Former President George H.W. Bush has died. The rest of us are tasked with assessing his legacy.
A few pundits in the past few days have called Bush our “last foreign policy president,” a reference to his extensive international experience before taking the White House, something the four presidents since have all lacked. Bush was no peacenik, but he may be the closest we have had in the past 38 years. Bush, a World War II veteran, oversaw a more restrained foreign agenda than his immediate predecessor or any of his successors so far.
To be sure, Bush’s record on war on peace is sprinkled with blunders. As vice president, he reportedly was aware of the illegal arms sales that became known as the Iran-Contra affair, and he later pardoned those most responsible. As president, his fixation on the drug war led him into a brief but ugly invasion of Panama that left innocent people dead and made way for later U.S. interventions in Central and South America.
It is the 1990 Gulf War that Bush is most remembered for. It was criticized by some as too overbearing and others as ineffective, but to Bush’s credit, he recruited a diverse international coalition for the job, and strictly limited its scope. That provides a sharp contrast to the perpetual, objectiveless military missions presidents since then have led.
The jewel of Bush’s foreign policy is a financial, rather than a military. Bush reached a budget reduction deal with the Democrat-controlled Congress in 1990 that called for containing and reducing military spending. Bush could have reaped political gain from his conservative skeptics if he instead protected the defense budget, but he opted for the fiscally prudent course following the out-of-control military budgets of the Cold War era.
Two decades after he left that White House, Bush offered some of his most interesting comments about American foreign policy. In the 2015 biography “Destiny and Power,” journalist Jon Meacham details the unflattering views Bush had of his son’s key presidential advisers.
Bush bashed former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the driving advocates behind the bloody and expensive Iraq War. In the book, Bush said Rumsfeld was “arrogant” and “served the president badly.” Cheney, he said, was someone who wanted to “use force to get our way in the Middle East.”
Bush made clear the buck stops at the president’s desk. “It’s not Cheney’s fault. It’s the president’s fault,” he said.
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The “Bush doctrine” will go down in history describing the younger Bush’s foreign policy. Despite all the elder president’s expertise on international affairs, analysts never pinned a single, all-encompassing thesis to Bush’s view of the United States’ proper role on the world stage.
Bush dismissively referred to “the vision thing” in a Time magazine interview months before he launched his 1988 presidential campaign. He apparently was frustrated at critics who complained he couldn’t articulate his fundamental governing values.
Yet in absence of such a driving ideology, Bush made decisions based on facts instead. That’s a legacy worth remembering.
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