By Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst
Former President George H.W. Bush is aged and ailing. So it is precisely now that we need to voice our appreciation for him — one of America's greatest one-term presidents, along with James K. Polk. Polk practically doubled the size of the continental United States between 1845 and 1849, becoming the individual embodiment of Manifest Destiny. Bush the elder, rather than make great things happen, prevented great tragedy from occurring. It was what did not happen between 1989 and 1993 in Europe, the Middle East and China that makes the elder Bush a far more significant president in geopolitical terms than, for example, Bill Clinton, who occupied the White House for twice as many years.
Bush was the last American aristocrat and veteran of World War II to serve as president. From a wealthy Connecticut family, educated at the finest private schools in New England, he enlisted in the Navy at 18 in 1942, and as a 20-year-old aviator was shot down over the Bonin Islands south of Japan in 1944. His life thereafter was often a register of both understatement and service.
Bush's subdued, steely character is on full display in A World Transformed (1998). Notice several things about this, perhaps the finest presidential memoir since Ulysses S. Grant's own Personal Memoirs published in 1885. Bush, rather than take all the credit for himself like other presidents, shares authorship with his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft. Nor is the book about his presidency per se, but about how he, Scowcroft and Secretary of the State James Baker III negotiated some of history's most momentous crises. There is much else in his presidential term that Bush could have written about in order to get even or tell his side of the story, which he, nevertheless, ignores. He has decided to stay silent about so much in order to sublimate himself to the great historical and geopolitical events overseas with which he was forced to deal, even as he shares full credit with others. That is the measure of the man.
Even within the realm of foreign policy, Bush and Scowcroft in their book purposely neglect the successful 1989 operation in Panama and the revival of the Middle East peace process toward the end of Bush's term: events that, in any case, are of lesser geopolitical significance because Panama was already in the U.S. sphere of influence and the intermittent Arab-Israeli peace process does not affect the balance of power. Moreover, Bush and Scowcroft are not interested in beating their chests over every accomplishment as in other presidential memoirs. Their focus is deliberately narrow, making, counterintuitively, for an epic book.
The lessons of this volume are manifold; let me elucidate the main ones.
Most important: Managing change is more important than provoking it, and one manages change best by concentrating on people rather than on ideas. This is why Bush was so unpopular with the media and the intellectual classes while he was president: They wanted action, ideas, brilliant abstractions; whereas he focused on lots of personal phone calls to world leaders even when there was no crisis, so when a crisis came he had them in his pocket.
To wit, when the Chinese Communists killed large numbers of students at Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989, the Bush Administration reprimanded Beijing, which angered the Chinese. But because Bush decided not to break or permanently downgrade relations with Beijing, that angered the intellectuals in New York and Washington. But it was Bush's middle path that safeguarded change in China and helped prevent a more sustained crackdown that might have set China back years. Indeed, by not humiliating Beijing, he encouraged the continuation of economic reforms that would transform the face of China — and Asia — for the better. And the Chinese leaders respected his views not only because he was the president but also because of the many years he had already spent in consultation with them while serving in other government positions (as the U.S. chief liaison to China and head of the Central Intelligence Agency).
Because of the way the Communist empire in Europe collapsed — suddenly, and on the whole peacefully — it is assumed that this was natural. It wasn't. The Kremlin allowed its empire to collapse because of two overarching reasons: the particular moral character of Mikhail Gorbachev and the calculated restraint of the Bush White House that was careful not to beat its chest over the fall of the Berlin Wall and thus provoke a Soviet military reaction. Bush's greatness was in the dog that didn't bark.
Bush writes: "I understood that the pressure on Gorbachev from hard-liners to intervene would grow, as these once reliable allies [in Eastern Europe] began to pull further away and the Soviet security buffer against the West eroded. The dangers were ahead, and I would have to respond with even greater care as the East Europeans pushed their own way to the future. We could not let the people down — there could still be more Tiananmens." So rather than conduct a triumphant, Reaganite victory lap around Eastern Europe, Bush was restricted in his travels and in his language. For example, he knew that he could not immediately pledge support for Lithuania the moment it declared independence, because the United States was in a weak position to counter a Soviet military reaction. God bless him! He knew that tragedy is avoided by thinking tragically.
Rather than bridle at the geographic and other constraints imposed on policymakers, Bush was fundamentally aware of them. It was only by respecting geography that he was able to move beyond it.
Not that Bush wasn't bold. He certainly was. People have short memories. I was in Eastern Europe for some of this time and remember vividly. Now it seems altogether natural that West and East Germany be reunited under a NATO umbrella. Then it wasn't. Quite a few argued for the eastern part of Germany to remain neutral. Bush would have none of it. He came to the cause of reunification early, and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl always appreciated him for it. Imagine how unstable Europe would have become had Bush listened to other voices and prevented full-scale reunification — had he not accepted that the German capital would have to move from Bonn to Berlin? Here was another geopolitical dog that didn't bark.
When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990, there were many voices in Washington urging the president not to get involved militarily. But Bush acted boldly. He liberated Kuwait with force in 1991, even as he was careful not to march all the way to Baghdad and become enmeshed with the internal politics of the Iraqi state. And it was Bush's nuanced position that helped reverse the coup attempt in Moscow later that same year. Unlike the Reagan foreign policy team that went through several national security advisers and got involved in the Iran-Contra scandal, the Bush team of Bush-Baker-Scowcroft represented one of the most professional stewardships of American foreign policy ever. And it was professional because it was based more on geopolitics than on ideas, even as all of these men would be careful never to admit this.
Bush wasn't perfect — the administration could have been more proactive on Bosnia when Yugoslavia came apart. But in Bush's defense, I would say that so early in this, the first European crisis since the end of the Cold War, it was reasonable to test whether a newly united Europe could deal on its own with an internal eruption.
In historic terms, the elder Bush was the last fully nation-state American to lead America in the world. The presidents who have come after did not serve in the nation's wars, and/or came to adulthood during the 1960s or in a post-Sixties era when American values were called into question in a more global and cosmopolitan environment. Bush senior was different. Because he was so deeply anchored in the nation-state, he was respectful of the interests of other states. That made him cautious and humble. And from such caution and restraint great things happened peacefully in the world.