For 12 of the 18 years I served in the Senate, George H.W. Bush loomed large on the national scene, first as a loyal vice president to Ronald Reagan, and then as president during one of the most turbulent periods since World War II. The nation has mourned his passing and acknowledged his public service, and it’s important to recognize the good judgment and steady leadership he brought to his presidency.
Bush was particularly well suited to the times in which he served as president. The late 1980s saw the spectacular implosion of the tottering Soviet Union, which Ronald Reagan aptly termed an “evil empire.” But while Reagan exhorted, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” the infamous Berlin Wall didn’t actually fall until 1989, in the first year of Bush’s term. It was Bush who applied his extensive experience in international affairs to manage the collapse of the USSR, encourage the peaceful reunification of German and promote the assimilation of the freed nations of Eastern Europe into the European Community.
But the demise of the old communist order wasn’t the only challenge that Bush faced and mastered while president. For years, some of us in Congress had been warning about the danger of Iraq’s brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein, and the threat he posed to his neighbors in the Mideast, including the U.S.’s closest ally, Israel. In 1981, the Israelis had destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor that Hussein was using to develop nuclear weapons. Still, the Iraqi military threat loomed large in the region, and in 1990 the country launched a bald attack on neighboring Kuwait.
Had Hussein succeeded in annexing Kuwait and its vast oil fields, the balance of power in the Middle East would have tipped dangerously. A wider regional conflict inevitably would have ensued, engulfing Israel and drawing the U.S. and our NATO partners into a major war. We can be thankful that Bush and his highly skilled foreign policy team — including Secretary of State Jim Baker — instead assembled a remarkably broad coalition of willing international partners to confront Hussein’s aggression.
The resulting Operation Desert Storm was a model of both military and diplomatic prowess. Rather than simply rely on raw U.S. power to push Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, the Bush administration enlisted our European allies — and Iraq’s neighboring countries most threatened by its aggression — to fund and prosecute a lightning-quick and lethal counteroffensive in Kuwait. In short order, Iraqi forces were expelled from Kuwait and sent fleeing back to Baghdad.
But as important as this victory was for the U.S. and the world, it was what Bush didn’t do next that set him apart as a singularly insightful world leader. Instead of destroying the Iraqi military and overthrowing Hussein, Bush ordered U.S. military forces to pull back and allow badly defeated Iraqi forces to hobble home. Hussein was permitted to remain in power, with the explicit message that any further military adventurism would surely bring his demise.
The president was roundly criticized and second-guessed at the time by armchair military observers for not overthrowing Hussein and ending his dictatorship once and for all. Yet after all the carping, Bush was proven right in his resistance to regime change in Iraq. With his years of foreign policy experience, he instinctively knew that overthrowing even the most despicable strongman can have serious negative consequences. He adroitly observed that Hussein might be replaced by someone worse.
If only his son George W. had followed this principle, the enormous loss of American life and treasure in the younger Bush’s vainglorious Iraq War 2 could have been avoided. The same goes for the well-intentioned but misplaced U.S. effort to overthrow Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad. As bad as he is, ousting him would only unleash an even greater bloodbath in Syria. As George Bush I proved, sometimes refraining from military overaction makes the most sense.
So, as we reflect on his remarkable life and career, we do well to honor his judgment, his steady leadership and his restraint. Always willing to listen to others, to respect different points of view, to wield American power with care and thoughtfulness, to follow quiet yet strong instincts, Bush set a standard for his successors. May he rest in peace.
Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.