The death of George H. W. Bush is a tragic reminder of mortality and has inspired comments about his legacy. The media can’t seem to view anything without their anti-Trump lenses, and suddenly embraced him as a calm, compassionate figure on the right that contrasts with Trump. But aside from selective retelling from the media, George H. W. Bush left an intriguing and mixed foreign policy record that ranges from the Gulf War to the Bosnian Civil War and commitment to Somalia that produced Black Hawk Down.
His most famous foreign policy achievement was liberating Kuwait from Iraq. But even this isn’t a clear-cut victory. Many analysts at the time said that the specter of Vietnam was dispelled through a quick American victory and massive support for the soldiers. (My mother, for example, led marches in support of the soldiers and my brother in the Marine Corps.) But it was a bit jarring to the public to hear Hitler rhetoric in the run-up to the war, but then his army was largely allowed to retreat and Saddam was allowed to keep power. Of course, given the lengthy insurgency that Americans witnessed after the 2003 Gulf War, not removing Saddam and occupying Iraq showed a great deal of wisdom as well.
Moreover, the United States arguably failed to win the peace in several ways. After the war, the Shiites in the south and Kurds in the north both rebelled. Even though the United States had just completed a massive buildup of soldiers and led a vast world coalition to defeat Saddam, they didn’t help those rebellions and Saddam Hussein ruthlessly crushed them.
Less than a year after the war ended and troops came home, Yugoslavia broke apart in what became various civil wars and massacres. The inefficiency of Bush was that he arguably failed to use the capital gained from winning the Gulf War. The United States drew a clear line in the sand with Saddam and followed through with overwhelming force to expel him from Kuwait. President Bush had the cache to send a clear message but didn’t. Of course, aggressively posturing to deter the war had dangers as well. If the Serbians ignored the U.S. or NATO saber-rattling, then the Western allies would have lost a great deal of credibility for being all talk and no action. The civil war exploded into ethnic cleansing and genocide, and then-President Bill Clinton ended up committing soldiers as peace keepers anyway. But George H. W. Bush had a chance to nip the war in the bud years earlier.
The conflict in Bosnia was avoided by the Bush administration for two more reasons. First, the administration deliberately used rhetoric designed to dissuade intervention. They called the conflict a “civil war” and implied that it bubbled up, almost spontaneously, from the bottom because of centuries of conflict in the region, and that any mission would be hopelessly mired in it. In reality, the worst of the offenses were a top-down directed affair by the Serbian and Bosnian political and military leaders. The region was peaceful during the reign of Tito and peaceful after the air strikes in Kosovo and the Dayton Peace Accords. This conflict could very well have been settled before genocide occurred.
Secondly, Bush and his administration arguably committed troops in Somalia to forestall committing troops in Bosnia. In contrast to Bosnia, this was billed as a top-down humanitarian catastrophe inspired by warlords. This mission became important for several more reasons. After the Black Hawk Down incident that resulted in many U.S. soldiers killed or captured, Bill Clinton quickly withdrew the troops. Osama bin Laden saw this and concluded that America was a weak horse that could be easily defeated through terrorist attacks. It also shows the dangers of going without securing broad support for a policy that transcends administrations.
Overall, all three of these examples show an incredibly mixed record. The Gulf War showed America winning a conventional war in decisive fashion, but using rhetoric that often seemed mismatched with the limited goals and methods. Moreover, they seem to encourage rebellions within Iraq but then did little to help them. The United States failed to use the capital they had gained in Bosnia or Somalia. In both cases (being joined by inaction in Rwanda in the Clinton administration), the United States didn’t commit forces or even threaten to when they should have, pulled out too early when they shouldn’t have, and generally didn’t have a specific strategy for the brush fires wars that erupted in what was billed as a new age of peace after the collapse of the Soviet Union and fall of the Berlin Wall.
Ultimately, presidents are beset by thorny foreign policy questions with no easy answers. It is easy to say in hindsight what President George H. W. Bush should have done, but it is important to assess his actions so we can better make decisions today. Bush’s record is incredibly mixed and should be remembered for his successes like the Gulf War, but also his failures.