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We Could Use a Man Like George Herbert Walker Again

By Gregory Scoblete

It's doubtful that George H. W. Bush's endorsement last week of John McCain will have any serious impact on the dynamic of the campaign, but the 84 year old former president's momentary resurfacing on the public stage provides a useful reminder of what was once a hallmark Republican attitude toward foreign policy: prudential realism. In this election year - a time of soaring rhetoric and bold pronouncements - it's useful to reflect on a legacy that took a more measured, yet nonetheless successful, approach to the country's foreign policy challenges.

In the pantheon of Republican presidencies, the four year term of George H. W. is rarely, if ever, invoked. When it is, it's usually an object of derision. It was inevitable that Ronald Reagan's successor would have difficulty shining amidst the after glow of a truly historic presidency. But the differences in temperament and styles between the two only heightened the contrast, to Bush's enduring detriment.

To his critics, especially on the right, Bush's cardinal sin was timidity. He was the quintessential anti-Reagan. Where Reagan stood before the Berlin Wall and boldly chastised the Soviet Union, Bush stood before Ukrainians eager for independence and told them to calm down .(That speech earned the nick-name "Chicken Kiev" by New York Times columnist William Safire.) When protestors were butchered in Tiananmen Square, Bush's criticism was muted. Though he celebrated the "new breeze" of freedom blowing across Europe, Bush and his foreign policy team always appeared more worried that the breeze would blow over the old order too quickly.

Bush was, in the words of Atlantic Monthly writer William Schnieder "the status quo president" reflexively cautious about upsetting the applecart. The critique of a timid Bush was so pervasive it even filtered down to popular culture with Saturday Night Live's Dana Carvey making "wouldn't be prudent" a presidential punch-line.

Yet George H. W. Bush's approach to foreign policy has much to recommend it, and aspiring presidents would do well to study his example.

Just look at the results. When Bush took office, the Soviet Empire was unraveling rapidly. As Harvard historian Niall Ferguson highlighted in War of the World, the collapse of an empire is typically followed by large-scale violence. When the French began to walk away from their imperial holdings there was terrible violence in places like Algiers, Vietnam and Chad. When the British Empire dissolved, tens of thousands of lives were lost in the partitioning of India. By contrast, the Soviet Union had a "soft landing" - there was sporadic violence and loss of life, but not on the epic scale one would normally associate with a crumbling empire.

As Timothy Naftali, director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library has argued, Bush deserves significant credit for his handling of the Soviet Union's collapse. As Bush confided in his diary at the time, he was determined not to "dance" on the crumbling Berlin Wall and rub Russia's nose in their momentous defeat. Instead, he used quiet diplomacy to achieve what is largely considered his greatest success- helping to reunite East and West Germany and embedding the newly united Germany within NATO.

It may seem inconsequential now, but at the time, many Soviet leaders were apoplectic at the thought of Germany reunifying and entering into the world's most powerful military alliance - an alliance deliberately constructed to defeat the Soviet Union. Soviet President Gorbachev had many opponents to his right urging him not to concede Germany's NATO membership. The loss of East Germany to NATO was devastating to Soviet prestige.

As Michael Beschloss and Strobe Talbot recount in At the Highest Levels, Bush's public restraint was an effort to shore up Gorbachev domestically, so as to not endanger his international concessions. This meant making tough moral calls. Though publicly critical of Soviet actions in Lithuania (which included killing unarmed civilians and the seizure of government facilities), for instance, Bush privately told Gorbachev that the U.S. would treat it as an internal matter.

Then there was Iraq. Critics to George H. W. Bush's right have long complained that the first Gulf War was ultimately a failure because it left Saddam Hussein in power. It's obvious that the war did not have a tidy ending. Few things in international affairs do. But, in any event, the critics have had an opportunity to try their hand. Far from "finishing the job" the U.S. is now stuck precisely where Bush had feared: attempting to govern Baghdad. With over 3,000 American dead, over 20,000 wounded, tens of thousands of Iraqis dead, close to half a trillion dollars spent and no appreciable end in sight, it's laughable to suggest that the elder Bush's refusal to march to Baghdad was the result of a foolhardy timidity. More like good sense.

In truth, the elder Bush was never a slave to the status quo (a reunified Germany in NATO was as radical a reversal of the status quo as you could find) but he was judicious with where and when he challenged it. His approach was not flawless. Sometimes Bush's caution blinded him to changing realities, such as the rise of Boris Yeltsin in Russia. Other times, in the Balkans, it wisely kept America from intervening in a conflict wholly unrelated to its national security (although Bush did commit troops to Somalia, with disastrous results). Above all, Bush ended his term with America stronger, and the world safer, than when he found it.

His approach entailed compromise, and as Naftali has noted, "making choices based on assessments of power and recognizing limits is difficult for leaders of a country with a revolutionary heritage, an exceptionalist streak, and boundless optimism bred in the bone." American realists, he added, are almost always reluctant.

Yet the more distance history places between us and George H. W. Bush, the more we may come to realize that making difficult, often morally compromising trade-offs based on "assessments of power" and placing limits on the exercise of American might is not a vice. In the right hands, it' a virtue.

Gregory Scoblete is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.

Copyright 2008, Real Clear Politics


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