let us now praise . . . bush

Let us now praise George Bush. . . . H.W., that is.

Yes, Bush 41 is a Republican. And, it is difficult to forget the Willie Horton attack ads. But time heals all wounds, and, as for campaign ’88, as Truman said, “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

But I think all Americans should take a moment to reflect on the contributions of George H.W. Bush. He is\was moderate in temperament and politics, and that even-keel served the US and world well.

On the economy and US’ fiscal outlook, Bush looked at the facts and concluded that he needed to raise taxes, despite his famous “read my lips” pledge. National interest super-ceded personal ambition and political ideology. He also introduced “pay-go” to control the run-away federal budget, a policy that Democrats recently re-introduced to reign in out of control Republicans in Congress and the White House.

On global matters, Bush rallied a true coalition of nations to thwart Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Having defeated Hussein and established supremacy over Iraq, Bush reflected on the pros and cons of overthrowing Saddam Hussein altogether, and acted accordingly. Allowing Hussein to remain in power was not optimal, but, as a realist, Bush early on grasped that with Hussein or any central authority gone, an Iraq divided along sectarian and other lines and at war with itself was not in our vital interest, particularly with respect to how this would increase Iran’s influence over Iraq and the Middle-East generally.

In what is perhaps his most overlooked contribution, in a show of even-tempered resolve in the face of change in Hungary first, then East Germany, and eventually Russia, Bush did not over-play his hand politically or rhetorically and thus force the Soviet Union into a corner from which the only way out was with all pistols blasting. Historians and politicians will credit Ronald Reagan (and Jackson Democrats!) for accelerating the decline of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, but George H.W. Bush should be remembered as the manager of that transition, particularly during the pivotal years between 1990-1992.

One matter that Bush handled poorly was the Tianneman Square massacre. For my generation, I think what happened there was a signature moment in which forces for change clashed with forces of inertia, and that our side was far too silent as events unfolded in Tianneman.

Then and now, I did not see how realpolitik considerations could explain our silence; speaking out would not have stopped or significantly slowed economic reforms underway since the late 1970s. China’s leaders saw what was wrong with the Soviet Union and were determined not to go that route. Hence the inevitability of economic reforms there.

Even if they haven’t yet, sooner or later China will need to adopt social reforms that give rise to a free and independent civil society — otherwise economic growth withers on the vine. And so at a pivotal moment, George H.W. Bush missed an opportunity to plant, if only in a subtle manner, the idea of United States as an ally of democracy and freedom in China. To her credit, when Hillary Clinton visited Beijing in 1995 to attend the World Conference on Women, she talked about justice and equality for women – a kind-of-subtle jab at the PRC for its lack of justice and equality in general.

On balance, our nation and the world around us is a better place because of George H.W. Bush’s stewardship through pivotal moments in world history. But much of that leadership, key parts of which were carried forward by Bill Clinton, has been undone in very recent years. I read somewhere that Bush has decided to not write a memoir of his Presidency. (Yes, yes, I know: Bush released letters and other materials in his book called “All the Best.” But that’s not the same as a detailed, thought-provoking memoir). I hope he changes his mind, as Democrats and Republicans alike have much to learn from his successes and mistakes as he led this nation through pivotal moments in US and world history.


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