When Character Mattered: Lessons from President George H.W. Bush
August always reminds me of the presidency of George H.W. Bush. While August is when official Washington shuts down, the elder Bush was always busy then. His presidency wasn’t perfect—none of them are—but he did some of his best work during these dog days of summer.
It’s regrettable that Bush’s presidency is usually mentioned in relation to—and overshadowed by—others. After all, he has been called Reagan’s third term, Gorbachev’s partner, Clinton’s predecessor, W’s father. But the elder Bush was much more than an adjunct to others. He navigated a critical turning point in world history, and in the 24 years since his departure, America has been reminded again and again of just how difficult it is to devise and execute an effective foreign policy.
There were two Augusts when Bush shined. The first came in 1990, after Saddam Hussein assaulted Kuwait.
Bush refused to accept Iraq’s invasion as a fait accompli, as some of his advisors urged. In taking that stand, he also refused to follow the path taken by previous administrations, when other faraway countries fell to tyranny and Washington’s wise men looked the other way.
Within 30 hours of Iraq’s invasion, Bush had convinced the UN Security Council to pass a resolution condemning Saddam’s war. Within 50 hours, Bush’s secretary of state, James Baker, had cajoled his Soviet counterpart to issue a joint statement condemning the attack—an act of truly historic significance, given that the Iraqi army occupying Kuwait had been trained and equipped by the Soviet Union.
What followed those initial diplomatic masterstrokes was without precedent or parallel: dozens of nations pledged military, financial, and intelligence assistance; Moscow and Washington worked together; a UN-sanctioned embargo took hold; Arab states stood up against another Arab state; and the UN was suddenly revived from its Cold War coma. Less than seven months later, Kuwait was liberated, and Saddam’s army decimated.
Citing Iraq as a model, Bush believed the world had “a real chance to fulfill the UN Charter’s ambition of working to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” Yet what Bush described as “Pax Universalis” was a post-Cold War mirage, as grimly highlighted by UN failures in Bosnia, Somalia, and Rwanda in the 1990s, Sudan and Iraq in the 2000s, and Syria today.
Desert Shield protected Saudi Arabia, and Desert Storm routed Saddam’s army. However, the blitzkrieg campaign left Saddam in power. Bush reckoned that the Iraqi dictator would fall in short order. He wasn’t the first (or last) president to make such a calculation, but like Kim, Castro, and Assad, Saddam survived. And for Saddam, survival was victory.
Deflecting criticisms of the war’s conclusion in their 1998 book A World Transformed, Bush and his national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, argued that shutting down the ground war at the hundred-hour mark was the right thing to do. “The United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land,” they concluded. Of course, that’s effectively what happened, at least in the eyes of Osama bin Laden and his followers. Since a wounded Saddam could not be left unattended and an oil-rich Saudi Arabia could not be left unprotected, U.S. troops took up long-term residence in the land of Mecca and Medina. In a sense, occupation was inevitable after the war. Years after Desert Storm, with its clear-cut military victory but murky political outcome, some would wonder if U.S. troops ended the Gulf War occupying the wrong country.
The Catch-22 dilemmas that swirl around America’s quarter-century war in Iraq—let Saddam have Kuwait or go to war for Kuwait, leave Saddam in power or go to Baghdad, let Saddam game the UN or demand that the UN enforce its own resolutions, try to contain Saddam indefinitely or remove Saddam’s repeat-offender regime and roll the dice, keep U.S. troops in Iraq to keep the fragile country together or pull them out and roll the dice, send U.S. troops back into Iraq to save it from ISIS or let the artificial construct known as Iraq break apart—serve as a sobering reminder of many truths: America’s global leadership role is necessary but costly. Unfinished business inevitably has to be completed. Even the best-considered, best-resourced policies have unintended, unforeseen consequences. And presidents have to be prepared for those consequences. To his credit, when those consequences emerged in Iraq, Bush responded by protecting Iraq’s Kurds from Saddam’s vengeance and laying the groundwork for the long-term containment of Saddam.
Hardliners and Soft Landings
Before being elected president, Bush had served as a naval aviator in World War II, congressman, ambassador to the UN, envoy to China, CIA director, and vice president. Service was in his blood.
This life of public service meant that Bush knew the world. An anecdote in A World Transformed captures this well: During the Malta Summit, as Gorbachev introduced his delegation, it dawned on Bush that he had met everyone in the summit room. The presidents who preceded and followed him couldn’t come close to a similar set of connections: Governors (Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and the younger Bush) don’t swim these waters. Nor do state senators or real-estate moguls. Barack Obama—archetype of the “young man in a hurry”—ran for president just three years removed from serving in the Illinois state legislature. Donald Trump admitted that he refined his views on foreign affairs and national defense not from meeting with heads of state and generals, but from “the shows.” Suffice it to say that we are fortunate the steady and seasoned hand of George H.W. Bush was guiding the ship of state as the Soviet Union staggered toward the ash heap of history.
A year after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, in August 1991, hardline elements inside the Soviet government launched a coup against Gorbachev. What followed would cap the greatest triumph of Bush’s presidency and one of the greatest triumphs of U.S. foreign policy: the peaceful disintegration of the Soviet empire and Soviet state.
As the coup unfolded, Bush fell back on personal diplomacy. He understood the power of personal connection (rather than lead-from-behind detachment or vitriolic public scoldings), of the hand-written note (rather than a spasm of tweets sprayed into cyberspace), of a kind word (rather than a petty putdown), of grace and humility (rather than selfie-narcissism), of keeping your word (rather than hedging or back peddling).
These all-too-rare characteristics were a part of Bush’s makeup—and were crucial in navigating America and the world through the Soviet Union’s death throes.
As the hardliners held Gorbachev hostage in Crimea and deployed thousands of troops to seize control of the government, Bush reached out to his friends and partners: Major of the UK, Mitterrand of France, Kohl of Germany, Kaifu of Japan, Mulroney of Canada, and somehow even Gorbachev himself. Hearing Bush’s voice, Gorbachev, the leader of Lenin’s atheist empire, was moved to say, “There is a god!” He trusted Bush more than he trusted his own ministry chiefs, more than his army, more than his security forces and intelligence service.
Bush’s speed-dial coalition rejected the actions and outcomes of the coup-plotters, sent clear signals to the Russian people that America was on their side, and reassured Gorbachev that the world recognized only him as leader of the Soviet Union. Lacking both internal support and international legitimacy, the coup rapidly collapsed. Bush then helped Gorbachev gracefully exit the stage. By December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union had ceased to exist, and Gorbachev was out of a job.
It was a feat that few presidents could have pulled off. As David Halberstam would later write in War in a Time of Peace, “In those turbulent, unpredictable days, dangerous because this was the last gasp of a dark empire, and old adversaries are often most dangerous in their dying moments, Bush and his team seemed to have perfect pitch.”
Along the way to the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union, Bush deftly handled the collapse of communism across Eastern Europe. As Germans began knocking down the Berlin Wall, congressional leaders urged Bush to go to Berlin to “dance” on the Wall. “This was pure foolishness,” Bush wrote. “Kohl later told me how outrageously stupid such a move on my part would have been. It would have poured gasoline on the embers, an open provocation to the Soviet military to act.”
A lesser leader wouldn’t have shown such restraint or considered the long-term consequences of such short-term thinking. The payoff of Bush’s restraint was the reunification of Germany within NATO—and America’s continued presence in Europe. In fact, by 1990, Gorbachev was asking America to stay in Europe to promote stability: “It is important for the future of Europe,” Gorbachev told Bush, “that you are in Europe. We don’t want to see you out of there.” Gorbachev recognized what many Americans fail to grasp—that America’s presence is a key ingredient to Europe’s stability and peace.
On the last day of July 1991, Bush signed START I during a summit in Moscow. The treaty was the first “to provide for deep reductions of U.S. and Soviet strategic nuclear weapons,” a Nuclear Threat Initiative review recalls. It slashed the maximum number of warheads deployed by each superpower from 11,000 down to 7,950, proscribed production and deployment of new types of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), provided for on-site inspections (in keeping with Reagan’s “trust but verify” mantra), and led to another round of joint reductions known as START II, which would cut strategic arsenals down to 3,000 warheads apiece. Owing to his experience, Bush knew what diplomacy could—and couldn’t—do. He recognized that diplomacy had to have a purpose. Photo-op summits may make a president look good, but they seldom do America any good, as we learned the past eight years. Bush dismissed “cosmetic summits” as “dangerous.”
Before that summer of 1991 was over—barely a week into September—Bush recognized Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as independent nations. The rest of the Soviet Union’s captive nations would follow later that year.
Bush had presided over the end of the Cold War, shepherded Europe past divisions that had scarred the continent for 50 years, pulled the plug on the Soviet empire, respectfully buried the Soviet Union, constructed and guided the largest diplomatic-military coalition in history in support of the UN Charter, and guided America into an era of unprecedented political, military, economic, and diplomatic power. Not bad four years.
His 1992 convention speech, delivered in August, tried to put the stunning and sweeping events of the previous 43 months in some perspective for the American people:
Just pause for a moment to reflect on what we’ve done. Germany is united, and a slab of the Berlin Wall sits right outside this Astrodome… Free elections brought democracy to Nicaragua. Black and white South Africans cheered each other at the Olympics. The Soviet Union can only be found in history books. The captive nations of Eastern Europe and the Baltics are captive no more… This convention is the first at which an American president can say the Cold War is over, and freedom finished first.
As noted, an essential ingredient of Bush’s towering foreign-policy achievements was his commitment to personal diplomacy, which was effective because his counterparts trusted him. They trusted him because of his character.
The word character means “the moral qualities distinctive to an individual.” It comes from the Greek kharakter: an “engraved mark,” a “symbol or imprint on the soul.”
To be sure, only God can see into a person’s heart. So, assessing someone’s character is a thorny task. Yet Proverbs 27 provides some guidance: “As water reflects the face, so one’s life reflects the heart.” Put another way: to know the heart, to get a sense of someone’s character, look at a person’s life.
We may convince ourselves that character doesn’t matter, but the reality is that character always matters.
Think about it: Even the least-judgmental, most-live-and-let-live people want their kids to develop good character. So, they challenge them to work hard, make good choices, learn from bad choices, keep their word, admit mistakes, and treat people with dignity and respect. These people want their kids’ teachers, coaches, babysitters, and friends to have good character because character can be transferred from one to another. That “imprint on the soul” becomes indelible. They also want their doctors, neighbors, accountants, and mechanics to have good character because if they don’t, it could harm them.
Character counts in our elected officials for all those reasons and a few others.
A president’s character affects us and our world in ways that the character of other leaders doesn’t. We’re not talking about the prime minister of Canada or the CEO of Wal-Mart. If the president has major and obvious character flaws, allies might worry about him keeping his word, and foes might exploit those character flaws to their advantage. Moreover, owing to the reach, role, and resources of the United States, the president wields immense power. It is for this very reason—because presidents are entrusted with such great power—that they need to be people of character.
Good character isn’t a matter of perfection, but rather direction. The elder Bush always seemed to have that sense of direction, that internal compass keeping him—and America—on the right path. The 45th president could learn much from the 41st—about what to do and what not to do, about what to say and how to say it, about what it looks like to govern with character.
Photo Credit: George H.W. Bush riding in a Humvee with General Schwarzkopf in Saudi Arabia, November 22, 1990. Via George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum.