Gaddis Smith. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
Republican George Herbert Walker Bush took the oath of office as the forty-first president of the United States on 20 January 1989, after serving eight years as Ronald Reagan’s vice president and comfortably defeating Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis in the 1988 election. Two years later, after leading a coalition of nations in a swift and decisive war to turn back the aggression of Iraq against Kuwait and negotiating the end of the Cold War with Soviet president Mikhail S. Gorbachev, President Bush’s approval rating in public opinion polls was near 90 percent. He appeared to be unbeatable as a candidate for a second term.
But less than two years after that, in the election of 1992, Bush received only 37 percent of the popular vote and lost to Democrat William J. (“Bill”) Clinton, governor of Arkansas and a man with no experience in Washington whatsoever. The history of the Bush presidency pivots on that remarkable and rapid reversal. Why had he risen to such heights of popularity and fallen so fast? How could defeat have been snatched so quickly from the jaws of victory? The answers tell us something of the strengths and weaknesses of Bush’s leadership, but even more about the post-Cold War shift in American political priorities from foreign policy to domestic issues.
The Bush years were extraordinarily eventful from a foreign policy standpoint—the Cold War ended, Germany was reunified, the Soviet Union collapsed, relations with China were strained following the lethal suppression of student protest in Beijing, American troops intervened in Panama to overthrow a criminal dictator and in Somalia to save people from starvation, and the United States led a coalition to victory in the Persian Gulf War against Iraq. In domestic affairs, on the other hand, few new programs were launched, there was more gridlock than cooperation between the president and Congress, the economy went into recession, and unemployment increased along with the federal deficit. By 1992 the president was widely perceived as having failed to lead at home while his victories abroad did not translate into votes.
New England, Texas, Washington, D.C.
George Bush was a New England patrician partially transplanted to Texas, where he entered politics after almost two decades in the oil business. He was born on 12 June 1924 in Milton, Massachusetts, and grew up in the affluent New York suburb of Greenwich, Connecticut. His father, Prescott Bush, was a successful investment banker, a friend of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s, and a Republican senator from Connecticut from 1952 to 1963. His mother, Dorothy Walker, was from a prominent family that had migrated in the nineteenth century from New England to St. Louis, Missouri. George Herbert Walker, George’s grandfather, established the Walker Cup competition between American and British amateur golfers. George Bush spent summers at Walker’s Point, the family’s spacious oceanfront compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. Later, Bush would use the residence as his presidential retreat.
In 1942, six months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Bush graduated from Phillips Academy, in Andover, Massachusetts, a boarding school with a reputation for preparing boys for future leadership. He rejected the advice of commencement speaker Henry L. Stimson, secretary of war and former secretary of state, to continue his education before rushing off to war. On his eighteenth birthday he joined the navy and soon earned his wings as the country’s youngest combat aviation officer. Bush flew fifty-eight combat missions in the Pacific as a torpedo bomber pilot based on the carrier San Jacinto. After being shot down by the Japanese in 1944 and rescued by an American submarine (his two crew members died), Bush received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
In December 1941 George, age seventeen, met Barbara Pierce, age sixteen, at a country club dance. She was the daughter of a magazine publisher and lived in Rye, New York. In 1943, on the eve of George’s combat tour in the Pacific, they became secretly engaged. Barbara briefly attended Smith College but dropped out in her sophomore year. She and George were married in January 1945 and in the next decade and a half had six children: George (elected president of the United States in 2000), Jeb (elected governor of Florida in 1998), Neil, Marvin, Dorothy, and Robin (who died of leukemia before her fourth birthday). Barbara Bush devoted her life to nurturing the close-knit family and to helping her husband’s career. As First Lady she chose to avoid the limelight, unlike Eleanor Roosevelt and her successor Hillary Rodham Clinton. She was proud and unapologetic about embracing a traditional lifestyle as helpmate to her husband. In a much publicized address to the women graduating from Wellesley College in 1990 she said: “As important as your obligations as a doctor, a lawyer, a business leader will be, you are a human being first, and those human connections with spouses, with children, and with friends are the most important investment you will ever make.”
When World War II ended George Bush followed the tradition of both sides of his family by going to Yale. He graduated in less than three years, in 1948, with a degree in economics, a Phi Beta Kappa key, and membership in the fashionable Delta Kappa Epsilon (“Deke”) fraternity and Skull and Bones, the most famous of Yale’s secret societies. Tall, gangly, and nicknamed Poppy, he was first baseman (considered a good fielder and a mediocre hitter) and captain of the team that twice went to the finals of the national collegiate baseball championship. He also played soccer. As president he was an avid fisherman, boater, tennis and golf player, and pitcher of horseshoes.
After Yale, Bush turned down a chance for a comfortable career in New York investment banking and moved with his growing family to Texas and an apprenticeship with Dresser Industries, a large oil firm on whose board of directors his father served. Soon he and a partner formed an independent oil exploration company, Bush-Overbey. He and additional partners in 1953 formed Zapata Petroleum and in 1954 Zapata Off-Shore for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Bush followed his father’s example in switching from financial success in business to politics. He was an unsuccessful Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate from Texas in 1964 and 1970, losing to Democrats Ralph Yarborough and Lloyd M. Bentsen, Jr., respectively. Bush was elected to the House of Representatives in 1966 and again in 1968. Although in 1964 he had followed GOP presidential candidate Barry M. Goldwater in denouncing President Lyndon B. Johnson’s civil rights program, in 1968 he voted for open, nondiscriminatory federal housing—thereby alienating conservatives. This was not the first time Bush would be confronted with a contradiction between his own moderate inclinations on social issues and the need for support on the far right.
After losing the race for the Senate in 1970, Bush was appointed by Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford to a succession of important positions: U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, 1971-1973; chairman of the Republican National Committee, 1973-1974; liaison (equivalent of ambassador) to the People’s Republic of China, 1974-1975; and director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), 1976-1977. At the United Nations he dueled verbally with the tough old Soviet diplomat Jacob Malik on many issues, but was sad to observe the expulsion, in October 1971, of the Republic of China (Taiwan) as a UN member and the seating of the People’s Republic (Beijing) in its place.
His stint as chairman of the Republican National Committee coincided with the Watergate scandal and President Nixon’s August 1974 resignation in the face of certain impeachment. The scandal originated with a 1972 break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters by people working for Nixon’s personal campaign, the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CREEP). Neither Bush nor the Republican National Committee had any involvement in Watergate. Bush could only watch, lament, and in the end add his voice to those urging Nixon to resign.
Vice President Gerald Ford became president upon Nixon’s resignation on 9 August 1974. Under the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the Constitution it was Ford’s responsibility to nominate a new vice president for confirmation by a majority vote of both houses of Congress. Bush hoped he would be selected and was disappointed when Ford picked Nelson A. Rockefeller. As a consolation, Ford offered Bush his choice of diplomatic assignments. Bush chose China.
A quarter century of mutual hostility and isolation between the United States and the Communist People’s Republic of China had ended two years before with President Nixon’s trip to Beijing, but relations were awkward and not yet “normalized” by the establishment of full-fledged embassies. Bush’s assignment was to head the U.S. Liaison Office. During his thirteen months in Beijing he tried to break through the formidable barriers to communication with a regime not yet ready for major reforms, listened to lectures from Chinese officials about the Soviet threat, and created a minor sensation by bicycling around the city with his wife. The position provided more frustration than influence. As he commented afterward, “It was a submarine environment, very restricted. We were engaged in people-watching, watching changing political relationships, analyzing visits, analyzing toasts and the order of protocol, asking other ambassadors what they thought.”
Next, President Ford asked Bush to head the Central Intelligence Agency, an institution demoralized by congressional investigations of assassination plots and other dubious practices. The Senate confirmed Bush’s nomination by a vote of 64 to 27. The opposition argued that an ambitious politician should not head the nonpartisan intelligence agency. President Ford answered the critics by declaring he would not consider Bush as his vice presidential running mate in 1976. Again Bush was disappointed.
As head of the CIA, Bush was skeptical of optimistic assessments of the Soviet Union. He commissioned the famous Team B report of hard-line anti-Soviet analysts from outside the CIA. Team B warned that Soviet leaders still sought world domination and that under certain circumstances were prepared to wage nuclear war. In January 1977 Bush resigned as head of the CIA so that incoming Democratic president Jimmy Carter, victor over Ford in the 1976 election, could nominate his own choice.
Bush returned to Texas, decided that Carter would be a one-term president, and in 1978 began campaigning for the job himself, with a formal announcement in 1979. He lost the nomination to the more glamorous and conservative Ronald Reagan. Bush’s comment that Reagan’s proposal to increase federal revenue by lowering taxes was “voodoo economics” earned headlines and years later came back to haunt him.
Reagan, however, picked Bush to be the vice presidential candidate in a traditional gesture of political unity between wings of the Republican party. The Reagan-Bush ticket easily defeated Carter and running mate Walter F. Mondale in the 1980 election and won even more easily in 1984 against Mondale and vice presidential candidate Geraldine A. Ferraro. When President Reagan was shot and seriously wounded by John Hinckley, Jr., in March 1981, Vice President Bush performed the duties of the president with dignity and quiet competence until the president recovered. With a staff of sixty-eight, he kept informed on international issues, maintained his political friendships, and prepared for 1988, when he would again seek the presidency. He headed a task force on the interdiction of the illegal drug trade and another on simplifying and reducing federal regulations. Neither was very successful. Bush also traveled tirelessly at home and abroad, sometimes on substantive missions, more often as a ceremonial representative. He set an attendance record at the funerals of foreign leaders—including three Soviet chiefs of state: Leonid Brezhnev (1982), Yuri Andropov (1984), and Konstantin Chernenko (1985). At Chernenko’s funeral Bush met the new, youthful, and energetic leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Vice President Bush attended many high-level policy meetings in the White House, including those of the National Security Council, of which he was a member. The degree of his knowledge of the illegal sale of arms to Iran and the funding (via profits made from this sale) of rebel soldiers fighting a Marxist government in Nicaragua, in violation of congressional restrictions—the linked scandals known as the Iran-Contra affair of the mid-1980s—remains a matter of dispute. But since he was not a policy maker he suffered no personal political harm from the scandals.
Bush in 1988 was a youthful sixty-four-year-old eastern aristocrat—soft-spoken, courteous, conscientious, considerate (famous for his thank-you letters), cautious, hardworking, better on details than on the big picture, and rather bland. But with Texas as his home base and a need to appeal to anti-eastern elements in the Republican party he affected a fondness for slang and country food. Experience was his strong suit. Ideas were not. His name was associated with no particular program or blueprint for the future. He was first to admit that he was not much for “the vision thing.”
The 1988 Campaign
Vice President Bush’s most formidable rival for the 1988 Republican nomination was Senator Robert J. (“Bob”) Dole of Kansas. The race was close in the beginning, but well before the nominating convention the vice president had accumulated a winning majority of delegates. At the convention in August he sought to conciliate the Republican right wing by selecting James Danforth (“Dan”) Quayle, a young, conservative, and relatively unknown senator from Indiana, as his vice presidential running mate. Democrats and critics in the press ridiculed Quayle as an intellectual lightweight, but over the next four years the vice president emerged as an effective, sharp-tongued battler for conservative causes. The Democrats nominated Michael Dukakis, liberal governor of Massachusetts, and conservative senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas as the vice presidential candidate.
Bush appealed to moderates by promising a “kinder, gentler nation”—an implicit criticism of the abrasive social policies of the Reagan years. He was helped by the apparently healthy state of the economy and the warm afterglow of President Reagan’s personal popularity. The broad message of the campaign was, in effect, “If you liked the last eight years, you’ll love the next four.” The most important theme was Bush’s oft-repeated promise: “Read my lips: no new taxes.”
A negative theme was the accusation that Governor Dukakis was an extreme liberal (“a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union”) and soft on criminals because he supported furloughs from prison for convicts. In a television blitz organized by political adviser Lee Atwater, the Bush campaign focused on the case of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who raped a woman while on a weekend pass from prison in Dukakis’ Massachusetts. Horton’s picture appeared again and again on television with the implication that Dukakis as president would unleash an army of Willie Hortons on a defenseless public. A third theme was the claim that Bush had the experience to handle foreign policy and threats to national security, an area in which Dukakis was a novice. Dukakis made an unsuccessful attempt to overcome this charge by having himself photographed riding around in a tank.
Bush won the election by the wide margin of 426 to 112 in the electoral college, and 53 percent to 46 percent in the popular vote. He was the first sitting vice president to be elected president since Martin Van Buren in 1836. But Democrats made small gains in Congress, resulting in majorities of 55-45 in the Senate and 260-175 in the House. For his entire term President Bush was faced with Democratic control of both houses of Congress. At the same time, he was constrained from seeking common ground with the Democrats because of his dependence on the growing conservative wing of his own Republican party. Unlike Ronald Reagan, Bush refrained from dramatic appeals to the people against Congress, and chose instead to veto many congressional bills and implement others according to his own interpretation. The result in domestic affairs was four years of acrimony between Congress and the White House and a relatively thin record of legislative achievement.
President Bush’s inaugural address called for the United States “to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.” He subtly rebuked the materialism of the Reagan years by saying “we are not the sum of our possessions … We cannot hope only to leave our children a bigger car, a bigger bank account. We must hope to give them a sense of what it means to be a loyal friend, a loving parent, a citizen who leaves his home, his neighborhood and town better than he found it.” He called for a partnership between the government and lauded the “thousand points of light … all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the nation, doing good.” The address, however, lacked any specific agenda for domestic affairs.
In foreign affairs Bush rejoiced that “a world refreshed by freedom seems reborn,” but emphasized the importance of maintaining the nation’s alliances and military strength. He spoke cautiously about the Soviet Union. “Our new relationship in part reflects the triumph of hope and strength over experience. But hope is good. And so is strength. And vigilance.”
The Bush Team
President Bush filled his cabinet and senior White House staff with middle-aged men, many of whom were trusted friends. The only women among his original high-level appointments were Secretary of Labor Elizabeth H. Dole, wife of Senator Dole, and Special Trade Representative Carla A. Hills. Most of the appointees had previous experience in the Reagan or Nixon and Ford administrations. His closest political friend and campaign manager in 1980 and 1988, James A. Baker III, became secretary of state. Although Baker had relatively little experience with foreign affairs, he had been chief of staff for President Reagan (1981-1985) and secretary of the treasury (1985-1988). Baker, a lawyer, had a reputation for negotiating skills and excellent political judgment. As secretary of state he was criticized for ignoring the career foreign service professionals, but he worked closely and effectively with his most important client, the president, especially on relations with the Soviet Union. In August 1992 Baker left the State Department to become Bush’s chief of staff in an effort to save the faltering campaign for reelection. Lawrence S. Eagleburger, an experienced foreign policy professional, served as secretary of state for the closing months of the administration.
The only cabinet choice by the president not to be confirmed by the Senate was former Texas senator John G. Tower to be secretary of defense. Tower was rejected because of his reputation for drinking to excess and inappropriate behavior with women. The president’s second choice for secretary of defense, former congressman Richard B. (“Dick”) Cheney of Wyoming, was easily confirmed. Cheney was a believer in a strong military establishment, doubted that the Cold War was really over, and questioned the supposedly peaceful transformation of the Soviet Union. He was tough, laconic, somewhat humorless, and a strong administrator. Secretary of the Treasury Nicholas F. Brady, a personal friend of Bush’s, was a holdover from the Reagan cabinet who did not require reconfirmation. Attorney General Richard (“Dick”) Thornburgh, former governor of Pennsylvania, was another holdover from the Reagan cabinet, having been appointed with Bush’s approval just before the 1988 election.
Bush inherited Reagan’s final director of the CIA, William H. Webster, a former federal judge and director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). When Webster retired in 1991 Bush nominated Robert M. Gates, once deputy to the controversial Reagan-era CIA director William J. (“Bill”) Casey. In 1987 Gates had been blocked from succeeding Casey because of his connections with the Iran-Contra affair. In 1991 he still faced considerable opposition but not enough to prevent confirmation. Gates was another Cold War hardliner who doubted that the Soviet Union could be trusted.
President Bush’s most important military nomination was that of General Colin L. Powell to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). In October 1989 Powell became the youngest officer and the first African American to hold the nation’s highest professional military position, as well as the first chairman to have entered the military from the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). Powell was the first JCS chairman to operate for his full term under new legislation (the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986) giving him the power to advise the president directly and not merely pass on a consensus of the heads of the military services. Powell, a Vietnam combat veteran, was an experienced Washington military insider with previous tours in the White House and Defense Department. He had served in 1988 as Ronald Reagan’s last national security adviser, bringing needed order to the National Security Council staff system in the wake of the Iran-Contra debacle.
Powell would be a central player in every foreign policy question involving the actual or potential use of force. In common with most officers of his generation he had been scarred by the experience of the Vietnam War and condemned the leadership of that time for sending Americans to die for unclear objectives and without public support. Powell believed, and so advised Bush, that the nation should use military force only when the objectives were clear, the means fully sufficient, and Congress and the people understood and supported the cause. Sometimes these ideas were called the Powell doctrine. Powell in 1989 stood apart from most high military officers in believing that the Soviet threat was gone. “The Soviet system is bankrupt, and Gorbachev is the trustee … Our bear is now benign,” he said.
Two other important Bush appointments were William K. Reilly as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and William J. Bennett as director of the National Drug Control Policy. Reilly, a professional environmentalist, worked for effective environmental regulation but often clashed with conservatives in the administration. Bennett, an articulate writer and speaker, garnered considerable press attention for the war on drugs and for himself.
In the modern presidency the senior staff in the White House have more power and influence than most cabinet officers. They do not require approval by the Senate, and they have direct, daily access to the president. In the Bush administration four men were in this category. John H. Sununu, former conservative governor of New Hampshire, became chief of staff and principal domestic adviser. Sununu was sharp-tongued, combative, and often rude—the opposite in manner of Bush. Sununu’s job was to manage domestic political affairs, control access to the president, and say no to people asking unacceptable favors of President Bush. Sununu was the president’s pit bull. He resigned in December 1991 after being criticized for using government airplanes for personal travel. He was replaced by the less colorful Samuel K. Skinner for eight months and then by James Baker for the final months of the administration.
Brent Scowcroft, a retired Air Force lieutenant general with a Ph.D. in international relations and fluency in Russian, became the national security adviser, the same post he had held under President Ford. Scowcroft, a skeptic about the Soviet Union, was fond of saying that a potential adversary should be treated on the basis of his capabilities rather than on his intentions, since intentions could change. Unlike National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger with Nixon or Zbigniew Brzezinski with Carter, Scowcroft shunned publicity and did not set himself up as a rival to the secretary of state.
Two key domestic policy aides were Richard G. Darman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and C. Boyden Gray, White House counsel. Darman, who had previously held high positions in the Commerce and Treasury Departments, was the administration’s financial watchdog. At first he vigorously defended Bush’s promise of no new taxes. But in 1990 he advocated a compromise with Congress—some new taxes in return for budget cuts. He then became the favorite target of criticism from low-tax conservatives. Gray had worked for Vice President Bush in the commission on deregulation. As the president’s chief lawyer he crafted strategy for limiting congressional power.
One of a president’s most important constitutional and political responsibilities is to appoint judges for the federal courts and justices for the Supreme Court, subject to confirmation by the Senate. During his four years President Bush filled one quarter of the judgeships in the lower courts and two positions on the Supreme Court. He continued Reagan’s policy of naming men and women who believe that the powers granted to government under the Constitution are limited and that previous court decisions had granted excessive rights to individuals, especially in criminal proceedings. Bush appointed a record number of women to the federal courts, but gave few appointments to blacks and Hispanics.
During the Bush presidency two liberal justices of the Supreme Court retired: William J. Brennan, Jr., and Thurgood Marshall. To replace Brennan, the president in 1990 nominated a reclusive judicial intellectual, David H. Souter of New Hampshire. Souter refused to indicate in advance how he would decide on specific issues such as a woman’s right to an abortion. He was easily confirmed, and once on the bench proved to be less conservative than the president may have expected.
The nomination in 1991 to replace Marshall, hero of the civil rights movement and the first African American to serve on the Court, became a political firestorm. Clarence Thomas, a young federal judge of little experience, was also black. He held the ultraconservative view that the Constitution provided scant authority for federal legislation designed to bring about social change. Political liberals and moderates had legitimate reason to vote against Thomas’ confirmation on the basis of his judicial philosophy. But the televised hearings on the nomination before the Senate Judiciary Committee were quickly converted into a seminar on sexual harassment. Anita Hill, a black law professor who had worked for Thomas in two federal agencies, accused him of making improper sexual advances toward her. Thomas denied the charges and described himself as the target of a political lynch mob. The final vote of 52-48 in favor of confirmation reflected divisions in the Senate and the country over which person was telling the truth—Hill or Thomas.
The End of the Cold War
Bush lacked a consuming interest in the domestic policy side of the presidency, but in January 1989 all seemed to be well on the home front. His easy victory as successor to the enormously popular Reagan indicated that most of the American people were happy with the government. The economy, growing spectacularly after a severe recession in the early Reagan years, was still strong. Employment was high, the stock market was up, people with money were making more. It appeared that if Bush simply maintained the domestic status quo he could concentrate on foreign policy, the area of his greatest interest.
Bush occupied the White House during two major events of the twentieth century: the end of the Cold War and the unanticipated collapse of the Soviet Union. Both had deep historical roots. In the 1960s and early 1970s there had been brief thaws in the Cold War and one could argue that the self-destruction of the Soviet Union was inherent in the nature of the Communist system beginning with the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. Accelerated change, however, began only after Gorbachev became the Soviet leader in 1985.
Between 1985 and 1988, Reagan and Gorbachev, along with U.S. secretary of state George P. Shultz and Soviet foreign minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze, began the transformation of Soviet-American relations. They agreed on the first major cuts in long-range nuclear weapons since the beginning of the arms race in the 1940s, eliminated intermediate-range nuclear weapons from Europe, and consented to close inspections of each other’s arsenals in order to ensure compliance with agreements. The two superpowers also began tentatively to cooperate in reducing conflicts in the Third World.
Gorbachev was convinced that the survival of the Soviet Union depended on drastic internal economic reform and relief from the crippling burden of military expenditures. Reagan’s cooperative posture convinced Gorbachev that he could safely reduce Soviet military strength without tempting the United States to press an advantage. In December 1988 at the United Nations, Gorbachev renounced the Leninist theory of inevitable international conflict between capitalism and socialism, called on all nations to work together to solve universal human problems, and unilaterally announced the withdrawal of half a million troops and thousands of heavy conventional weapons from Eastern Europe.
Did that mean the Cold War was over? When Bush took office as president in January 1989 the answer was not clear. American skeptics in the press and among his advisers warned that it all might be a trick designed to lull the free world. Bush, a staunch Cold Warrior throughout his career, decided to slow the pace of Soviet-American negotiations. He did not believe, as had Reagan, that nuclear weapons could be abolished. He wanted to maintain a strong American nuclear arsenal and was wary of agreements that might give the Soviets an advantage. He was not convinced that the Soviets had abandoned their disruptive behavior in the Third World.
On the other hand, Bush did not rule out the possibility that Gorbachev might really be sincere and trustworthy. As vice president in December 1987 Bush told Gorbachev to ignore his public hard-line remarks, necessary if he was to win the nomination and election. His goal as president, Bush said, would be to improve Soviet-American relations. Gorbachev afterward said this was the most important talk he ever had with Bush.
The president’s prudence (a favorite word) led him to underestimate the rapid deterioration of Soviet military and economic power and Gorbachev’s desperate determination to jettison military burdens in order to prevent the complete collapse of Soviet society. Bush did not realize at first that nuclear arms control agreements were no longer the major issue or that Gorbachev would agree to almost anything. The real issue was whether Gorbachev would survive as a leader and whether after Gorbachev there would be chaos.
It was not until July 1989 that Bush told Gorbachev that he would consider a meeting—”without thousands of assistants hovering over our shoulders.” Meanwhile, Secretary of State Baker and Foreign Minister Shevardnadze met several times and formed a close relationship. Baker was astounded at how frank Shevardnadze was about the Soviet Union’s problems. In the autumn of 1989, while Bush watched and waited, Communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe began to topple and Gorbachev publicly renounced the “Brezhnev doctrine,” which the Soviet Union had previously invoked to justify armed intervention against freedom movements in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. The message to Communist leaders in 1989 was that they could no longer count on Soviet tanks to keep them in power. With the Soviet Union deliberately standing back, the Berlin Wall came down in November, and soon non-Communist governments were replacing the old regime throughout the former Soviet satellite empire. There were also mounting demands for national independence within the USSR, most notably from the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
This was the situation when Bush and Gorbachev met for their first summit—on ships in a storm-tossed harbor of the island nation of Malta in the Mediterranean. The most important outcome of Malta was a secret exchange of assurances. Gorbachev would do what he could to avoid violence in dealing with the problem of Baltic secessionism and the discontent of other nationalities. Bush in turn would avoid public criticism of Gorbachev on this issue.
Bush came away from Malta with a better appreciation of how precarious was Gorbachev’s political situation in the Soviet Union. If Gorbachev pressed too hard for economic reforms, made too many concessions to separatist movements, and agreed too easily with the United States, hard-line opponents would charge him with weakness. But if he did not introduce reforms and reduce the economic burden of a Cold War military establishment, the system would collapse.
By 1990 Bush decided that the essential goal of American policy toward the Soviet Union must be to keep Gorbachev in power and to favor the preservation rather than disintegration of the Soviet Union. The alternative was chaos. Sound, mutually advantageous agreements with Gorbachev on arms reduction could be negotiated. Without Gorbachev they might be impossible.
Meanwhile, the Communist government of East Germany collapsed and Germans on both sides of the former Iron Curtain called for reunification. Secretary of State Baker, assuming that Gorbachev would not accept a unified Germany within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), in February 1990 initiated some complicated diplomatic negotiations involving the two Germanies plus the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union—the “two plus four” formula. Baker’s assumption had been wrong. In July 1990 Gorbachev made his greatest concession. He astonished German chancellor Helmut Kohl by announcing that the Soviet Union would withdraw all its troops from eastern Germany and accept NATO membership for a reunified Germany. Kohl, in return, promised to pay the cost of relocating Soviet troops and provide other economic aid. The line was now dissolving between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the Moscow-dominated military alliance of Communist governments. The Warsaw Pact was officially disbanded in 1991.
Meanwhile, arms control experts on the Soviet and American sides were making great strides. The most important achievement was the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty of November 1990, signed by Bush and Gorbachev in Paris. Among other things, it committed the Soviet Union to reduce by 70 percent its tanks and heavy weapons stationed west of the Ural Mountains. A treaty reducing long-range strategic arms took a little longer. Signed by Bush and Gorbachev in Moscow on 31 July 1991, the START treaty reduced nuclear warheads on both sides to 6,000—a 30-percent reduction. The dangerous category of missiles with multiple independently targeted warheads (MIRVs) was reduced by half. Because of the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) was not approved by the U.S. Senate until November 1992.
The more the two sides reduced nuclear weapons, the less important arms control became in the relationship. The more pressing issues were cooperation in meeting the challenge of Iraq’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the very survival of the Soviet Union. Bush refrained from criticizing the occasional use of force by the Soviets against independence movements and even warned, in a speech in Ukraine in August 1991, that “Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based on ethnic hatred.”
By this time, however, there was nothing Gorbachev or the United States could do to stem the Soviet Union’s fall. On 18 August 1991 a group of Communist hard-liners put Gorbachev under house arrest and attempted to take over the country. They were miserably inept. Faced with strong opposition by Boris N. Yeltsin, head of the Russian Federation, and lacking the full support of the Red Army, the coup failed in three days. Marshal Sergei F. Akhromeyev, the most senior of the old military establishment, committed suicide after the coup. He left a note saying that everything he had worked for—the Soviet Union, the Red Army, and the Communist party—was being destroyed. Akhromeyev was right.
Gorbachev returned to the Kremlin as president of the Soviet Union, but he was presiding over an empty husk. On 25 December 1991 Gorbachev resigned. The hammer and sickle flag came down from the Kremlin for the last time. The Soviet Union was no more. All the former dependent republics within the old USSR proclaimed their independence, secured international recognition, and were admitted to the United Nations. The real leader in Moscow now was Yeltsin, president of Russia, a man previously belittled by the Bush administration as a crude self-promoter.
Bush’s preference for sustaining a single central government had been overtaken by events. The United States opened embassies in the newly independent states but still concentrated its efforts on Moscow and Yeltsin as the democratically elected leader of the new Russia. The two sides continued to negotiate on nuclear arms and in January 1993, just before Bush left office, agreed to the START II treaty eliminating MIRVs altogether and reducing strategic warheads to 3,500 on the U.S. side and 3,000 on the Russian. This was a 50-percent reduction in the levels set by the START I treaty approved only weeks before by the Senate. Meanwhile, the former Soviet republics in which nuclear weapons were still located—Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan—agreed in principle that they would be nonnuclear states with the weapons to be dismantled or shipped to Russia.
Yeltsin’s political position at home, like Gorbachev’s before him, was precarious in large part because of the chaotic state of the Russian economy. Yeltsin begged for massive U.S. economic aid. Bush was generous with words. “If this democratic revolution is defeated,” he said, “it could plunge us into a world more dangerous in some respects than the dark years of the Cold War.” But the president’s inherent caution and the reluctance of Congress meant that aid would be limited to relatively small amounts for humanitarian assistance and help with the dismantling of nuclear weapons. The uncertain future of the Russian economic system made Americans wary of “throwing money down a rathole,” and with the United States facing huge deficits itself, public opinion did not support a bailout of Russia.
The only former Communist country undergoing a more chaotic dissolution than the Soviet Union was Yugoslavia. In 1991 the political leaders of the different republics within Yugoslavia could not agree on how to keep the country together. As ethnic violence broke out, the federal Yugoslav army based in Serbia attacked Croatia. The Bush administration applied economic sanctions against Serbia, but was dismayed by the disintegration of a small country into even smaller parts. The United States went along reluctantly in 1992 when Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina were admitted to the United Nations as independent nations. In 1992 the fighting in Croatia subsided, but shifted to Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the Bosnian Serbs launched a war of “ethnic cleansing” against the Bosnian Muslim population. The European Community and the United States tried to broker a political settlement while UN peacekeepers watched helplessly. Bush and the United States were criticized by some commentators for not using military force to punish the Serbs and protect the Bosnian Muslims. But his advisers, including General Powell, believed that the ethnic hatreds in the region were so fierce that outside military intervention would be doomed to failure. Furthermore, no vital security interest of the United States was at stake. Thus, the United States stood back while the Bosnian Serbs continued their attacks, especially on the besieged city of Sarajevo. Not until September 1995, more than halfway through the presidency of Bill Clinton, did the United States and its NATO partners finally use heavy airpower to deter Bosnian Serb attacks on Muslims in an effort to force a peace settlement.
The Persian Gulf War
Bush’s close involvement with Gorbachev and the Soviet Union overlapped the biggest headline event of his presidency—the Persian Gulf War waged by an international coalition under American leadership to compel Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein to end his country’s aggression against Kuwait. The February 1991 victory in that war brought Bush the highest public opinion approval ratings of his presidency, overshadowing for a moment the controversial question of whether policy mistakes by the United States were partially responsible for the war in the first place.
Throughout the 1980s it was American policy to overlook the brutal aspects of the Saddam Hussein regime and to support Iraq in its long (1980-1988) and bloody war against Iran. The United States was following the old principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend—and Iran was an enemy, notwithstanding the Reagan administration’s misconceived 1986 effort to curry favor through the secret sale of arms, an aspect of the Iran-Contra scandal. The Bush administration continued to favor Iraq in spite of Saddam Hussein’s threats against Israel, overwhelming evidence that he was developing chemical, biological, and perhaps nuclear weapons, and his lethal suppression of the Kurdish minority in Iran (including use of poison gas). The administration believed that Iraq was an essential element in a Persian Gulf balance of power against a resurgent Iran and that the United States could persuade Saddam Hussein to moderate the unattractive features of his regime.
The administration’s policy was spelled out in secret National Security Directive 26 in October 1989. It declared: “Normal relations between the United States and Iraq would serve our longer-term interests and promote stability both in the Gulf and the Middle East. The United States should propose economic and political incentives for Iraq to moderate its behavior and to increase our influence.” These incentives included massive food exports to Iraq on favorable terms, a boon to American farmers, and the encouragement of trade in high-tech but nonlethal items. The administration resisted demands from human rights activists in Congress to impose sanctions against Iraq and dismissed Saddam Hussein’s public threat to destroy half of Israel with chemical warfare as mere bravado. Washington also failed to note that illegal loans to Iraq from an Italian-owned bank in the United States were being used to develop weapons of mass destruction.
In spite of the helpful intentions of the Bush administration, Iraq was in a difficult economic condition. There was widespread unemployment. Oil prices, and hence national revenue, were down. The costs of repairing the damage of the long war with Iran were heavy and the country was deeply in debt to other Arab states. In mid-1990 Saddam Hussein claimed that neighboring Kuwait was draining Iraqi oil from an oil field astride the border. He said the entire field rightfully belonged to Iraq and indicated he might use force to take it. In July 1990 Iraqi armed forces began to move toward Kuwait.
The Bush administration’s response was to try conciliation and hope for the best. April Glaspie, the American ambassador in Baghdad, was instructed to tell Saddam that the United States had no position on bilateral differences between Arab states, such as Iraq’s dispute with Kuwait, although the use of force would, of course, be contrary to the UN Charter. This statement and the absence of any significant American military preparations probably contributed to Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade Kuwait on 2 August.
Kuwait, smaller than the state of New Jersey and with a native population of less than a million (plus a million non-Kuwaiti guest workers from around the Middle East and southern Asia), could not stop the invasion. Within hours Iraqi troops occupied the country. The news reached President Bush while he was on vacation in Maine. He denounced Iraq for “naked aggression,” froze Iraqi and Kuwaiti financial assets in the United States, and cut off trade, but said the use of American military force was not under consideration. After talking with British prime minister Margaret Thatcher at a previously scheduled meeting in Aspen, Colorado, however, Bush took a stronger line. Thatcher, whose reputation for courage flowed from her leadership in Britain’s 1982 war against Argentina’s aggression in the Falkland Islands, compared Saddam Hussein to Hitler. Bush returned to Washington determined that, as he soon declaimed, the aggression against Kuwait would not stand.
The immediate problem, however, was to ensure that Iraqi forces did not press on a few miles and seize the major oil fields of Saudi Arabia—thereby acquiring control of approximately 40 percent of the world’s oil reserves. The question of how and when Iraq could be persuaded or forced to retreat from Kuwait came next. The administration moved quickly to secure international support in the United Nations Security Council where, thanks to post-Cold War relations with the Soviet Union and China, American proposals did not face a certain veto. A resolution condemning the Iraqi invasion (2 August) was followed by another imposing mandatory economic sanctions on Iraq (6 August). The protection of Saudi Arabia began with a successful trip by Secretary of Defense Cheney to Riyadh to persuade King Fahd to invite the stationing of American troops on his soil. On 6 August President Bush ordered the first forces of Operation Desert Shield to Saudi Arabia. The commander was General H. Norman Schwarzkopf.
Bush now operated at his best, “working the telephone” with leaders in a dozen different countries, lining up support for the opposition to Saddam Hussein, winning commitments to vote for crucial resolutions in the UN Security Council. His most difficult and sensitive task was to persuade the Soviet Union to be a partner in the enterprise. Bush had to be careful not to undermine Gorbachev’s leadership at home; some of the Soviet leader’s enemies within the USSR were accusing him of betraying an ally, Iraq, in order to become the lapdog of the United States. In the end Gorbachev provided full support for the coalition in the United Nations, but refused to send any Soviet military forces to participate in the campaign.
U.S. relations with Britain and France on the Iraqi question were good. Both supplied significant military forces and leadership. Relations with two other allies, Germany and Japan, were tricky. Both governments claimed that their constitutions prevented the use of armed forces outside their territory. The United States in these cases sought nonmilitary support. Japan ultimately contributed $14 billion and Germany $11 billion. Along with $16 billion each from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, a large part of American costs were defrayed. More than forty countries eventually contributed in some way to the effort to expel Iraq from Kuwait.
By October, Desert Shield was providing reliable protection to Saudi Arabia, but economic sanctions had not induced Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait. Bush decided that Iraq would respond only to military force. He ordered a sharp increase in the number of U.S. troops in the Gulf, thereby creating an offensive capability, but he waited until after the 6 November congressional elections to announce his decision.
At the end of November the United States went to the UN Security Council for authorization for the next stage: the forcible expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait. On 29 November the Security Council passed Resolution 678, giving Saddam Hussein until 15 January 1991 to withdraw from Kuwait, after which UN members were to employ “all necessary means” to liberate the country. “All necessary means,” of course, meant war. The vote was twelve in favor, with Cuba and Yemen opposed and China abstaining.
As the confrontation moved toward probable war, President Bush at first refused to give Congress a role in deciding policy. Critics noted that the U.S. Constitution assigned the responsibility for declaring war to Congress. They conceded that a president, as commander in chief, did have the power to use military force without prior congressional approval when the United States was attacked or in other clear emergencies. But this confrontation was proceeding in slow motion. Bush said that he had the authority to act without Congress—especially in carrying out UN Security Council resolutions.
Critics also called for more time to let the economic sanctions work and warned that a war would be long and very bloody, an impression Saddam Hussein did his best to encourage with his bluster about the approaching “mother of all battles.” Bush faced a dilemma. If a war waged without congressional authorization proved long and bloody (some said it could be another Vietnam), the resulting crisis could destroy his presidency. But if he asked for authorization and Congress said no, Saddam Hussein would be the winner. In January 1991 Bush concluded that he had enough votes to secure authorization. He asked for congressional support. Congress debated intensely for two days. A resolution to continue the use of sanctions rather than go to war failed narrowly. On 12 January the Senate by a vote of 52 to 47 and the House by 250 to 183 gave the president authority to use force—although Bush still claimed congressional action was really not necessary. The war—named Operation Desert Storm—began 16 January with a heavy bombing and missile campaign against Baghdad and Iraqi positions in Kuwait.
Iraq responded by firing intermediate-range Scud missiles, with conventional explosive war-heads, against Israel. At the time of the invasion of Kuwait, Iraq had suggested that a settlement of the Kuwait question should be linked to Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza and the establishment of a Palestinian state. The United States denounced the idea as a device for rewarding aggression and said there could be no “linkage.” Now Iraq sought to create linkage by provoking a counterattack from Israel and thereby weakening the resolve of Arab nations to fight over Kuwait. The ploy failed. The government of Israel accepted the U.S. offer to provide Patriot antimissile defenses, manned by Americans, and refrained from retaliatory attacks on Iraq.
Intense air attacks on Iraq continued for more than a month. On the diplomatic front the Soviet government sent a high-level negotiator to Baghdad in an effort to distance itself from the United States. Fortunately, from Washington’s point of view, nothing came of the Soviet effort. On 22 February, Bush gave Iraq a twenty-four-hour deadline: withdraw from Kuwait or face an invasion. Iraq responded by setting massive fires in Kuwait’s oil fields and hurling verbal defiance. The land war began on 23 February and lasted for one hundred hours. The vaunted battle-hardened Iraqi forces were no match for American and coalition air power. With their communications cut off, without airpower, unable to follow the movement of coalition forces, they were helpless. Thousands were killed, tens of thousands surrendered or fled north toward Baghdad.
Bush, with the full support of General Powell, declared on 27 February that Kuwait had been liberated and Iraq defeated. Offensive operations would end at 8:00 A.M. the following morning, Gulf time. Iraq accepted the cease-fire and agreed to abide by all UN resolutions concerned with its invasion. Did Bush end the war too soon? General Schwarzkopf soon made that charge. Saddam Hussein was still in power and much of his army was intact. But the president had good reasons for the decision. The war had been fought to liberate Kuwait—a clear, single objective. To continue to fight for other reasons would have cost American lives and killed many thousands of Iraqis. The coalition in support of liberating Kuwait would break apart on the question of a larger war. Furthermore, the conquest of Iraq might saddle the United States with long responsibility as an occupying power. And finally, the elimination of Iraq would upset the balance of power in the Gulf to the advantage of Iran.
Victory in the Gulf War was the high point of the Bush presidency. Bush spoke expansively of a “new world order” in which all nations, large and small, would be protected from aggression, and the United Nations, freed from the obstructive use of the veto by antagonistic great powers, would function as originally intended. He also said that the United States had “licked the Vietnam syndrome”—meaning that the country was no longer paralyzed by even the thought of using military power, for fear of becoming embroiled in a quagmire.
There were other consequences. Although the United States had rejected Iraq’s effort to link Kuwait and Israel, linkage in the Middle East was a reality. Secretary of State Baker worked after the war to bring the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the other Arab countries to a peace table for discussions. The first round of talks was held in Madrid, Spain, in October. Bush also brought pressure on Israel to restrict the establishment of new Jewish settlements in the territories occupied after the 1967 war. Specifically, in September 1992 he persuaded Congress not to consider Israel’s request for $10 billion in loan guarantees for new housing for emigrants from the Soviet Union. Congress complied, but Bush was strongly criticized by many American supporters of Israel. The pressure worked. In 1992 a new government in Israel agreed to restrict the settlements and the loan guarantee was extended.
The consequences of the Gulf War were less positive in Iraq. Two groups of the Iraqi population—Kurds in the north and Shiite Muslims in the south—used Saddam Hussein’s defeat as an opportunity to assert their rights against an oppressive central government. Saddam responded with military force. The United States was in a delicate position. The Kurds and Shiites had legitimate grievances and were victims of Baghdad’s brutality. But to support them might lead to the breakup of Iraq, instability in the region, and entangling commitments. The compromise was to provide protection for the Kurds in a safe-haven area and to prohibit Iraq from using air-power against either the Kurds or the Shiites. The United States enforced two no-fly zones for this purpose.
Trade and Foreign Policy in Asia
After the end of the Cold War and victory over Iraq the focus of administration foreign policy changed from maintaining a military-strategic position to expanding trade on favorable terms. Bush worked hard for that objective, concentrating on China and Japan.
Bush’s first foreign visit, in February 1989, a month after his inauguration, was to China. He met with Chinese leaders Deng Xiaoping and Premier Li Peng. But the visit was marred when the Chinese blocked dissident Fang Lizhi, a distinguished scientist, from accepting President Bush’s invitation to a banquet. The incident was a portent of trouble to come. Throughout the spring of 1989 ever-larger crowds of students in Beijing demonstrated against the government. In May, Premier Li Peng declared martial law. A half a million protesters marched in Shanghai while students in Beijing erected a “Goddess of Democracy” modeled on the American Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square. The bloody climax came on 3 and 4 June when the Chinese government responded with the clank of tanks and the rattle of gunfire—while television carried the scene around the world. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of protesters were killed and wounded.
In public, President Bush joined the American people in condemning the Chinese government’s actions. He suspended military sales to China and agreed to provide asylum for Fang Lizhi and his wife in the American embassy. The State Department advised Americans to leave Beijing, evacuated the dependents of diplomatic personnel, and recommended that international financial organizations postpone consideration of loan applications from China. The Bush administration suspended all high-level contacts between American and Chinese officials. Secretly, however, Bush dispatched National Security Adviser Scowcroft and Deputy Secretary of State Eagleburger to Beijing to say that the United States remained interested in good relations. The implicit message was that the Chinese leadership should realize that the administration’s measures in response to the Tiananmen events were temporary and connected with American politics.
A crucial question in Chinese-American relations was the continuation or suspension of China’s unfettered right to export to the United States. The term for this right, “most favored nation” status (MFN), is somewhat misleading in that it does not confer any special privileges, but only distinguishes states with which the United States has good commercial relations. The withdrawal of MFN was favored by human rights activists and a majority in Congress as a means of punishing China for the human rights violations so vividly symbolized by the Tiananmen massacre. Bush disagreed and fought off congressional pressure to restrict trade, twice vetoing punitive measures. He argued that the best way to encourage reform in China was to have a thriving trade, and that cutting off trade would hurt both the American economy and Chinese men and women who were not responsible for human rights violations.
United States relations with Japan were plagued during the Bush presidency by the perennial problem of unbalanced trade. Japan sold far more to the United States than it purchased and, from the American point of view, used unfair tactics to exclude American products from the Japanese market. The Bush administration continued a twenty-year-old ritual of complaint and negotiation after which the Japanese would appear to make small concessions. The trade imbalance grew worse. Bush made the trade issue the first topic of discussion on a trip to Japan in January 1992, during which he was accompanied by a bevy of American automobile executives. Alas, he caught a stomach virus and vomited on the Japanese prime minister at an official dinner. That embarrassing incident got more headlines than the substance of the discussions.
Not all policy in Asia involved trade. The issue in the Philippines, an American colony from 1899 to 1946 and ally after that, was the future of the huge U.S. naval and air bases at Subic Bay and Clark Field. Washington had long considered the bases essential for the projection of American power in Asia and had used them heavily during the Vietnam War. Successive Philippine governments valued the rent and economic stimulus the bases provided, although many Filipinos considered the American presence de-meaning and culturally damaging. While negotiations were in progress in June 1991 the eruption of the Mount Pinatubo volcano severely damaged the bases. In July the negotiators agreed on the terms of a ten-year renewal, but the Philippine senate rejected the agreement. With the Cold War over and the damage from the volcano to confront, the United States no longer considered the bases essential. No effort was made to persuade the Philippine senate to reconsider. On 24 November 1992 the bases were turned over to the Philippine government, ending a near century of American presence.
Bush moved cautiously toward improved relations with Communist Vietnam. Even though American combat in Vietnam ended in 1973, the war left a bitter legacy, especially among those who believed that the Hanoi government was not providing all possible information on American soldiers missing in action (MIA) during the war. The political intensity of the MIA lobby deterred Bush from lifting the prohibition on trade with Hanoi and establishing diplomatic relations. He did authorize the beginning of discussions. Trade and full diplomatic relations were opened by the Clinton administration in 1994-1995.
Backyard Foreign Policy
The Latin American policy of the Bush administration departed sharply from the Cold War concerns of the Reagan years. The Soviet Union gradually withdrew its aid for Cuba, the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, and the leftist insurgents in El Salvador—both because Gorbachev did not want to irritate the United States on an issue of no strategic importance to Moscow and because the USSR had run out of money. The Bush administration, in turn, abandoned the Reaganite military approach to the political problems of Central America and encouraged regional diplomatic solutions and a role for the United Nations. The result was the free election victory in Nicaragua of an anti-Sandinista coalition led by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro in February 1990 and a unbrokered end to the civil war in El Salvador in late 1991.
Some American liberals urged the administration to open a dialogue with Fidel Castro of Cuba, looking toward a possible lifting of the embargo on trade and the normalization of relations now that the Cold War was over. But on that question Bush held fast to the old policy of tough economic sanctions and verbal denunciation of Castro’s totalitarian regime. Castro was no longer a threat to anyone outside of Cuba, but a tough anti-Castro policy was good domestic politics, especially with the well-organized Cuban-American community in Florida.
Elsewhere in the Caribbean and Central America, President Bush dealt with new objectives and problems. The most dramatic episode was the December 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama to oust dictator Manuel Noriega and bring him to trial for his involvement in the illegal drug trade. Noriega’s power was based largely on murder and intimidation. He had been on the payroll of the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Agency in the 1980s for assistance in the covert war against the Sandinistas and to help interdict the flow of narcotics into the United States. In fact, he was up to his armpits in the drug trade and money laundering. Finally in 1988 Noriega was indicted on drug charges by a federal grand jury in Florida. The Reagan administration floated the idea, opposed by Vice President Bush, of dropping the indictment if Noriega would give up his power and leave Panama. Noriega was not interested in the deal.
But in May 1989 Noriega, under U.S. pressure, permitted a presidential election in Panama. The democratic opposition, headed by Guillermo Endara, won 68 percent of the vote. Noriega annulled the election. His loyal political roughnecks attacked and severely wounded Endara and other opposition leaders. Noriega was now a bone in Bush’s throat. Bush ordered more troops sent to the American base alongside the Panama Canal and tightened economic sanctions. In October 1989 a young Panamanian military officer asked for U.S. help in overthrowing Noriega. The United States hesitated in providing support. Noriega executed the leaders of the attempted coup.
In December, Noriega’s puppet National Assembly declared a state of war with the United States. Noriega’s army provoked a U.S. response by killing an off-duty marine officer and harassing other Americans. Just after midnight on 20 December, American forces attacked Noriega’s headquarters and military installations. Endara, the legally elected president, took office under American protection and declared the Panamanian army disbanded. Armed resistance to the intervention faded quickly, and the great majority of the people of Panama rejoiced in their liberation from a brutal dictator. Noriega took refuge in the residence of the papal envoy to Panama. He soon surrendered and was transported to Florida for trial, conviction, and a long jail sentence. Twenty-five thousand Americans served in the operation, of whom 39 were killed, along with 139 Panamanian troops and about 400 civilians. The Organization of American States condemned the U.S. invasion by a vote of 20 to 1, but Bush, the U.S. Congress, and most Americans, according to public opinion polls, believed the right thing had been done.
Haiti was another nearby problem with no connection to old Cold War issues. The densely populated, impoverished island country had long suffered under corrupt and despotic rule. In December 1990, however, the first reasonably free elections in Haitian history were won by a charismatic hero of the poor, the Reverend Jean-Bertrand Aristide. President Aristide’s radical philosophy threatened the army and the wealthy oligarchy. He was overthrown in a military coup on 30 September 1991.
One of the coup leaders, General Raoul Cedras, took over as Haiti’s leader. Aristide fled to Venezuela and then to Washington, where he continued to be recognized as the rightful head of government. The United States applied increasing economic pressure against Cedras and supported the futile efforts of the United Nations and the Organization of American States to negotiate Aristide’s return. Meanwhile, thousands of poor Haitians tried to escape to the United States in pitifully unseaworthy wooden boats. Many were lost at sea while thousands of others were picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard. The Bush administration denied the refugees admission to the United States and instead established a temporary camp for them at Guantánamo Bay, the American naval base in Cuba. In 1993 the Clinton administration inherited a standoff with Cedras and in 1994 negotiated Cedras’ departure and sent in American troops to prevent violence and permit Aristide’s return.
Bush’s major economic initiative in Latin America, negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), had large domestic economic and political implications. The agreement brought Mexico into the existing free-trade arrangement between the United States and Canada. It called for the elimination of tariffs (taxes charged on imports) for most trade among the three countries. The Mexican government embraced NAFTA as a boon to manufacturing, and American corporations favored it as a means of lowering the cost of production by using low-wage Mexican workers. Organized American labor, on the other hand, denounced it as a threat to employment in the United States, and environmentalists said it would be a way for American companies to escape U.S. environmental regulations. Ross Perot, an independent candidate in the 1992 election, made opposition a centerpiece of his campaign and warned of the “giant sucking sound” of American jobs flowing down below the border. Bill Clinton was a lukewarm supporter. The agreement was signed by Bush, Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, and Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney on 17 December 1992. It was approved by Congress in late 1993 and went into effect 1 January 1994.
Battling with Congress
The political failure of the Bush presidency, defined by Bush’s loss in the 1992 election, was entirely in the realm of domestic affairs and may well have been beyond Bush’s power to prevent. There had been a sharp recession at the beginning of the Reagan years, with almost 10 percent of the workforce unemployed. But since 1983 the nation’s economy had enjoyed extraordinary growth. A cyclical correction was overdue. Growth slowed in 1989 and 1990 and then stopped in 1991. Unemployment rose from 5.3 percent in 1989 to 7.4 percent in 1992. The start of a recovery in late 1992 was not vigorous enough to reduce unemployment and came too late to help Bush at the polls.
Against this economic background, Bush had the political problem of facing a Congress controlled, in both Senate and House, by the opposition party throughout his four years. Other recent presidents—Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan—faced a similar problem but encountered less difficulty than Bush. One tactic, used successfully by Truman and Reagan, was to build such popular support for a clear program that members of Congress either cooperated or faced a loss at the next election. Another tactic, mastered by Nixon, was to win support across party lines with a subtle combination of punishments and rewards.
Bush tried neither. He had no compelling program on which to build popular support, and he lacked the taste or talent for bargaining and mutual accommodation. Again, Bush was above all a foreign policy president. His friends and critics agreed on his lack of passion and leadership in domestic affairs. Although he had run for the Senate and served four years in the House, he had few close friends in the legislature. His key advisers on domestic affairs saw Congress as an obstacle, not a difficult partner with whom it was necessary to reach an understanding. Instead, as one analyst of his presidency has written, Bush tried to govern without Congress.
Bush’s principal tool was the veto. Under the Constitution the president must sign bills passed by Congress to make them into law. If he disapproves of the legislation, he may refuse to sign it and send Congress a veto. Both houses of Congress need a two-thirds majority to override a presidential veto. Bush wielded the veto successfully forty-three out of forty-four times. The only veto to be overridden, on 5 October 1992, was legislation to regulate the cable television industry. Bush said the law would increase rather than reduce the cost of cable TV to the consumer.
Most of the important successful vetoes reflected Bush’s opposition to expanded government regulations and were favorable to business. For example, his first veto, on 13 June 1989, blocked a congressional effort to raise the minimum wage from $3.35 (where it had stood since 1981) to $4.55. Congress offered a compromise at $4.25, which Bush then signed. Bush also vetoed, on 21 June 1990, a bill to require most employers to permit employees to have up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave to care for newborn, recently adopted, or ill children, without risking their job security. Bush said such matters were best left to negotiation between workers and management and that the bill would create “rigid, federally imposed requirements.” In October 1991, with unemployment rising, Bush vetoed a bill to extend federal unemployment benefits, saying it would add to the budget deficit.
His most conspicuous veto was exercised against the civil rights legislation of 1990. Recent Supreme Court decisions had narrowed the ability of employees to win redress from employers for discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, religion, and national origin. The Democratic Congress proceeded to strengthen the legislation. Bush’s veto message argued that the proposed law would force employers to set quotas in hiring in order to protect themselves from lawsuits. The president said he was all for affirmative action, but vehemently against quotas. He also twice vetoed, as noted above, congressional efforts to deny MFN status to China and a message to restrict textile imports.
Another technique used by Bush to work around Congress was to restrict or eliminate federal regulations on environmental and occupational safety matters deemed burdensome to business, and generally to interpret the will of Congress in the narrowest possible way. A key adviser in this effort was White House counsel Boyden Gray, a lawyer adept at finding ways to reshape the meaning of laws. Another technique was the vigorous use of the Council on Competitiveness headed by Vice President Quayle. The mandate of the Quayle council was to review all federal regulations affecting business and strike down regulations whose cost to business was deemed to exceed the benefits derived. Business interests were invited to appeal directly to Quayle for help.
Bush did work with Congress in passing two major pieces of legislation, both in 1990: the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Clean Air Act. The first required businesses, schools, and public institutions to install facilities providing full access to people in wheelchairs and with other disabilities.
In supporting the Clean Air Act, Bush was acting, to use his own words, as an “environmental president.” President Reagan, showing little anxiety over alleged threats to the environment, had for eight years blocked any strengthening of 1977 clean air legislation. The quality of the nation’s air had improved little, if at all. Acid rain, caused by smokestack emissions and urban smog from automobiles, was harmful to plants and human beings. Bush agreed something had to be done. He did not accept the sweeping proposals of some members of Congress, but settled for new pollution controls on automobile exhausts and required industry to meet deadlines for the reduction of damaging emissions. The implementation of environmental regulations, however, involved a constant struggle between William Reilly, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and more conservative, business-oriented members of the administration like Chief of Staff Sununu and Vice President Quayle.
It was not easy for Bush to be simultaneously an environmental president and the protector of business from federal regulations. For example, at first he came out against attending the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, popularly called the Earth Summit, scheduled for June 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “I am not going to the Rio Conference and . . . sign an agreement that does not protect the environment and economy of this country,” he said. In the face of an environmentalist outcry Bush did attend the conference, though the United States refused at Rio to support the Biodiversity Treaty to protect endangered species, because Bush believed it would place undue burdens on American business.
Bush’s biggest problem with Congress was the deficit in the federal budget, the gap between revenue and expenditures. The deficit in 1980, Jimmy Carter’s last year as president, had been $73.8 billion. By Reagan’s last year, 1988, it had doubled to $155 billion. Deficits must be met by borrowing, and borrowing produces a national debt. The debt under Carter was $914 billion. By 1988 it had tripled—requiring more than $200 billion per year just to pay the interest. Bush agreed with his budget director Richard Darman that the deficit and the debt were a serious drag on the American economy, depressing productive investment, costing jobs, weakening the nation’s ability to compete for world markets.
But what to do? A deficit can be closed only by reducing expenditures or increasing revenue (taxes), or some combination of the two. Bush had a quadruple problem. First, he had pledged “no new taxes” during the 1988 campaign, and most Republicans were determined to hold him to the pledge. Second, expenditures were rising rapidly because of interest payments, a commitment made in the Reagan administration to bail out failed savings and loan institutions, and the escalating cost of payments under Social Security, Medicare, and other government “entitlement” programs. Third, the Democratic Congress was loath to cut entitlements but welcomed the opportunity to embarrass Bush with new taxes. And fourth, the economy as a whole went into mild recession in 1990 and 1991. Unemployment rose and wages stagnated. A popular anti-Bush bumper sticker in the spring of 1991 read “Saddam Hussein has a job. Have you?” Bush’s dilemma was that he believed the long-term health of the economy required a reduction in federal spending—a measure that in the short term could mean higher unemployment.
Bush kept his pledge on no new taxes in 1989. The budget agreement reached that year kept things as they were: rising expenditures, rising debt, no new taxes. But in 1990 Bush decided to abandon his pledge as part of a comprehensive deal with Congress. He and his staff engaged Congress in prolonged negotiation aimed toward a mix of higher taxes and a substantial cut in expenditures. Representative Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, the Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, was the principal negotiator for Congress. Conservative commentators and some disillusioned members of his own staff believed that Bush was taken to the cleaners by Congress. Under the 1990 budget act taxes went up slightly, but cuts in spending were largely promises for the future. As a result, expenditures continued to grow faster than revenue, the deficit remained high (reaching $290 billion in 1992), and the national debt at the end of Bush’s term exceeded $4 trillion.
Bush failed to persuade Congress to enact his favorite economic measure: a reduction in the capital gains tax, the tax incurred when stocks or other assets are sold for more than what they were purchased for. The president argued that a high capital gains tax prevented investors from taking the kind of risk necessary for economic growth and from redirecting funds from old investments to new, more productive ones. He also claimed that a lower capital gains tax would actually mean more government revenue because investors would be more likely to sell stocks when their tax on profits was low, rather than hold onto them and not pay any tax at all. The Democratic-controlled Congress blocked a capital gains tax cut and called it a measure to benefit only the rich—since poor people had no investments and thus no hope of capital gains.
Bush alienated some conservatives by agreeing to new taxes, but he leaned their way on a cluster of noneconomic issues, such as abortion. After the Supreme Court in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989) extended the power of a state government to restrict abortions, those who believed in a woman’s right to choose (“pro-choice”) mobilized. The Democratic Congress, with pro-choice majorities, then attempted to strike down existing bans on the use of federal funds for abortions or abortion-related activities. Four times Bush vetoed bills with pro-choice provisions.
Another controversial issue was gun control. Here Bush took a middle-of-the-road position. He declared his strong conviction that Americans had a constitutionally guaranteed right to bear arms and his belief that legislation could do little to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. Better, he said, to deal with crime through longer, tougher prison sentences. On the other hand, he supported restrictions on the importation of certain kinds of automatic weapons unsuitable for sporting purposes.
Defeat in 1992
President Bush always intended to run for a second term and in 1992 faced only one challenger for the nomination—the ultraconservative political commentator and onetime Nixon and Reagan aide, Patrick (“Pat”) Buchanan. Although Buchanan gave Bush a scare in the early New Hampshire primary by winning 37.4 percent of the vote, he soon faded. By April 1992 Bush’s renomination was locked up. The press did speculate about whether Quayle would be “dumped” from the ticket but Bush stood by his vice president both out of loyalty and as a gesture toward conservative Republicans. Buchanan, however, regained national attention with a ferocious speech at the Republican convention in August, a virtual declaration of war against political and cultural liberals and moderates. Bush’s apparent acceptance of Buchanan’s extremism may have cost him votes in the November election.
Meanwhile, the Democrats picked Bill Clinton, the youthful governor of Arkansas, and the equally young Albert (“Al”) Gore, Jr., senator from Tennessee, as his vice presidential running mate. Businessman Ross Perot, the wealthy and idiosyncratic independent candidate, inspired an enthusiastic band of followers with his call for a simpler, smaller government. Perot never had a chance of winning the election but he received 19 percent of the vote, more at the expense of Bush than Clinton. Had Perot not been running, the contest would have been close, but Clinton would probably still have won.
Clinton’s advantage and Bush’s liability was the sluggish state of the economy and the perception among disaffected voters, especially traditional Democrats who had voted for Reagan, that Bush did not have a clue about how to stem the deficit and create new jobs. Clinton strategist James Carville defined the key issue of the campaign as “the economy, stupid.” Public opinion polling confirmed Carville’s analysis. When asked what was the most important issue, most people said the economy and unemployment or the cost of health care; only 6 percent said foreign policy. Bush’s championing of NAFTA lost support among workers fearing for their jobs (many of whom probably voted for Perot) and his enthusiasm for a cut in the capital gains tax made him vulnerable among middle- and lower-income voters to the charge that he was the candidate of the rich.
Bush suffered other liabilities. Ironically, the success in foreign policy deprived him of an asset. No longer could he, as in 1988, win votes by pointing to his long experience in foreign and national security affairs. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yeltsin’s Russia in disarray and the United States avoiding involvement in the civil war in Bosnia, Clinton’s foreign policy inexperience did not help Bush the way the inexperience of Dukakis had in 1988. Also, Bush’s embrace of a conservative social agenda alienated voters who believed that a woman’s right to a legal abortion must be protected.
The election results were devastating. Bush received only 37.4 percent of the vote against 43 percent for Clinton. In the electoral college it was 370 (thirty-two states) for Clinton and 168 (eighteen states) for Bush. Perot received no electoral votes. Democrats retained control of both houses of Congress. Bush was deeply hurt politically, but he pressed on in office, showing a remarkable burst of energy in the “lame-duck” eleven weeks before Clinton’s inauguration in January 1993.
On 4 December 1992 Bush ordered the second largest military operation of his presidency, the humanitarian intervention in Somalia to end mass starvation. Drought-plagued Somalia, located on the northeast coast of Africa, was in a state of anarchy as disorganized armed groups terrorized the population, looted relief supplies, and endangered the lives of civilian relief workers. Worldwide television carried excruciating pictures of the suffering. Bush acted. He sent 28,000 American troops to protect the relief efforts and bring food to the starving. President-elect Clinton, Congress, and the American people agreed it was the right thing to do.
Also during his final weeks Bush joined Russian president Yeltsin in proposing additional major reductions in strategic nuclear arms. And on Christmas Eve 1992 he pardoned six Reagan administration officials charged with misleading Congress during the Iran-Contra affair. They were former secretary of defense Caspar W. Weinberger, former assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs Elliott Abrams, former national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane, and three officials of the Central Intelligence Agency.
George and Barbara Bush returned to Houston, Texas, the day of Clinton’s inauguration. Bush chose to be a low-profile ex-president, refusing numerous speaking engagements and making few public pronouncements. The conservative wing of the Republican party blamed him for Clinton’s victory and did not invite him to play a prominent role in party affairs. When the Republicans won control of both houses of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections, something they had been unable to do while Bush was president, Bush’s name was never mentioned as having contributed to the victory. No one urged him to seek the 1996 Republican nomination and none of the contenders sought his endorsement. Like Gorbachev in Russia, George Bush was no longer a player in high politics.