He did so methodically, and the Gulf War best illustrated his determination and doggedness. At the time, the United States imported fully a quarter of its oil from Gulf countries. Saddam’s control over combined Iraqi and Kuwait supplies would have handed Baghdad disproportionate influence over prices and, as a result, the American economy. Yet Bush seemed driven less by economic considerations than geopolitical ones: In the new world order just then unfolding, forcible acquisitions of territory had no place. Aggression had to be resisted and reversed. And America had to play the leading role.
Franklin Foer: The last WASP president
But not the only role. Bush sent his diplomats around the world and to the UN in search of allies. He opened his global Rolodex and marshaled an unprecedented coalition of 39 countries, including Britain and France, Czechoslovakia, Syria, Niger, and Pakistan. He won UN approval and congressional authorization to use force, and American allies in the Gulf, along with Germany and Japan, picked up nearly 90 percent of the war’s costs. After 100 hours of ground combat, victory was at hand. Kuwait was liberated, and Vietnam Syndrome was finally quelled.
Bush’s record was not one of unalloyed success, either in Iraq or elsewhere. Saddam Hussein remained in Baghdad after the Gulf War’s end, requiring indefinite, U.S.-patrolled no-fly zones and endless inspections for weapons of mass destruction. The president ably preserved relations with China after the Tiananmen massacre but was criticized for insufficiently condemning Beijing’s abuses. He passed off trouble in the Balkans and an ultimately disastrous Somalia operation to Bill Clinton. And the caution that generally served so well also sometimes rendered him impervious to the winds of change, as when he railed against nationalism in Ukraine, only to see that country realize independence months later.
American presidents tend to be possessed by a sunny optimism—think Reagan’s “morning in America,” George W. Bush’s confidence in democracy’s triumph abroad, and Obama’s conviction that the arc of history bends toward justice. Even Donald Trump displays a kind of buoyancy on occasion: “Trade wars are good, and easy to win,” he’s said.
That wasn’t George H. W. Bush.
Bush aimed not to force into existence a better world, but to adapt to and shape circumstances for America’s advantage. He sought not to roll geopolitical dice but rather to consider fully the consequences of both action and inaction. He seemingly wished to be judged not only on the victories accrued—Panama, Iraq, NAFTA, Germany, the Cold War—but also tragedies avoided: the wars not commenced, the chaos not unleashed, the blood and treasure saved rather than squandered. These were just as vital to a prudent foreign policy president.