For twelve of the eighteen years I served in the U.S. Senate, George Bush loomed large on the national scene, first as a loyal Vice President to Ronald Reagan, and then as President at one of the most turbulent periods since World War II. As the nation mourns his passing and acknowledges his public service, it’s important to recognize the good judgement and steady leadership he brought to his Presidency.
Mr. Bush was particularly well suited to the times in which he served as President. The late 1980’s witnessed the spectacular implosion of the tottering Soviet Union, which Ronald Reagan aptly termed “an Evil Empire.” But while Mr. Reagan exhorted “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” the infamous Berlin Wall didn’t actually fall until 1989, in the first year of Bush’s Presidential term. It was President Bush who applied his deep experience in international affairs to manage the collapse of the old USSR, encourage the peaceful reunification of Germany, and promote assimilation of the freed nations of Eastern Europe into the European Community.
But the demise of the old Communist order wasn’t the only challenge Mr. Bush faced and mastered while President. For years some of us in Congress had been warning about the danger of Iraq’s brutal Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and the threat he posed to his neighbors in the Mideast, including the U.S.’s closest ally, Israel. Thankfully, the Israelis in 1981 had destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor that Hussein was using to develop nuclear weapons. Still, the Iraqi military threat loomed large in the region, and in 1990 it broke out in a bald Iraqi attack on neighboring Kuwait.
Had Saddam Hussein succeeded in annexing Kuwait and its vast oil fields the balance of power in the Middle East would have tipped dangerously. A wider regional conflict would have inevitably ensued, engulfing Israel and drawing the U.S. and our NATO partners into a major war. Thankfully, President Bush and his highly skilled foreign policy team — including U.S. Secretary of State Jim Baker — instead assembled a remarkably broad coalition of willing international partners to confront Hussein’s aggression.
The ensuing “Operation Desert Storm” was a model of both military and diplomatic prowess. Rather than simply relying on raw U.S. power alone to push Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, the Bush Administration enlisted our European allies and Iraq’s neighboring countries most threatened by Iraq’s aggression to fund and prosecute a lightening quick and lethal counter-offensive in Kuwait. In short order Iraqi forces were expelled from Kuwait and fleeing back towards Bagdad.
But just as important as this victory was for the U.S. and the world, it was what George Bush didn’t do next that sets him apart as a singularly insightful world leader. Instead of completely destroying the Iraqi military and overthrowing Saddam Hussein, President Bush ordered U.S. military forces to pull back and allow badly defeated Iraqi forces to hobble back home. Saddam Hussein was permitted to remain in power, with the explicit message that any further military adventurism would surely bring his demise.
President Bush was roundly criticized and second guessed at the time by armchair military observers for not overthrowing Saddam Hussein and ending his dictatorship once and for all. Yet for all the carping at the time, George Bush was proven absolutely right in his resistance to “regime change” in Iraq. Based on his years of foreign policy experience, he instinctively new that overthrowing even the most despicable strongman can have serious negative consequences. He adroitly observed that Saddam Hussein might be replaced by someone worse.
If only his son and namesake George W. Bush had followed this principle, an enormous loss of American life and treasure would not have been wasted with the latter Bush’s vainglorious Iraq War 2. The same goes for the well-intentioned but misplaced U.S. effort to overthrow Syria’s dictator Bashar Al Assad. As bad as he is, ousting him would only unleash an even greater bloodbath in Syria. As George Bush 1 proved, sometimes refraining from military over-action makes the most sense.
So as we reflect on George Bush’s remarkable life and career, we do well to honor his judgement, his steady leadership, and his restraint. Always willing to listen to others, to respect different points of view, to wield American power with care and thoughtfulness, to follow quiet yet strong instincts, President Bush set a standard that all his successors would be wise to follow. May George Bush rest in peace.
This column was originally published in the Long Island Herald Community Newspapers.
Former Senator D’Amato served a distinguished 18-year career in the U.S. Senate, where he chaired the Senate Banking Committee and was a member of the Senate Appropriations and Finance Committees. While in the Senate, Mr. D’Amato also Chaired of the U.S. Commission on Cooperation and Security in Europe (CSCE), and served on the Senate Intelligence Committee. The former Senator is considered an expert in the legislative and political process, who maintains close relationships with Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. He is regularly called upon for his advice and counsel, and is recognized for his incisive analysis of national and international political affairs. The former Senator will share insights gained from his years in Washington “with a clear-eyed view of the political forces that shape the world we live in today.” To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.