Sat | Dec 15, 2018

Editorial | Bush 41 looks ever better

Published:Wednesday | December 5, 2018 | 12:07 AM

 

One of the assets of history is the opportunity it provides to add perspective to past events, including their comparison with current circumstances. In that regard, there is greater value to the tenure of George H.W. Bush as America's president, when measured against the current incumbent, Donald J. Trump. For time is unlikely to alter perspectives on Mr Trump's presidency. History won't be kind to him.

Mr Bush, America's 41st president, father of the 43rd, George W. Bush, and of the former governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, died last Friday. He was 94. A funeral is being held for him today in Washington. Mr Bush was a Republican. By philosophy and instinct, his politics was conservative.

It is significant, though, that in today's Washington, with its bad-tempered, snarling, bare-knuckled politics, in which nothing is sacred and Mr Trump thrives, the eulogies to Mr Bush have mostly been kind and bipartisanly warm.

Which is not to say that there is nothing negative to be said about Mr Bush. But, as Mitsy Seaga, the ex-wife of the former Jamaican prime minister, Edward Seaga, reminded in a letter to this newspaper on Monday, George Herbert Walker Bush was a decent, courteous man who genuinely cared for people.

More important, from a global perspective, he had a vision of the world, and America's place in it that caused the United States to strive for consensus and partnerships, rather than merely projecting its power and insisting that everyone fall in line. The irony is that in the post-World War II era, he was the first American leader in a position to unrestrainedly exert this authority. His eschewing of unilateral action underlined a commitment to the multilateralism that provides insulation to small countries like Jamaica, but rejected by the Trump administration.

Few persons could have come to the US presidency as prepared as the senior Mr Bush. He served for eight years as Ronald Regan's vice-president. Before that, he had two terms in the House of Representatives, served as chairman of the Republican National Committee, had a tour as America's ambassador to the United Nations, was ambassador to China, and served as head of the CIA. He was a navy pilot in the Second World War.

It was on his watch as president that communism collapsed, the Soviet Union disintegrated, new states emerged in Eastern Europe, and post-Soviet order evolved, leading to the reunification as Germany and the existence of the United States as the world's sole superpower. Also in that period, in 1991, Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein, invaded Kuwait.

 

SOFT HANDS

 

It is perhaps his approach to the latter event that marked Mr Bush's appreciation of the limitations of seemingly unfettered power in ordering global affairs. Such power is most effective when strategically deployed with soft hands. He was clear that Saddam's action against Kuwait couldn't stand, but that the job of his eviction wouldn't be globally accepted, and perhaps sustainable, if undertaken only by hard-charging Americans. He recognised the potential for regional instability if objectives were not clearly defined and capable of being managed with certitude.

Unlike his son a decade later, when America wrongly asserted that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and had been involved in the 9/11 bombings, Mr Bush built a global coalition against Saddam, who he didn't pursue to Baghdad to effect regime change. The Middle East and the world are still living with the consequences of the Bush Jr's Iraq strategy to the latter end.

The strategic mastery displayed by Mr Bush in global matters wasn't replicated in domestic affairs. In the face of a bad economy, the stratospheric rating he received over Iraq collapsed. He became a one-term president. African Americans, mostly, remember the Willie Horton race-baiting ad of Mr Bush's first presidential campaign, which he failed to condemn. But, in the broader sweep of history, Americans, of all stripes, would probably prefer George Herbert Walker Bush in the White House than its current occupant.