As a State Department official in the 1980s working the Afghanistan portfolio, my colleagues and I often drafted memos to update the White House on efforts to end the Soviet occupation of that country. President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council staff routinely bounced the memos back with instructions to shorten and dumb them down. “Write them as if you’re briefing your mother,” they said. The president could take in only so much detail. We did not have this problem when George H. W. Bush became president. “We want more,” Brent Scowcroft’s NSC staff told us. “And keep it coming.”
Historians will view Bush as one of the most decisive U.S. presidents of the 20th century in terms of foreign policy. He was better at “the vision thing” than clever pundits realized. Key to his success was his sensitivity toward the public servants who dedicated themselves to helping him achieve his goals.
George H. W. Bush’s forte and passion was always foreign policy. The cascading rush of history-changing events during his presidency was on a magnitude not seen since the end of World War II: the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the domino-like collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall, German reunification, the breakup of Yugoslavia, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, and Operation Desert Storm to evict him.
The crises came fast and furious. Those of us who worked in national security awoke each morning ready for another head-spinning series of major challenges, even as we struggled to cope with the ones that had just transpired. President Bush handled them boldly and masterfully, at times overriding allies and his own bureaucracy. In the hands of a leader of lesser abilities, subsequent decades may well have been marked by unremitting conflict, rampant social unrest, and economic devastation in the successor states of the Soviet empire.
I saw Bush in person twice—once at a Rose Garden ceremony and once when he came to the State Department to thank us employees for the role we played in Operation Desert Storm. Later in my career, I had a valuable perch from which to observe the president’s diplomatic skills as the Cold War was coming to a close. As an aide to the senior official in charge of European affairs, I was able to read in real time telephone transcripts of Bush’s conversations with European leaders. They discussed the momentous events that confronted them, weighing options on what direction they should collectively take. Consensus was by no means assured.
The wall was coming down. East Germany was collapsing. The centrifugal forces of nationalism were bringing the German people inexorably back together. The victors of World War II—and occupiers of Berlin—fretted over the prospect of a unified Germany. With historical memories in the forefront of their minds, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President Francois Mitterrand cautioned to move slowly. Moscow pushed for the continuation of the East German state, albeit under a new political order. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, however, appealed to Bush’s sense of fairness and historical justice. Their frequent conversations are a fascinating study in Kissinger’s observation that personalities often play a stronger role in key human events than many historians and political scientists realize.
The State Department’s super-cautious bureaucracy counselled the president to follow the lead of our allies, to pump the brakes on German reunification. With his eyes on the long-term security of Europe and the Western alliance, Bush overruled those bureaucrats and our close allies. There was little time for carefully prepared policy papers and working groups. We were at risk of falling behind the rush of history. The president sided with Kohl. German reunification was inevitable and had to be managed wisely. The rest, as they say, is history.
Bush also did not spike the ball as the Soviet Union fell apart. He treated Mikhail Gorbachev with respect—instructing his foreign affairs apparatus to quickly come up with policies to engage Russia and the newly independent post-Soviet republics and East European governments to help them develop democratically and integrate into the world system. Republicans and Democrats eagerly collaborated in this effort.
Bush’s exemplary leadership skills likewise led to success in the first Gulf War. In face of strong—mainly Democratic—opposition, he persuaded Congress to authorize force to remove the Iraqis from Kuwait. It was the most divided congressional vote to commit the U.S. to military action since the War of 1812. At the same time, he rapidly formed a coalition of other nations. His controversial decision not to follow Hussein to Baghdad was vindicated years later when his son discarded that decision, leading to a costly quagmire.
As a military veteran, senior diplomat, and CIA chief, Bush appreciated the value not only of those who worked under him in government but also the foreigners who served the U.S. clandestinely.
A CIA colleague recently recounted to me a time when he had to quickly exfiltrate a sensitive source from a hostile country; the spy had been revealed by an American turncoat. “Even though he left his family and everything he owned, the first thing he said to us was that he regretted most leaving a picture of himself that he had taken with George Bush during a diplomatic trip to Houston,” the CIA veteran told me. Upon hearing of this, Bush invited the defector to Kennebunkport to spend time with his family and pose for new photos.
Stories like these from those who served under 41 are legion. Outsiders often do not appreciate how far a leader’s kindness and respect for his subordinates go in motivating them to work their hardest to achieve their goals. In the case of a president, that can result in initiatives and projects that change the world. This human touch came second nature to George H. W. Bush. Successors in the Oval Office would be wise to follow his example.