troops in the Arabian Peninsula (a key tenet of Bin Laden’s fatwa against the United States), and kept an increasingly desperate, belligerent, and, frankly, insane Saddam Hussein in power for a decade.

Some strategist.

Rolling Russia

Writing in his thrilling history of the breakup of the Soviet Union and the rise of Cold War 2.0 today, Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War, Peter Conradi assesses:

“[George H.W. Bush], the pragmatist, had not proposed any grand re-evaluation of the United States’ relations with [post-Soviet] Russia and the other former Soviet republics. His priorities had instead been preventing the proliferation of the Soviet Union’s vast nuclear arsenal and encouraging economic reform.”

In fact, Conradi is highly critical of George H.W. Bush’s handling of the end of the Cold War. Unlike his predecessor, who made bold moves in pursuit of a grand strategy of ending the Cold War–or even unlike his successor, the naïve idealist, Bill Clinton–George H.W. Bush played more small-ball.

The historic moment to turn an enemy into a friend was slipping away from Bush almost from the start. This was something that fellow realist, former President Richard Nixon complained about in a famous New York Times editorial.

At aged 79, Nixon complained that, “The stakes are high, and we are playing as if it were a penny game. [The Bush program for Russia] is a pathetically inaccurate response in light of the opportunities and dangers we face in the crisis in the former Soviet Union.”

Comprehending Bush’s paralyzing overabundance of caution and his inability to implement a meaningful “vision thing” of any kind, Nixon further stated:

“What seems politically profitable in the short term may prove costly in the long term. The hot-button issue in the 1950s was, ‘Who Lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s.”

The context of Nixon’s statements were in reference to the calls from the Russian leadership for reliable economic assistance, akin to what the United States provided for Europe when the Truman Administration enacted the Marshall Plan.

At the G7 conference in London in 1991 (the year before Nixon wrote his famous op-ed), as the Cold War was ending, then-Premier Mikhail Gorbachev made a desperate pitch for Western financial aid, on the order of $30-$50 billion a year for at least five years (from 1991-96).

As Conradi reveals:

“[Gorbachev’s] request was turned down on the grounds that his economic reform plans were so vague the money would certainly be wasted. The Soviet leader was told to go away and come up with better proposals–before he could so, Gorbachev was out of a job.” 

When Boris Yeltsin became leader of the post-Soviet Russian Federation, he appointed the young economist (and major liberalizer), Yegor Gaidar, to head the economic reforms in Russia that would turn the country from a centrally-planned economy to a free market one.

With Gaidar came a slew of Western-trained economists–including some Americans, like Harvard economist, Jeffrey Sachs. Advising the team from his perch at the World Bank, Lawrence H. Summers (who would go on to be President Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary, as well as the head of President Barack Obama’s National Economic Council).

Gaidar, Sachs, and Summers were convinced that they could right the Russian economy. But, moving such a large country with such a long history of centrally-planned economics under its proverbial belt would require time. It would also create some temporary heartache.

Thus, the economic team convinced Yeltsin to pick up the calls from his much-maligned predecessor, and request greater Western financial aid. If the West did not step up with a new form of Marshall Plan for Russia, then the hardliners and anti-democrats would stunt the Russian experiment with democracy.

Conradi explains:

“Experts such as Sachs […] and Lawrence H. Summers, chief economist of the World Bank, argued that Western governments should be ready to fund an IMF-approved programme [sic] to help the country survive its financial crisis and ‘privatise, marketise, and monetise,’ its economy […] Sachs put the amount required for the entire former Soviet Union at $30 billion a year for several years. It was a considerable sum when the American economy was also in the doldrums, but still a fraction of the hundreds of billions of dollars a year that Washington and its NATO allies had been spending on the military to combat the Soviet threat. The aim of such monetary assistance was to ease the squeeze on living standards and help establish foreign confidence, buying time for Gaidar and his beleaguered team to carry out their reforms.”

Another American economist, Marshall Goldman, however, was extremely skeptical. He believed that one could not hand over that kind of money to a Russia that had no serious legal system; no commercial code; and no form of property rights. Goldman was convinced that the money Gaidar and his team requested from the United States would be wasted without the legal framework established to allow for a free market to function properly.

Clearly, George H.W. Bush concurred with Goldman’s assessment. According to one report, then-Deputy Secretary of State, Lawrence Eagleburger, told Jeffrey Sachs in a meeting that, “You have to understand. Assume for the sake of argument that I agree with you. It doesn’t matter. Do you know what this year is? It’s an election year. There will be no large-scale financial support.”

As Conradi explains, that was when Nixon wrote his cutting op-ed (covering the story, Thomas Friedman titled his piece on the Nixon memo, “Nixon Scoffs at the Level of Support for Russian Democracy by Bush”). The intense 1992 presidential election cycle got worse for Bush, as his unlikely Democratic challenger, the upstart Bill Clinton, picked up Nixon’s op-ed and totally ran with it.

Bush, sensing danger, usurped Clinton’s position on the need for aid to Russia by announcing his own package–the very same day that Clinton gave a speech in New York on the matter. Bush had promised $24 billion in loans to Russia (from the combined G7 states) and an additional $18 billion in loans.

In classic Bush fashion, though, his “boldness” was couched with extreme caution. He slow-rolled the donations. Yeltsin continued pushing for greater economic reform. But, the reforms within Russia were uncoordinated with the assistance from the West. Chaos soon followed.

Thus, the critical moment in Russo-American relations–the moment in which we could have converted Russia from an intractable foe into a true friend–was lost. After the Yeltsin failure to properly turn Russia into a free market economy, the country slowly but surely spiraled down into an authoritarian abyss–which dominates the political system them today.

Beautiful Loser

They say that, “fortune favors the bold.” Given George H.W. Bush’s disastrous foreign policy choices, his caution and lack of vision–and therefore lack of boldness–explains why fortune went with the playboy, Bill Clinton, in 1992 over the “seasoned” leadership of George H.W. Bush.

It’s interesting to see how political myths form over time. It’s even more interesting to see how political opponents view each other, in light of the rise of other leaders they may think are worse than their old opponents.

During the George W. Bush years, many Leftists (and some on the Right) longed for the “stability” of the George H.W. Bush years (yet they kvetched about him when he was in office). Today, during the Trump Administration, these forces now pine for the George W. Bush era.

Despite the political myths put forward by his supporters and rivals, George H.W. Bush was one of the most disastrous presidents of the modern era. This is especially true in foreign policy–the one area where many agree was his strength as president.

His decisions (or lack thereof) are directly responsible for establishing two of our biggest geopolitical problems today: the collapse of the nominally pro-American regional order in the Mideast and the return of Russia as a threat to the United States.

Yes, his son was a disaster as president a decade later. But, we would not have had George W. Bush had we not had George H.W. Bush (and his failure to win a second term).

And, he failed to win a second term not because he was up against a truly great political foe. But, because George H.W. Bush was more concerned with playing petty politics based on short-term assumptions, rather than acting boldly and taking the licks for his decisions. Even his actions in Desert Storm were indecisive, which created many more problems for the United States in the long-run than there otherwise would have been.

This is why George H.W. Bush’s presidency was an unmitigated failure (to say nothing of his domestic failures).

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