Elephants in the Room
Once Upon a Time, U.S. Foreign Policy Worked
George H.W. Bush's administration was evidence of what the establishment was capable of.
I worked on the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff during the last two years of the late President George H.W. Bush’s administration. It was my first job in government and an extraordinary period in world history. As I came on board at Foggy Bottom, Bush had just facilitated Germany’s unification. The international coalition that he’d mobilized was in the process of evicting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. In a few months’ time, Bush would help manage the peaceful unraveling of the Soviet Union and the launch of historic peace talks between Israel and its Arab neighbors via the Madrid process.
As I’ve had a chance to reflect on that experience over the past quarter-century, a number of things stand out. First, I’m struck by the incredible talent that Bush surrounded himself with on national security issues. In terms of intellectual firepower, diplomatic skills, political and bureaucratic chops, and foreign-policy experience, he assembled a genuine murderers’ row: Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and Robert Gates. Not to mention the heavyweights who filled out the next couple of tiers down, including the likes of Lawrence Eagleburger, Paul Wolfowitz, Dennis Ross, Robert Zoellick, Condoleezza Rice, Stephen Hadley, William Burns, Nicholas Burns, Zalmay Khalilzad, Scooter Libby, Eric Edelman, and Richard Haass.
Not a lot of shrinking violets there. Dedicated, serious people (most of them well versed in the dark arts of bureaucratic jujitsu) fiercely arguing over how best to secure U.S. interests and a more peaceful international order as some of the most consequential events in modern history unfolded at lightning speed. Bringing together that many thoroughbreds in one place could have been a mess. But it all worked for the most part like a well-oiled machine. Bush commanded the apparatus masterfully, molded it to best serve his decision-making needs, empowered his advisors to carry out clearly articulated presidential directives, and engendered a degree of cooperation and loyalty that more often than not had U.S. foreign policy firing on all cylinders. The results speak for themselves.
A second thing that impresses me in hindsight was Bush’s capacity for making big decisions in a timely manner about momentous events where not only American lives, but also the peace and security of the world often seemed to hang in the balance. The continuous stress must have been enormous. But the well-considered decisions came like rapid fire, one after another. To support German unification. To go to war against Saddam. To oppose the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. To facilitate the Soviet Union’s collapse and ensure the gathering of thousands of loose Soviet nukes. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom.
It’s easy to forget now, but none of it was preordained, least of all the successful outcomes that Bush achieved. But despite the enormous downside risks, not a trace of presidential hand-wringing was ever in sight. Instead, Bush’s Oval Office radiated with the quiet confidence and competence of a commander in chief who’d not only spent a career operating at the highest levels of politics and diplomacy, but had also flown 58 combat missions as a naval aviator, been blown out of the sky over the Pacific Ocean, and lost two of his crew in battle.
Finally, I’ve thought a lot about some of the hallmarks of George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy. The unwavering belief in the importance of U.S. global leadership and power, for sure. The sustained investment of presidential time and energy in diplomacy, definitely. But also the hard-headed realism that prioritized virtues of restraint and prudence in the exercise of American might and the expression of American exceptionalism. The secret effort to stabilize relations with China so soon after Tiananmen. The refusal to go to Berlin in 1989 and “dance on the Wall.” Stopping the Gulf War after 100 hours. The infamous “Chicken Kiev” speech. I’ll confess that, at the time, I took exception to many of these decisions. I still don’t agree with all of them. But in light of everything that has transpired in the two-and-a-half decades since Bush left office, it’s hard not to feel a deep appreciation for the extraordinary experience, skill, and, yes, modesty that he brought to the task of making U.S. foreign policy.
I never got to meet Bush. But I do have a couple of personal anecdotes. It so happens that it fell to me to write the first draft of the valedictory foreign-policy speech that he delivered at Texas A&M a month after losing his re-election bid to Bill Clinton. Nothing particularly memorable or flashy about it—but how many of Bush’s speeches were? Nevertheless, it was a strong call for continued U.S. leadership to help secure a new era of peace, prosperity, and expanding democracy after having led the West to victory over Soviet totalitarianism in the Cold War “by the grit of our people and the grace of God.” The National Security Council chopped my draft in half, but the structure of the speech and at least some of my original language survived, including what Bush identified as the key to sustained American foreign-policy success: “the patient and judicious application of American leadership, American power, and—perhaps most of all—American moral force.”
A second small anecdote. In the mid-1990s, I wrote to Bush out of the blue requesting a meeting to discuss a paper that I wanted to write on the need for a shift in U.S. counterterrorism policy. Buried away somewhere in a box in my attic is his reply. It’s a brief note, typed by some assistant, I’d imagine. But it very much had the feel of his voice. He apologized that his schedule was such that a meeting in the near future probably wasn’t practical. He sent along a copy of a report by a counterterrorism task force that he’d overseen while serving as Ronald Reagan’s vice president. And he closed by graciously thanking me for my service to the country and to his administration.
No, thank you, Mr. President. For everything. It was truly an honor and a privilege. RIP, sir.