BY SHASHI MALLA
The 94-year-old George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st former President of the United States (and the father of the 43rd) died last Saturday in Houston, Texas. He was born in Massachusetts in 1924. During the Second World War, he enlisted in the US Navy on his 18th birthday to become its youngest aviator. He undertook 58 combat missions in the Pacific theatre, and was awarded several medals. He was shot down by the Japanese, losing both his crew members and spent four hours in a life raft before being rescued by a submarine. He was thus a revered war hero.
His death marked the passing of an era. He was according to “The Washington Post”: “The last veteran of World War II to serve as president, he was a consummate public servant and a statesman who helped guide the nation and the world out of a four-decade Cold War that had carried the threat of nuclear annihilation.” His greatest achievements were at the negotiating table.
Since he came from an upper class background, he could easily have chosen an easier path in life. He first made money as an oil tycoon in Texas. He then chose a life of service to his country, and what a distinguished career it was! After various stations in politics, George H.W. Bush became president in 1989 after serving as vice president for two terms under Ronald Reagan. His eldest son George W. Bush was also elected president (the 43rd) and served two terms between 2001 and 2009. When he finally achieved his supreme goal, he had amassed such a wealth of experience in various walks of life that it could have been said that he was the best qualified to be president and commander-in-chief in the history of the United States.
World Leaders Honour late US President
The 41st US president has been heralded for his ardent support of the rules-based international order. Leaders from across the world have paid tribute to him. Foremost, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said Bush was present at “a time of great change,” adding that his leadership contributed to “the end of the Cold War and nuclear arms race.”
US President Donald Trump tweeted, saying Bush “Inspired generations of his fellow Americans to public service. Former US President Barack Obama [who succeeded Bush Junior to the presidency in 2009] wrote “George H.W. Bush’s life is testament to the notion that public service is a noble, joyous calling,” adding “And he did tremendous good along the journey. Former US President Bill Clinton, who beat Bush in the 1992 presidential election but went on to become good friends with his former opponent said he was struck “by his innate and genuine decency.”
British Prime Minister Theresa May said that “In navigating a peaceful end to the Cold War, he made the world a safer place for generations to come.” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Bush “was a strong supporter of the international rules-based system, the rule of law and democratic values.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in East Germany [the so-called ‘German Democratic Republic’], expressed “gratitude that George Bush recognized and understood our longing for the unity of Germany.” She said then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl “was able to rely on this friend of the Germans in the White House.” The late president was an ardent supporter of a unified Germany as well as Western Europe as the Cold War unraveled and the “Iron Curtain” dissolved in the early 1990s. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas described Bush as a “great statesman and friend of Germany.” Bush “supported [German reunification] from the beginning without reservations,” Maas said, “We will never forget that.”
Kuwaiti leader Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah said Bush tried to “create a new international order based on justice and equality among nations.” He never “forgot the Kuwaiti people and will remain in their memory. When dictator Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait, Bush launched the US-led offensive against Iraq, culminating in the First Gulf War.
With support from President Richard Nixon, Bush was elected to the House of Representatives in 1966 and in 1971 Nixon appointed him ambassador to the United Nations. Bush first ran for the Republican Party presidential nomination in 1980. He served as the first US diplomatic representative in China and as head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Despite losing the presidential nomination in 1980, he was chosen by fellow Republican Ronald Reagan as his running mate. His foreign policy expertise in the Cold War conflict against the Soviet Union played an important role in duo’s election. He served eight years as Reagan’s vice president and emerged from his shadow to run for president again in 1988. He won both the Republican nomination and the presidential election, the first sitting vice president to do so in 152 years. He beat his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, with 54 percent of the popular vote. He had promised a “kinder, gentler nation.”
A President in Turbulent Times
Bush assumed office in January 20, 1989. In his augural address, he proclaimed: “The day of the dictator is over.” He was prophetic, for later that year Communist regimes in Eastern Europe started being toppled over, bringing the Cold War finally to an end. Only the Soviet Union remained, but Bush avoided being vainglorious. Bush the diplomat assiduously cultivated Soviet leader Mikhail Gobachev’s trust.
This was crucial in addressing the urgent question of German reunification, which had become a real possibility following the collapse of the infamous “Berlin Wall” in November 1989. Bush, an early advocate of German unity, was able to alleviate Gorbachev’s angst of a reunited Germany. The result was the “Two-Plus-Four Agreement”, signed in 1990 between the two German states [Federal Republic of German and the German Democratic Republic] and the victors of World War II: the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and France. The treaty paved the way for German reunification, the restoration of full German sovereignty, the retention of German NATO membership and the withdrawal of all Soviet troops from the GDR (East Germany). When German Reunification was concluded on October 3, 1990, Bush said: “I congratulate Chancellor Kohl and the German people in both East and West Germany and Berlin, so long divided, for keeping their dream of national self-determination ever alive.”
The 1991 Iraq War
In 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait in the Persian Gulf. Bush then assembled an unprecedented UN coalition under US leadership that included many Arab states. When Saddam Hussein refused to withdraw his occupying forces, Bush ordered the start of the Gulf War, codenamed “Operation Desert Storm” in January 1991. UN Security Council Resolution 678 had authorized the liberation of Kuwait and Bush decided not to go beyond this mandate and stopped the troops from marching into Baghdad. He said: “It was not only a victory for Kuwait but a victory for all coalition partners. This is a victory for the United Nations, for all mankind, for the rule of law, and for what is right.”
Loss to Bill Clinton
Bush lost the presidential election in 1992 to Bill Clinton and, therefore, served only a single term. His loss has been attributed to his agreeing to raise taxes with the Democrats in Congress, in spite of his promise of “no new taxes.” Clinton had blamed him for the poor economy, the growing gap between rich and poor and the increasing national debt. Clinton’s main campaign theme was: “It’s the economy stupid’ [!]
After his defeat, Bush withdrew from politics and settled in Houston with wife Barbara, where he spent the rest of his life. He had lived a full life and had no regrets whatsoever. His eldest son George W. Bush, one of six children, served as governor of Texas and was himself elected US president in 2000, defeating Democrat Al Gore. Another son, Jeb Bush became governor of Florida, and also ran for the Republican nomination in 2015, losing to Donald Trump.
America under Donald Trump, the 45th president, has become afflicted with pervasive political polarization. It has become inward-looking and conspiracy-minded, and there is an acute leadership deficit. Contrast this dismal narrative with the soaring vision of Bush senior: “We are a nation of communities . . . a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of lights in a broad and peaceful sky.”
There was no love lost between the Bushes and Trump. Bush senior openly conceded that he had voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016! He and Bill Clinton had developed a friendship and the two had worked together on humanitarian and relief efforts, including the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina in south-west US the following year. Into ripe old age, he made parachute jumps to celebrate his 75th, 80th, 85th and 90th birthdays, saying: “Old guys can do neat things.”
The writer can be reached at: [email protected]