Americans have never elected a President because of his foreign policy achievements.In fact, with the notable exception of Lyndon Johnson who decided not to run after the Viet Nam War turned into a quagmire, no President has ever lost elections for foreign policy failure. More’s the pity. The greatest foreign policy President of my 55 years in the field, went down to defeat after a single term despite having masterfully managed the end of the Cold War, organized a coalition that saw troops of some our most bitter enemies fighting alongside American troops to free Kuwait, a coalition the likes of which had not been seen since Churchill and Roosevelt did the same in World War II. He guided the Ship of State through the end of the Cold War and the launching of what everyone expected to be the new American Century at the head of the Free World.His successors, lacking hisforeign affairs management skills, undid almost all his accomplishments. Today the United States faces a hostile world of our own making in which we are no longer the Super Power able to impose its will but only the strongest among many.
Millions of print pages and billions of media pixels about George Herbert Walker Bush, America’s 41stPresident, and his life and career, have inundated us this past week so there is no reason to dwell on them in detail here.George HW Bush was a superb diplomat.A diplomat succeeds when he empathizes with his foreign interlocutor. Please do not confuse “sympathy” with “empathy.”Sympathy is agreement with what the foreigner does; empathy is understanding why a foreigner does it and thus how best to deal with it. He did not crow over the USSR’s defeat at the end of the Cold War and in fact allowed Russia to retreat with dignity. He offered to bring Russia into Europe and promised not to extend the NATOmilitary alliance to its borders. His successors did not understand, did the opposite, and effectively enabled Putin and the new emerging Cold War. George HW Bush understood that unplanned action has unplanned consequences. A whole cottage industry of neoconservative pundits has arisen attacking him for not marching on Baghdad in 1991. He refused not only because he had no mandate but also because we had no plan and he saw no reason to kill more people. The consequences of the later invasion proved him right.
But let me digress into a brief vignette, a personal experience that left an indelible memory on my family and me. My wife and I had the honor to host President Bush in Doha, Qatar in 1996, during my first year as Ambassador.We spent two days in the company of a remarkable American man who combined patrician manners, brilliance, humor and concern for everyone he met. To say that we came away from that experience with a bad case of hero worship would be an understatement.
Even ex-Presidents of the United States get the full treatment when visiting foreign countries. Secret Service and political staff advance teams arrive days earlier to arrange the program, survey the venues where he will make appearances and work out the details. The Secret Service obsesses with his security and his staffers try to prevent the man from acting in the least bit human lest it ruin an image.They choreograph every movement.
The social high point of President Bush’s visit was a garden party at the Ambassador’s residence. Everyone in Doha wanted to meet the President who a few short years earlier had saved the region from Saddam Hussein. To the dismay of the Secret Service, the invitation list grew to almost 700. The handlers decreed that he would stay just long enough to meet and greet luminaries from the Qatar Government, the diplomatic corps, business and the American community, take a limited number of VIP photo ops, make a speech and depart as quickly as he could, preferably in under an hour.
President Bush had other ideas. He spoke warmly and at length with the 100 or so people who took pictures with him. He delivered his speech in the garden and then dove into the crowd. The Secret Service told me to tell him that he had to leave. He laughed out loud, said “I’m having fun!” and kept shaking hands and talking to everyone.Over the next two hours, I believe he shook hands and spoke with everyone at the party. Human contact and conversation invigorated him.He was charming and polite and even engaged cheerfully with at least a few idiots I could not shoulder out of the way.
The next day the Qatari Prime Minister hosted a small informal lunch. President Bush talked about the end of the Cold War, the liberation of Kuwait and his reelection defeat. Without going into details, it was clear that we were in the presence of a man whose love of country and clarity of thought and purpose was matched only by his unmatched preparation for the job of President. Bush had the kindest words for Bill Clinton and left us in no doubt that he wished nothing but success for his successor.
No man is perfect and Bush ’41 would be the first to admit his own mistakes. I would argue that his worst mistake was to renounce his deeply held pragmatism in order to win the Republican nomination in 1991, promising “Read my lips, no new taxes.” With the need to mobilize for 1991 Gulf War, Bush chose the national interest over his political interests, a decision that I believe cost him the Presidency. It certainly gave his enemies in his own party, Newt Gingrich and Ross Perot, the weapon to stab him in the back.
Dear President Bush, you set a standard for public service that very few have been able to match. We will miss you.