Saturday, December 1, 2018

RIP George H.W. Bush, the Last Patrician

George Herbert Walker Bush was the son of a Senator and grandson of a Federal Reserve Bank Governor, and he married a descendant of President Franklin Pierce. He was about as close to an aristocrat as an American could be. He had a fine war record and a great resume. Nonetheless his early attempts to get into politics never amounted to much, for reasons that he explained best in 1989; asked why he did not seem more excited about the fall of the Berlin Wall, he said, “I’m just not an emotional kind of guy.”

It was master politician Ronald Reagan, looking for some solid mainstream legitimacy, who lifted him to the heights of power. On his own he was not able to win re-election, the last president to fail to do so. He was scorned by the right for flip-flopping on taxes and on the left for flip-flopping on abortion, and loved by hardly anyone. He would have been a better Secretary of State, if he had served under a president willing to listen to him.

While in office Bush accomplished two remarkable things: he put together the coalition that ejected Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait with minimal fuss, and he smoothed the way for the unification of Germany. It is easy to forget what a storm of nervous protest greeted the prospect of a united Germany. The Prime Minster of Israel demanded that it be stopped, lest it lead to a new Holocaust. Margaret Thatcher traveled Europe with a Nazi map of "Greater Germany" in her handbag, saying things like, "We've defeated Germany twice, we can't let them come back." The one important non-German leader who was 100% pro-unification for the beginning was Bush. He threw America's full weight behind the plan that eventually became reality, a unified Germany that was recognized by the world as the successor to West Germany, assuming its membership in NATO and seat on the European Commission. As a side effect of all that, Bush achieved the formal end of World War II. The treaties signed at Potsdam had a clause saying that they would not be fully ratified until there existed a stable successor government of Germany able to sign them, and both sides of the Cold War refused to accept the other's Germany as that state. Bush made sure that all the WW II combatants accorded that status to the new united Germany, so they could sign the Potsdam accords. It was the sort of thing he cared deeply about, even if it would have elicited only a shrug from most leaders and most Americans did not even know it had happened.

After Saddam Hussein conquered Kuwait, many Americans complained again that Bush was not emotional enough or emphatic in his denunciations. People compared him unfavorably with Thatcher, who made a show of stomping her foot and announcing, "This will not stand." Bush was comparatively reticent in public because he was already playing a different and longer game. Instead of making speeches he was working the phones to make sure that 1) the army that ousted Saddam would include many Arab soldiers, and 2) Israel and the Soviet Union would stay out. He never had  any doubt that the US military could oust the Iraqis when called on to do so, so he left that to the generals. His focus was on making sure that the Middle East was not destabilized in the process.

To my mind Bush's performance during the Gulf War was a model of how a civilian leader should behave in wartime. As the leader of a balky coalition, he calibrated his every utterance to promote unity, working to make it as easy as possible for all the other governments involved. He defined the overall goal of the war but left the fighting up to the generals, asking only the broadest questions and insisting only that they work cooperatively with the other members of the coalition. In public he was very calm and dignified.

I think one can get a good taste of his leadership from a speech he gave on January 19, 1991, after the first night of the war was greeted in the press with wild enthusiasm and on Wall Street with a chest-thumping rally. I remember an 8-inch newspaper  headline crowing, 100 PERCENT SUCCESS!!! Which is in fact what Centcom announced, but the headline missed the narrow meaning of "success" in an air attack; the announcement just meant that all of the planes had reached their goals, identified a target and released munitions in its general direction. Anyway, here is Bush:
We're now some 37 hours into Operation Desert Storm and the liberation of Kuwait, and so far so good. U.S. and coalition military forces have performed bravely, professionally and effectively.

It is important, however, to keep in mind two things: First, this effort will take some time. Saddam Hussein has devoted nearly all of Iraq's resources for a decade to building up this powerful military machine. And we can't expect to overcome it overnight, especially as we want to minimize casualties to the U.S. and coalition forces, and to minimize any harm done to innocent civilians. And second, we must be realistic. There will be losses. There will be obstacles along the way. War is never cheap or easy.

I say this only because I am somewhat concerned about the initial euphoria in some of the reports and reactions to the first day's developments: No one should doubt or question the ultimate success, because we will prevail. But I don't want to see us get overly euphoric about all of this.

Our goals have not changed. What we seek is the same as what the international community seeks, namely, Iraq's complete and unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait and then full compliance with the Security Council resolutions. 
After the war ended, Bush received a standing ovation from both parties in Congress; I wonder when another American president will see that?

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