George H.W. Bush’s Foreign Policy Fails


Editor’s Note: Spectator contributor Sean Howard begins the New Year with a two-part consideration of the actual legacy — both domestic and global — of the 41st President of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush. This month, in Part 2, Howard considers Bush’s foreign policy failures. (Read Part I)


The one-term presidency of George H.W. Bush (1989-1993) is almost universally celebrated for an achievement of world-historic significance: his supposedly deft diplomatic handling of the end of the Cold War. Even vehement critics of Bush’s blood-soaked interventions (overt and covert) in the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere, regard the bloodless transition from Superpower confrontation to peaceful coexistence in Europe not just as a ‘win’ for Washington but an inestimable gift to future generations. A quarter century later, however, a new Cold War is redividing the Continent, reigniting the nuclear arms race, and menacing the globe; a roaring return to enmity which – while ‘understood’ in the West as Putin’s unraveling of Bush’s legacy – is actually rooted in the rarely-told ‘back story’ of Soviet decline and fall.

Before correcting that record, though, the grim ‘big picture’ of Bush’s tenure as ‘leader of the free world’ deserves review. His outlook had been shaped by decades in US intelligence – rising to become President Gerald Ford’s director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the only US spy chief ever to serve as commander-in-chief – and eight years as President Reagan’s vice-president.

“Bush helmed the CIA,” as Greg Grandin wrote in his excoriating obituary in The Nation, “when it was working with Latin American death squads grouped under Operation Condor,” the clandestine US effort to sustain and install ‘anti-Communist’ military dictatorships in the region by ‘all means necessary.’ Human rights? American values? Congressional oversight? To preview a quote from Bush’s presidency:

To hell with that!

As a senior CIA official, Bush helped orchestrate the 1973 overthrow and murder of Salvador Allende, the democratically-elected, un-autocratic socialist president of Chile. As Chilean playwright and activist Ariel Dorfman, an advisor to Allende, told Democracy Now!:

[H]ere is the man who, from 1976 to ’77, [was] presiding over the CIA when the following things were happening: Operation Condor…which is basically a series of death squads, but he was also presiding over the CIA when Pinochet, the dictator of Chile, had concentration camps open. They were torturing people. They were executing people. They were persecuting people. And they were killing people overseas.

As Reagan’s VP, Bush was almost certainly complicit in the criminally insane master plan of his boss to sell weapons to an enemy state, Iran (designated a state-sponsor of terrorism by Congress), to help fund the dirty war of right-wing ‘contra’ guerrillas in Nicaragua (designated an illegal paramilitary group) against the communist Sandinista regime. Though “the ex-CIA Director claimed he was ‘out of the loop,'” Mehdi Hasan told Democracy Now!, “other participants and a paper trail suggested otherwise.”

But we’ll never know, because in one of his last acts as President, Bush “decapitated” the case painstakingly built by Independent Prosecutor Laurence Welsh by pardoning six alleged conspirators, including Reagan’s Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, due to stand trial – and possibly incriminate the outgoing president. The drastic step, Walsh complained, “undermines the principle that no man is above the law. It demonstrates that powerful people with powerful allies can commit serious crimes in high office …without consequence.”

The Iran-Contra cover-up,” he concluded, “which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed.” (If the current US President were to attempt to stay ‘out of jail’ by pardoning defendants days from possibly testifying against him in Court, the cries for his impeachment, or arrest for obstruction of justice, would rightly be deafening. But he would have a pretty formidable precedent on his side.)

In his tenure as ‘the most powerful man on Earth,’ Bush launched an illegal invasion – of Panama, in 1989 – and the UN-authorized 1991 Gulf War to expel Iraq from Kuwait, an intervention he sold dishonestly and waged indiscriminately.

Panama was attacked to topple its military leader, and notorious drugs trafficker, General Manuel Noriega, “once,” Hasan notes, “a close ally to Washington and on the CIA payroll.” (Evidence suggests, in fact, that Noriega, partly as a favor to the Reagan White House, funneled around $10 million from the ruthless Colombian Medellin drug cartel to the Contras.) Says Hasan:

During the attack, the US unleashed a force of 24,000 troops equipped with highly sophisticated weaponry and aircraft against a country with an army smaller than the New York City Police Department. An estimated 3,000 Panamanians died…

Greg Grandin writes:

Civilians were given no notice. The University of Panama’s seismograph marked 442 major explosions in the first 12 hours of the invasion. Fires engulfed the mostly wooden homes, destroying about 4,000 residences. Some residents began to call the ravaged Panama City neighborhood of El Chorrilo ‘Guernica’ or ‘Little Hiroshima.’

The assault was condemned by the vast majority of UN States, and most strongly by the Organization of American States (OAS): three decades later, a campaign to secure an apology and reparations continues, boosted by an October 2018 ruling from the OAS’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that the US acted in violation of four key articles (right to life, liberty and personal security; right to protection for children; right to property; right to a fair trial) of the 1948 American Declaration of Rights and Duties of Man (the Bogota Declaration).


In the simplistic historical division of American wars into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – though some, like Panama ’89, are largely forgotten – the Gulf War of Bush Sr. stands with World War II as a just struggle cleanly won, routinely contrasted with the ‘quagmire’ of Vietnam and the ‘pack-of-lies’ Iraq War of Bush Jr. Profound questions remain, however, about US diplomacy before and after the intervention, and the way the war was packaged and prosecuted.

President Ronald Reagan with Caspar Weinberger, George Shultz, Ed Meese, and Don Regan discussing the President's remarks on the Iran-Contra affair, Oval Office. 25 November 1986.

President Ronald Reagan with Caspar Weinberger, George Shultz, Ed Meese, and Don Regan discussing the President’s remarks on the Iran-Contra affair, Oval Office. 25 November 1986.

The conflict followed a decade, the 1980s, in which the US regarded Iraq as a vital ally in the fight to destroy the revolutionary Islamic regime in Tehran. (Yes, the same ‘Mad Mullahs’ secretly armed by Reagan.) In June 1990, as a courtesy and precaution, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein informed US Ambassador to Baghdad April Glaspie of his plan to seize a portion of Kuwait’s oil fields (part of a long-running territorial dispute, compounded by Kuwait’s alleged ‘siphoning’ of Iraqi oil). Backing an earlier State Department message that Washington had “no special defense commitments to Kuwait,” Glaspie told Hussein: “We have no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.” (For an admirable summary of available documentation, see Joshua Holland.)

Six days after Iraq’s invasion (August 2), Bush deployed US air and ground forces in Saudi Arabia, claiming action was necessary not only to liberate Kuwait but “assist the Saudi Arabian Government in the defense of its homeland.” According to the president, intelligence satellites showed 250,000 Iraqi troops (and 1,500 tanks) poised to pounce on the Kingdom; and as Holland writes, only “one reporter,” Jean Heller of Florida’s St. Petersburg Times,:

…wasn’t satisfied taking the administration’s claims at face value. She obtained two commercial satellite images of the area taken at exactly the same time that American intelligence supposedly had found Saddam’s huge and menacing army – and found nothing but empty desert.

When Heller contacted the office of Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, she was told simply: “Trust us.”

Even the Saudi scare story, however, failed to persuade political or public opinion: what did, was the heartrending Congressional testimony of a young woman calling herself only Nayirah, describing Iraqi soldiers leaving babies, ripped from Kuwaiti hospital incubators, “to die on the cold floor.”  The story was never corroborated, and fell apart in 1992 when New York Times reporter John MacArthur revealed that Nayirah was the daughter of Saud Nasir al-Sabah, Kuwait’s Ambassador to the US; that her testimony had been arranged by Citizens for a Free Kuwait, a front for the Kuwaiti government; and that she had been coached by PR firm Hill & Knowlton, long-time defenders of the tobacco industry, as part of a $10.7 million fee to sell the war.   

It has been repeated ad nauseum that the comparatively quick and painless success of Operation Desert Storm exorcised ‘the ghost of Vietnam.’ It left behind, however, killing fields contaminated by depleted-uranium (DU) shells and strewn with unexploded mines and cluster bombs; and it created hosts of new ghosts, including thousands of soldiers, mostly young conscripts, pulverized by air attacks while in clear retreat on the ‘Highway of Death’ from Kuwait City, and over 400 civilians killed in the Amiriyah air-raid shelter in Baghdad. Though as Mehdi Hasan stressed to Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman:

[The Americans] didn’t just bomb an air-raid shelter, Amy. They bombed power stations, electricity-generating facilities, food-processing plants, flour mills—the civilian infrastructure of Iraq. And this was not collateral damage. Planners from the United States government told The Washington Post, told Barton Gellman, in 1991, that they were doing this on purpose so that they would have leverage with a postwar Iraq which would be forced to supplicate in the international arena for foreign assistance. And we know what happened next, with the sanctions, with the devastation that came in the ’90s and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi kids who died. That all started on George Bush Sr.’s watch.

Following the carnage, Bush’s decision to maintain US forces in Saudi Arabia also worked like a nightmare, radicalizing the resentment of Osama bin Laden and other militants against Washington and its Gulf allies. And while Bush (acting more out of concern for American than Iraqi lives) was right not to pursue Saddam’s Army back to Baghdad, his encouragement of insurrection by Iraqi Shi’a and Kurds provoked only a brutal crackdown and abiding sense of betrayal.


All of the above horrors fit into the same, sick category of ‘Cold War Games,’ the bipolar geopolitical chess at which Bush fancied himself a Grand Master. By the time he took office, the Soviets had already stopped playing, opting under Mikhail Gorbachev’s dynamic new leadership for the deep détente of radical nuclear and conventional disarmament, a turn to mutual, human security seen not as ‘surrender’ to Uncle Sam but a decisive rejection of an arms race to ruin. In Ronald Reagan, Gorbachev found an improbable partner for peace, a mass of Cold War contradictions – as evidenced by the Iran-Contra fiasco – but also a leader willing to ‘trust and verify’ the new intents and purposes of an ‘Empire’ he once famously denounced as ‘Evil.’ The moment of truth for the new era, however, came on Bush’s watch, with the sudden collapse of Soviet authority in Eastern Europe and the drastic faltering of the perestroika (restructuring) revolution back home.

President Reagan, Vice-President Bush meet with Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev on Governor's Island, New York, 1988.

President Reagan, Vice-President Bush meet with Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev on Governor’s Island, New York, 1988.

In his acclaimed 2017 biography of Gorbachev, William Taubman notes that three of the new president’s key advisers – Cheney, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, and deputy National Security Adviser Robert Gates: inveterate Cold Warriors all – may have been “right to doubt Gorbachev’s prospects for remaining in power over the long term” but were “wrong about how much he had accomplished” and unwilling to come to his aid. Gorbachev’s “longevity in office,” Taubman writes, “may well have been extended if he had received more help.”

In a message conveyed by President Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger – described by Taubman as “a cry for help” – Gorbachev made clear to Bush he favored maintaining an urgent pace of détente and disarmament; in response to which Bush ordered a ‘pause,’ followed by a ‘strategic review’ outlining four ways of “coping with Gorbachev”:

1) “to appear,” in Scowcroft’s words, “confident about our purposes and agenda”;

2) “to signal that relations with our allies were our first priority” by bolstering “the credibility of our nuclear deterrent through modernization”;

3) to emphasize relations with Eastern Europe, exploiting “a potential weak link in the solidarity of the Soviet bloc”; and

4), “to promote,” in Taubman’s words, “regional stability in a place like Central America.”

As Taubman notes, this “list” did not include helping Gorbachev transform his country and close out the Cold War, because the overriding purpose of American foreign policy, as understood by the ‘realists’ around Bush, ‘should not be how can we help perestroika or Gorbachev, but how can we promote the interests of the United States.’ The words are those of Ambassador Jack Matlock Jr. in the third of three cables he sent from Moscow in February 1989.

Had Gorbachev known of this back-to-the-future ‘containment policy,’ he might have acted less trustingly when the issue of German reunification arose. At the Malta Summit with Bush in December 1989, Gorbachev spurned the advice of his Foreign Ministry to make reunification conditional upon an agreement between NATO and the Warsaw Pact to denuclearize, demilitarize and disband, making way for the building of a “common European home” (Gorbachev’s phrase) under the auspices of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE).

Millions of Germans, certainly, did not want the reunification of their country to inaugurate an era of NATO – and, principally, American – ascendancy. As senior Bush adviser for Soviet and Eastern European Affairs Robert Blackwill remembered in November 2014, at a symposium marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall:

We kept waiting for Gorbachev to take advantage of the fact that seventy percent of Germans would have been satisfied if Germany had remained outside of NATO. Our nightmare was that Gorbachev would announce…that he would accept German unity but not NATO membership. We expected this to happen any day. It would have created enormous difficulty for us. But it didn’t happen. Praise be!


Gorbachev held back partly out of weakness, anxious not to provoke Western powers whose help he needed to keep his economy – and regime – afloat. But he also believed those powers shared his broad vision, that no Western ‘partner’ could seriously view reunification as a potential springboard for NATO expansion. As West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher publicly declared, “no reasonable person could expect the Soviets to accept” such expansion “via German unification;“ for us,” Genscher assured his Soviet counterpart Eduard Shevardnadze in January 1990, “it stands firm: NATO will not expand to the East.”

Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney responds to questions from the media while taking part in a press conference held by U.S. and Saudi Arabian officials during Operation Desert Storm. 1 February 1991

Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney responds to questions from the media while taking part in a press conference held by U.S. and Saudi Arabian officials during Operation Desert Storm. 1 February 1991

The same month, US Secretary of State James Baker famously told Gorbachev: “Not an inch of NATO’s military jurisdiction will spread in an eastward direction.” Even as he made this crystalline pledge, however, Baker, in Taubman’s words, was merely setting “the pattern he and President Bush would follow that year and the next,” namely “‘stroking’ Gorbachev all the way to the bank” – almost as soon as Baker and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl uttered their promises, Bush began to take them back. Limiting NATO jurisdiction to one half of a reunited Germany was impossible, Bush concluded. Disavowing any further NATO expansion was unwise. For as Bush told French President Francois Mitterrand in April, no other organization “could replace NATO as the guarantor of Western security and stability,” certainly not the sort of pan-European alliance that Gorbachev hoped to build in the “common European home.”

The phrase ‘Western security’ is both telling and chilling — prioritizing the ‘stability’ of a ‘winning side’ now moving into position to do something it denied for 40 years it ever would: flow East to the borders of Russia, building a massive conventional superiority in the process. Would Gorbachev have believed his ears to hear Bush tell Kohl that same January: “To hell with that! We prevailed. They didn’t. We can’t let the Soviets clutch victory from the jaws of defeat.” But what kind of ‘victory,’ other than peaceful coexistence and an end to the nuclear threat, did Gorbachev want?

By the summer of 1991, Taubman writes, “Gates and Cheney were already salivating at the thought of the Soviet Union broken up;” as happened, following an abortive hardline coup, by the end of the year. Until the end, Gorbachev pleaded for the scale of aid he needed, telling Bush in advance of a G-7 meeting in London in June:

It’s very strange. A hundred billion gets thrown at a regional conflict [the Gulf War], but not for the transformation of the Soviet Union from an adversary and threat to a member of the world community and international economy.

By November, the risible sum of $1.5 billion was on offer, with Baker telling Gorbachev: “It’s hard cash. Take it before we change our mind.”

“In Gorbachev’s view,” Taubman concludes:

[N]either side ‘won’ the cold war, which damaged both sides and which both sides cooperated to end. He thought his friend President Bush shared that view… But in 1992, Bush declared, ‘By the grace of God, America won the cold war.’ Moreover, Gorbachev added bitterly in 2014 interviews, the Americans began to betray him even before he left office.

Bush was sincerely committed to, and managed to achieve, deep cuts in the bloated nuclear arsenals of both sides. He also took a number of unilateral initiatives, notably the withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea, to reflect the dramatic lowering of global tensions. But while it was obviously not in America’s interest to maintain astronomical levels of spending on its arsenal, or to seek nuclear superiority over a defeated ‘foe,’ all talk of ‘Global Zero’ – the world without nuclear weapons sought by both Gorbachev and Reagan – stopped. “To hell with that!” Bush, Baker et. al. might have said (and certainly thought). NATO had, after all, suddenly become the world’s only nuclear-armed alliance.

By the grace, no doubt, of Bush’s patriotic deity, the American Universe was finally unfolding as it should.

Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Canadian Pugwash. He may be reached here.





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