President George H. W. Bush has passed away. He died yesterday at the age of 94 and will best be remembered for his foreign policy achievements along with the overwhelming kindness he showed to others in retirement on both sides of the political aisle. His single term in office occurred during what could have been a very turbulent time in international affairs if it were not for his steady leadership and diplomatic skill. Some historians label him as the most successful single-term president in American history.
Even though it has been 30 years, Bush was the last U.S. president to come to office fully experienced and competent in questions of national security and international relations. His experience had its roots in World War II as a naval aviator who once was shot down over the Pacific. He ran for and was elected to Congress in 1967, from which he was named by Nixon to be ambassador to the United Nations four years later. President Ford picked him as the Chief of the U.S. Liaison Office to the People’s Republic of China (the equivalent of ambassador at the time) at the critical time when China was beginning a new relationship with America after years of isolation. Ford would next put Bush in charge of the C.I.A. in 1976. With the nomination of Ronald Reagan as Republican candidate for president, Bush found himself as his running mate and subsequently became Vice President of the United States where he remained for the next eight years during the “Reagan Revolution.” By the time Bush successfully ran for president himself on Reagan’s coattails in 1988, his experience in foreign affairs was extensive and would serve him and the world in a way that history can be thankful for.
George H. W. Bush is remembered mainly for two military operations—the invasion of Panama to arrest the corrupt dictator and drug trafficker, Manuel Noriega, and the first Gulf War. The latter would become a textbook example of coalition building diplomacy and the limited and effective use of military force after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. The overwhelming success of the operation was notable for restoring America’s military confidence after its years of self-doubt from the Vietnam War.
Bush’s diplomatic skills and experience would be put fully to the test in 1989 after the brutal crackdown by the Chinese military on protesters in Tienanmen Square. In an environment of great international and domestic outrage, Bush, with great care, walked a fine line between condemning China for its actions and improving U.S./Sino relations. Bush was able to impose limited punitive sanctions while keeping China’s trust at a time when leaders of a lesser caliber could have caused serious and even permanent damage to a relationship of vital importance.
Starting at the end of 1991 with the sudden fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union which ended the Cold War, Bush again showed great diplomatic nuance, dexterity, and acumen. When it would have been easy to openly celebrate a great victory, Bush publicly remained humble, calm, and unemotional so not to appear to gloat over the defeat of an enemy after a long struggle. That response would be critical in gaining trust and piecing together the remnants of the Soviet Eastern European block while working with the Russians to begin the long process of rebuilding their country. His diplomatic acumen would also be key to reunifying Germany, a controversial issue at the time given Germany’s role in both world wars. The world that formed after the Cold War was largely shaped because of the vision and decisions made by George H. W. Bush. Historians will study Bush’s role in creating a post-Soviet world as they study the roles of leaders like Castlereagh, Talleyrand, and Metternich in creating a post-Napoleonic Europe.
Winning reelection was not in Bush’s fortune. His loss was due in large part because his domestic policies over the budget and raising taxes alienated his base. He was defeated by the young and charismatic Democratic governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton. It certainly was a painful defeat, and would have been a time to be bitter. But his magnanimity and respect for the office of the Presidency was on full display in a letter he left on the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office for his successor to read upon taking office. That letter read in part, “You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well… Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.” The letter to Clinton will go down as one the most moving acts between a defeated president and his successor in American history.
With the passing of George H. W. Bush yesterday, America and the world loses one of its great leaders. It is the profound fortune of the United States to have had a leader such as him at the time it did. May future leaders read and study the examples he set.