The foreign policy of two Bushes

The foreign policy of the current president's father, George H. W. Bush, has become an object of nostalgia for many conservative intellectuals who oppose the influence of the neoconservatives on the administration of George W. Bush. Proponents of the senior Bush's more "realistic" brand of foreign policy have languished in the political wilderness ever since 9/11, there to nurture memories of an administration that seemed to accumulate victories overseas effortlessly, but tellingly failed to convert them into an electoral victory at home in 1992. Their future influence over political discourse depends largely on the ultimate outcome of the Iraq War, the undertaking launched to complete what the first Bush administration explicitly refused to do during the Gulf War - unseat Saddam Hussein.

We got a hint of what partisans of the senior Bush's administration thought of the policies of his son in 2006, when the Iraq Study Group was convened to suggest "the way forward" in Iraq. It counted among its members two former secretaries of state who had served under Bush senior, one of whom - James Baker - was co-chair. The group's recommendations amounted to a negotiated retreat - a timetable for withdrawal and diplomatic engagement with Syria and Iran to attempt to mitigate the consequences, although quite what these latter had to gain from helping the United States to manage its withdrawal was unclear. The message the ISG was sending was that Iraq was unwinnable and even the considerable cost of retreat was better than staying longer and trying to win; a harsh judgement indeed when it comes from luminaries of the Republican foreign policy establishment rather than liberal Democrats.

The first Bush's foreign policy, which these elder statesmen dearly wished his son would emulate, was indeed impressive. It was a triumph of matching the available means to well-defined ends - apart from talk of a "New World Order" - which is precisely what these right-wing critics of the younger Bush's foreign policy thought he was incapable of doing. The senior Bush displayed impressive diplomacy and restraint in managing the end of the Cold War and the reunification of Germany; prosecuted a limited war that achieved its goals, and even managed to orchestrate broad support for it and get other countries to foot a large part of the bill; kept his two other interventions, in Somalia and Panama, limited; and scaled back foreign commitments after the Cold War.

End of the Cold War

It is not surprising that a certain mythology has come to surround Bush's foreign policy, given that he oversaw the final collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Europe's division. That this occurred without greater violence appears in retrospect to be little less than a miracle. The reunification of Germany owed a lot to American diplomacy, especially because many Europeans opposed it and worried about a repetition of the world wars. No-one can credit Bush senior's administration with ending the Cold War, as this was the fruit of fifty years of successful American strategy. But his team dealt with the immediate aftermath expertly, even if grave questions still remain about the sustainability of peace between Russia and the U.S.

Bush showed that assertive diplomacy could be a powerful tool for influencing events that were already in flux, but it is dangerous to ignore the fact that it was not his own assertive diplomacy alone that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The effortless way that the United States seemed to accrue success during these years helped to form the pernicious myth of the "end of history", wherein the whole world was accepting liberal democracy of its own accord and without the United States needing to do much about it. This misunderstanding undergirded U.S. foreign policy for over a decade and a half afterwards, at least until everyone realized that Russia's transformation had in fact not been as profound or salubrious as everyone initially hoped.


If the collapse of the Soviet Union was a one off event that did not necessarily hold many lessons for the future simply because it was unlikely to be repeated, then Bush's use of armed intervention could at least be seen as precedent-setting. One of the dirty secrets of America's post-Cold War foreign policy is that armed intervention became much more routine than it was during the Cold War, which was in part a function of the chaos that engulfed parts of the world when the superpowers withdrew their support for their clients. And, just as Iraq would come to define his son, it was Bush senior's intervention in Iraq that is best-remembered.

The story of the Gulf War is well-known - Saddam Hussein apparently failed to understand that the U.S. would not understand one country to dominate the Middle East and set out to conquer Kuwait and then turn his eyes to Saudi Arabia. Bush first sent troops to defend Saudi Arabia, and then to drive the Iraqis from Kuwait. Bush put together a coalition of dozens of countries, many of whom contributed money which significantly reduced the cost of the war for the United States, and he was able to do this because a United Nations Security Council resolution had been passed authorizing force to expel Iraq from Kuwait. The U.S. encouraged but later ignored an Iraqi rebellion against Saddam Hussein, and refused to drive to Baghdad itself out of a refusal to contemplate nation-building.

Leaving Saddam Hussein in power was anathema to neoconservatives, whereas in the abandonment of the Shi'a and Kurds who rebelled they saw echoes of the United States' betrayal of South Vietnam. But the quick victory in this limited war became a textbook case of how to manage intervention to the "realist" camp, and was much-cited when Bush junior invaded Iraq in 2003.

But what this pleasing narrative misses out is that the aftermath was not just messy for Iraqis, but also for the U.S. After the Gulf War, American troops moved into Saudi Arabia to enforce no-fly zones and a sanctions regime against Iraq; not only did the presence of U.S. troops in the Muslim holy land incite Osama bin Laden to wage war against the United States, but it also left a gigantic loose end in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein was still in power, wiggling his way out of the sanctions regime and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction until at least 1998, and U.S. planes were bombing Iraq monthly from the end of the Gulf War right up until the actual invasion in 2003; as one of our own noders pointed out when the latter war was under discussion, "the United States is already at war with Iraq".

This ongoing situation was a major reason for the war in 2003 and partially explains the apparent obsession of many neoconservatives with Iraq right throughout the 1990s. Bush senior's "limited" war could by its nature only accomplish "limited" ends, which did not necessitate another war but made one much more likely. The final verdict on the Gulf War must hence be mixed for the simple reason that there is no God-given assurance that just because something is difficult, this means that it must not be done, and because it left the question of Iraq very much open rather than taking any fundamental step towards closing it. It is impossible to understand the war we find ourselves in now without appreciating that Saddam Hussein fired the first shot when he invaded Kuwait in 1990, and that everything else has followed on from the need to stop him carrying out a similar action again.

Other interventions

Bush senior also sent troops into Panama and Somalia. In Panama, he deposed a dictator called Manuel Noriega who had at one time been on the CIA payroll but was now facilitating drug-related crime. In an act of hubris, Panama declared war on the United States and harassed soldiers who lived in the Canal Zone; Bush launched Operation Just Cause, speedily shipped Noriega off to the U.S. and placed him under arrest, and then just as quickly lost interest in the country again. The alternative - nation-building, or trying to address the fundamental problems of Panamanian society - was not even considered.

Then there was the intervention in Somalia, which kicked off the process that led to the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993. Somalia was undergoing a brutal civil war which featured forced starvation, a situation that had come about partially because the U.S. had stopped supporting the country's dictator when he became useless to them after the Cold War. Bush did not want to address the country's fundamental problems, but just to launch a humanitarian intervention that would focus on getting food to the country's population and then leaving. Nation-building or peacekeeping was not on his agenda, and he hoped troops would be out before Clinton took office in 1993. However, as it transpired they were not, and Clinton then transformed the mission to be much more wide-ranging and suffer the disastrous "Black Hawk Down" episode in 1993.

Bush's whole intervention in Somalia was anomalous because it appeared to have no relation to the U.S. national interest, and there was significant opposition to it from people who did not want to risk U.S. lives on a humanitarian mission to such a depraved country. When Clinton redefined the mission and it eventually soured, the very idea of peacekeeping and nation-building suffered a terrible blow which contributed towards Bush junior saying that he would not engage in such activity during the 2000 election. Even the neoconservatives have showed little interest in Somalia, as Africa is a traditional blind spot for them because it is seen as uniquely damaged and is so far removed from any traditional definition of the U.S. national interest. Hence, almost everyone would rather forget the intervention in Somalia, and those who remember it primarily recall it as a disappointing departure from the good sense that is taken to characterize the rest of Bush senior's foreign policy.


While the Cold War had seen the U.S. claim an interest in every part of the world - a consequence of the domino theory - Bush senior declared that the U.S. could pocket the gains of winning the Cold War and retrench. When intervention came, it would now be quick and painless - he even thought that now the Cold War was over, the entire world would co-operate in heading off dangers like Saddam Hussein. This was the idea behind his declaration of a "New World Order", and he came to this optimistic conclusion primarily because the Soviet Union backed the Gulf War. It was even mooted that Soviet troops might fight alongside Americans.

But the idea that the world had changed to such an extent was hopelessly quixotic because Saddam's invasion of Kuwait was one of those rare acts that almost every other country on the planet opposes, whereas normally countries are divided. Conflict is the norm in world history, not the exception, and to demand that action always premised on the rest of the world agreeing is a recipe for constant inaction.

Similarly, a tendency to declare expansive and global goals that cannot possibly be achieved with the available means has been the perennial disease of American foreign policy - witness Bush junior's promise to democratize the entire Middle East by invading Iraq - and Bush senior avoided this admirably until he also fell into the trap by talking about a "New World Order" in which history would stop and everyone would link arms and dance into a better tomorrow as soon as they had kicked Saddam out of the way.

Limited goals can only have limited results, which are inevitably incomplete results and leave more to be done tomorrow. But this is how history has always operated, because there are no quick and complete solutions to any of the problems facing us, especially in our interactions with other peoples abroad. The neoconservatives criticized Bush senior for not delivering final victory for the United States in the aftermath of the Cold War, but it is they themselves that are at fault for imagining any such victory to be possible. The world will always be dangerous and our solutions will always be incomplete, but to remove ourselves from reality into a utopian dreamworld where anything is possible is hardly any solution.