No one who ever assumed the presidency was more prepared for the job than George H.W. Bush. He had been the head of our mission to China, ambassador to the United Nations, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and then Vice President. Prior to his service in the executive branch of government, he had been an elected congressman. He knew something about the separation of powers—and his experience gave me a perspective about how governing should work.
He was a politician, a statesman, and a leader, and I was lucky enough to see him wear each of those hats. As a member of the National Security Council staff at the White House, I would travel with him when he was Vice President and made a trip to the Middle East in the summer of 1986. He was not interested in making a purely symbolic trip; like always he wanted to do something with purpose. When I suggested that he use the visit to produce a statement of common principles on peace between Israel, Egypt and Jordan, he accepted my recommendation over the objection of all the other senior foreign policy aides on the trip who felt such an objective was not possible. Why, they argued, would Jordan join such a statement when Egypt was still ostracized by other Arab countries for having made peace with Israel? And, why risk trying and failing.
My argument was that with Israel’s national unity government about to rotate the prime minister and foreign minister (with Shimon Peres turning the premiership over to Yitzhak Shamir), there was an opening. With both Mubarak and Hussein perceiving Peres as far more flexible than Shamir, they had a stake in establishing principles that would bind Shamir as he took the reins—and Peres had a reason to create guidelines that would allow him to push peace as the foreign minister. Bush accepted the argument and said “let’s go for it.” And, we would succeed in producing such a statement on his trip.
I would see him often after the trip and he would ask me to leave the NSC staff and become the Foreign Policy Advisor to his presidential campaign. I would join the campaign the same time that Jim Baker took it over. Even though I was a democrat, I liked Bush and Baker—and my party registration was irrelevant to them. After Bush won, I would join Baker at the State Department. As one of Baker’s close aides, I would see President Bush often as we dealt with issues related to the Soviet Union, Europe and the Middle East. He had an image of being cautious—but that does not capture who he was. Yes, he was careful, and as he might say “prudent.” But being prudent required taking calculated risks—as he did in pursuing a statement of common principles between Egypt, Israel and Jordan when the safe bet for his 1986 trip as Vice President was simply be ceremonial. Deciding when the Berlin Wall came down to mobilize the world behind unifying Germany in NATO was a risky move, especially when the Soviets, British and French were all certain to be opposed—and, indeed, the experts on Europe in the administration and pundits on the outside all felt this was simply not achievable and should not be pursued.
However, Bush saw the bigger risk of not having a unified Germany in NATO: he felt its unification was a certainty because Germans wanted it and would resent those who sought to prevent it; a unified Germany not in NATO would become an object of competition between the blocs and a Germany that was not in NATO would feel it had to ensure its security on its own—and that would lead it to feeling it must have an independent nuclear weapons capability. That was a far greater danger than the risk of not being able to overcome Soviet, British and French opposition.
Bush and Baker succeeded in producing a unified Germany in NATO because they framed the issue, worked intensively to address the concerns and problems of each party, met or were in touch with Gorbachev, Thatcher, and Mitterand—as well as Kohl and Genscher—reassuring and providing inducements where necessary but also making clear this outcome could not be prevented. Their exercise of statecraft was extraordinary in making our objectives appear acceptable to all parties. Here was America leading, mobilizing and guiding a process from start to finish.
He and Baker would do the same in putting together the Gulf war coalition. It took finesse, and a recognition of how to build a coalition of diverse countries with very diverse needs, and, as importantly, an understanding of what it would take to sustain it. They would succeed at this again, because they took the lead, and they succeeded in getting the international community to accept the objectives that the US identified.
Bush led, but he also understood that America was more effective when its objectives were shared by the international community and our aims gained broader legitimacy as a result. He made America first not by proclaiming it but by ensuring that others saw the benefit of identifying with us and supporting our goals.
It helped that his word was trusted. When he said Saddam Hussein’s aggression would not stand, he acted and proved it. When he told King Fahd our forces would be in Saudi Arabia only until we forced Saddam’s army out of Kuwait, the King took the president at his word—he knew it was good. When Bush resisted pressures to go to Baghdad, it was, in no small part, because that was not one of the objectives he had mobilized the world to support and he was not going to go back on his word.
Bush was a leader of consequence who knew how to react to sweeping changes geopolitically but he retained humility and wanted all those working for him to reflect that as well. He made clear there would be no gloating in the aftermath of the collapse of the Berlin Wall—and not simply because it might cause far worse political damage to Gorbachev but also because change brought uncertainty and we had to know how to manage it. He certainly put America first but also saw us as part of a global commons with responsibilities to others. He was a believer in global norms and reacted to Saddam’s aggression because he saw us on the cusp of a new era and he wanted it characterized by the rule of law not by the law of the jungle.
Bush embodied values of decency, humility, courage, and empathy—and he exhibited those in dealing with international leaders as well as those who worked for him. His thank you notes and shows of kindness were legendary. He believed pubic service was an honor and a duty, and it was an honor to have worked for him.