Edited by Thomas E. McNamara
President George H.W. Bush entered the office with more extensive foreign affairs experience than any other president except John Quincy Adams. After serving as ambassador to the United Nations, chief of the Liaison Office in Beijing, and eight years as vice president, Bush had exceptional understanding of foreign policy and diplomatic practice, and personal relationships with the most important world leaders. In his international accomplishments, Bush was, arguably, the most successful and consequential one-term president, and surpassed most two-term presidents.
Those of us who worked closely with him on foreign issues during his twelve years as vice president and president came to know and respect him and his international expertise. We mourn his passing.
What follows are reminiscences of over a dozen of his team, who worked closely with him in different situations in those twelve years. Some came into government from other professions and returned to them afterwards. Others are career diplomats who collectively served under eleven presidents. What all share is a deep admiration for the nation’s forty-first president, a great statesman and a wonderful person, who loved the country he served so well.
From Central America to the Persian Gulf
— Thomas R. Pickering: Ambassador to El Salvador (1983-85); Ambassador to the UN (1989-92); Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (1997-2000)
When I was ambassador to El Salvador, I was fortunate to work with George H.W. Bush. That nation suffered from civil war and a recent offensive by Marxist guerrillas that decimated several military units and destroyed an important bridge, cutting the country in half in 1983. The military’s death squads reacted by capturing suspected FMLN sympathizers and murdering them in a vain attempt to stifle rebellion.
Hoping to squelch this death squad activity, I asked Vice President Bush to visit and read the riot act to Salvadoran military leaders. Addressing 50 senior military officers, through an interpreter with me next to him, Bush brilliantly varied his tone and content to fit his purpose and audience. He ended his short, sharply-worded talk and surprised everyone by threatening that unless death squad killings ended, Ronald Reagan and he could do nothing with the American Congress to preserve assistance programs. His words and demeanor suppressed death squad murders for a time.
Thanks to Bush’s earlier experience as ambassador to the United Nations, he knew the organization very well. As his successor at the UN, I worked closely with him when he was president. Although Margaret Thatcher argued against going to the UN in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Bush insisted on UN approval to use force. He understood that the Security Council gave legitimacy to the 1991 Gulf War coalition and it was essential to Democratic support of a Congressional resolution for U.S. participation in combat. These steps also assured he would not be hounded into fighting on in to Baghdad. Just as when the Soviet Union fell, Bush remained calm and avoided doing too much.
George H.W. Bush worked for a world order of equality, fairness, justice, and democracy. This was part of his personality and leadership. That vision should go down as part of the growing positive history of his presidency.
Managing the End of The Cold War
— R. Nickolas Burns: NSC Director, Senior Director and Special Assistant to the President for Russian Affairs (1990-95); Professor of Practice of Diplomacy and International Politics at Harvard‘s Kennedy School of Government
Where does the late George H.W. Bush rank among American presidents? I admit to bias. I worked at the National Security Council in the White House for the last half of his presidency. I am convinced Bush was one of the greatest global leaders in foreign policy of all our presidents, certainly with achievements exceeding those of any president in 50 years.
He ended the Cold War peacefully. He was the central figure unifying Germany after the Berlin Wall fell. He organized a unique global coalition to defeat Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. That year, he created the contemporary, two-track Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. He began hemispheric-changing NAFTA negotiations. Each achievement would be consequential for any president. Together, they represent an extraordinary legacy of successes for America and the world.
The Cold War was never predestined to end peacefully. KGB and Red Army leaders tried overthrowing Gorbachev and Yeltsin in 1991. Soviet nuclear weapons might have fallen into the hands of warlords or criminals, or cabals might have obstructed the freedom of former satellites in Eastern Europe. Bush’s solid, trusted relationships with Gorbachev and Yeltsin reassured them and Russians that we would not take advantage in the Soviet Union’s final months. It was not a given that Germany would unify peacefully until Bush supported Chancellor Helmut Kohl in uniting a Germany embedded in the NATO alliance. Nor was it automatic that an extraordinary U.S.-led coalition would defeat Saddam Hussein without major casualties.
Bush was widely admired by those of us in the career foreign service and the military because he believed in us and in the power of government to do great things. He governed by seeking to unite us as Americans, not to divide us. Bush’s combination of in-depth knowledge and sophistication about the world, along with his ability to connect to other leaders personally, was the key to his greatness in the presidency.
Delivering the Message in Central Europe
–– Paula J. Dobriansky: NSC Director of European and Soviet Affairs (1981-87); Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs (2001-2009); Presidential Envoy to Northern Ireland (2007-2009)
As a member of the National Security Council staff handling East European and Soviet Affairs in the Reagan Administration, I had the privilege of working with then-Vice President George H.W. Bush on U.S. policy toward Central European countries. This policy was laid out in Presidential Directive 54 (1982), which stated that, instead of treating Warsaw Pact members alike, the U.S. would pursue a “policy of differentiation in East European countries and will render preferential treatment to those East European countries that do not support extensively Soviet ventures and foreign policies and have manifested increasing internal liberalization and Westernization…” This policy provided tangible incentives for East European countries to lessen their dependence on Moscow and set the stage for revolutionary transformations to come.
In September 1983, I traveled with Vice President Bush to Yugoslavia, Romania, Hungary and Austria. In Vienna, he delivered a most inspirational speech, building upon the differentiation policy for countries “which assert greater openness or independence,” and highlighting our “strong and unbreakable ties with the people of Central Europe,” the legacy of our World War II alliance, and our common democratic bonds.
George H.W. Bush was a remarkable statesman. Having enunciated a vision of how to end peacefully the Cold War in Moscow-dominated East Europe, he succeeded in his quest to “once again make Europe whole.” This took vision, fortitude and superb statecraft. I was honored to be part of George H. W. Bush’s historic effort.
Attention to Africa
— Frank Wisner: Ambassador to Zambia (1979–82); Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (1982-86); Undersecretary of State for International Security (1992-93)
I was privileged to be closely associated with George H.W. Bush as Vice President. He made clear that his door was open to African leaders, even if others were not available to back-up our Africa diplomacy. He did so with great effect. No American president or vice president devoted as much attention, and none has been as amply rewarded as George Bush in seeking support for his African objectives.
As Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, I took prominent Africans to call on him. The Vice President was warm and generous with his time. He charmed visitors with his knowledge of their countries and of our relations with them. I remember a delegation from Zaire (Congo) when each Minister was given one of Bush’s golf shirts. They were elated.
No Africa duty was too onerous. I was with him when he accompanied the body of Sekou Toure to Conakry for interment. He used the occasion to meet with the presidents of Egypt, Pakistan, Senegal, Benin and the young prince (now, king) of Morocco. Despite the stifling heat, he walked in the funeral cortege and attended ceremonies in the football stadium and the national Mosque.
I travelled with him in Africa seeking support for our “constructive engagement” policies in opposition to Apartheid, Cuban troop presence in Angola, and supporting Namibian independence. In Kenya, Zaire, and elsewhere he lobbied political leaders. I watched him compete with Mobutu of Zaire to catch the largest fish, and in Kenya down a Tusker beer. These gestures provided platforms for his political message, which he delivered gracefully and forcefully.
As President, he had Africa at his “beck and call”. Africa’s leaders understood that the United States cared and was willing to go out of its way to help.
Keeping Europe and the U.S. United in NATO
— David Gompert: Deputy Director, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (1977-81); Special Assistant to the President (1989-93); Deputy Director of National Intelligence (2009-11)
Many have noted that President George H.W. Bush was central to German reunification, when most Europeans resisted it. But few realize he was also critical to resolving an important follow-on NATO issue. Charged with European issues on the NSC staff, I saw his vision and determination prevail.
German unification fueled European interest in closer economic and political union. France was eager to constrain Germany within common structures and obligations. With a somewhat different perspective, George H. W. Bush was, also, intent on maintaining a U.S. presence and voice in European security.
French President Francois Mitterrand saw a historic opportunity to end Europe’s military dependence on the U.S. by creating an EU-based military alliance of Europeans, mainly France, separate from NATO. In his conception, the United States and NATO would be a backup, an insurance policy, against a resurgent Russia. The Bush administration insisted it would assist in keeping peace in Europe only if it had a role in managing European security affairs.
This was a diplomatic logjam that only presidential leadership could break. In a series of bilateral and NATO summit meetings, Bush persuaded German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Mitterrand to retain NATO as the mechanism to manage post-Cold-War European security. He stated that a European defense alliance apart from NATO would undermine American support for NATO and U.S. troop presence. Europeans had to choose; they could not keep NATO as a backup against Russia, while also marginalizing the U.S. from European security management. At the decisive meeting – the 1991 Rome NATO summit – Bush flatly challenged Mitterrand and Kohl to “tell us now” if they wanted to replace NATO. They stayed silent. The issue was resolved.
Cutting Down Qaddafi
— Thomas E. McNamara: Ambassador to Colombia (1988-91); Special Assistant to the President, NSC (1991-93); Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs (1994-98)
In 1985, after Iran-Contra, I came to the National Security Council and worked closely with Vice President George H.W. Bush on Beirut hostages, terrorism and drugs. I returned to the NSC after three years in Colombia to work on the PanAm-Lockerbie bombing, a tragedy that resulted from Reagan’s unsuccessful military strikes against Libya. President Bush wanted a non-military option before deciding to act against Qaddafi.
The option I presented was to join the British and French (Qaddafi bombed a French airliner over Niger) in the UN Security Council, to get strong sanctions to end Qaddafi’s support of terrorism. Bush and Brent Scowcroft were skeptical of UNSC capabilities and Mitterrand’s cooperation. Relations with France were poor due to France’s opposition on important European issues. Yet, as a professional diplomat, Bush understood, valued, and supported diplomacy.
Months of quiet, forceful diplomacy – Bush’s hallmark method – produced powerful, worldwide UNSC sanctions on Libya that ended Qaddafi’s terrorism and undermined his regime for years. Bush knew he would pay a price for this decision not to use military force. And he did. The “Lockerbie Families” group and others publicly denounced him as a “wimp” during his 1992 campaign. He was no wimp. It was the right decision.
Of 20th century presidents, only T. Roosevelt, Truman, and Nixon had as deep an understanding and powerful impact on foreign affairs as Bush 41. And of this group, he had the most successes and fewest setbacks. History will recognize his greatness as a statesman.
During a decade of working for him and Barbara, I can attest that they were persons who never let their positions lessen their humanity, humility and kindness; who treated everyone with courteous respect; who never demeaned; who wore their laurels lightly; and who led with greatness of spirit for the benefit of the nation.
Defending Russia Policy
— Robert Hutchings: NSC Director for European Affairs (1989-92); Rostow Chair in National Security, LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas
Many have spoken of President Bush’s exemplary personal qualities: his modesty, kindness, decency, and unshakable integrity. I fully share those thoughts of the president I was privileged to serve. Let me share a vignette that shows a harder edge to this consummate statesman.
At the Helsinki Summit of July 1992, President Bush met with the three Baltic delegations. In discussing difficulties with Moscow over Russian troops withdrawals, Lennart Meri, Estonia’s former foreign minister and future president, remarked offhandedly that he hoped the United States would not make the same mistakes with Russian President Boris Yeltsin that it had made with Mikhail Gorbachev. Before President Bush could reply, another of the Baltic leaders tactfully tried to change the subject, but Bush, despite being preoccupied with his re-election struggle, was having none of it.
“Wait”, he said, “I want to finish this!” He asked what was meant. Meri opined that showing understanding or accommodation of Russian concerns only strengthens hard-liners. Being tough demonstrates resolve and isolates hardline opponents — a preposterous bit of cheek given all the Bush administration had been through with Moscow over the previous three years.
Bush was as infuriated as I ever saw him. He reviewed our policies briefly, politely, but forcefully: the strategic and tactical planning; the measured use of power; combining firmness on principles with flexibility on tactics; and in the end, successfully liberating Eastern Europe (including Estonia!). He also added the unification of Germany and the collapse of Soviet communism, all achieved peacefully and on Western terms. He finished with: “We like to think we know a thing or two about dealing with Russian leaders.” Typical of him, he avoided using the “I” word, which he hated.
A Hostage Release Phone Call
— Edward Djerejian: Ambassador to Syria (1988-91); Assistant Secretary of State for Mideast Affairs (1991-93); Ambassador to Israel (1993-94)
As the ambassador to Syria in President George H.W. Bush’s administration, I was involved in gaining the release of three American hostages held captive in Lebanon. My job was to press the Syrian government to use its influence in Lebanon and Iran to get them released. Each time one was to be released, I was called to come see the foreign minister. I cabled Washington that a hostage might be freed and went to the minister’s office and waited for the individual being freed — always a deeply emotional experience.
Once, as I drafted press remarks before a release, the telephone rang while the drafts were on my knees. It was a call from the White House and a strong, deliberate voice intoned: “The next voice you will hear will be that of the President of the United States of America.” Impressed and respectful, I stood up, and, of course, my briefing notes scattered to the floor! President Bush came on the line: “Ed, I understand a hostage is being released. Do you know who it is?” I replied we thought it might be Robert Polhill, a professor at the Beirut University College. He asked about my press remarks and I summarized what was strewn before me on the floor. He said, “Good. I’ll be watching you on TV.” He, also, asked to speak with Polhill, “but only if his health allows.”
Afterwards, with Polhill at the residence and after a champagne toast with our wives, we made the call. Polhill had a brief, private conversation with the president, who warmly expressed his happiness at Polhill’s liberation.
That was a special moment, a clear demonstration of Bush’s compassion, which manifested itself so often. That quiet, private conversation to comfort a beleaguered American as soon as he could spoke loudly of George Bush’s personal character and leadership.
— Herman J. Cohen: NSC Senior Director and Special Assistant to the President (1987-89); Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (1989-93)
In 1989, white South Africans elected new leaders. President F.W. de Klerk believed that South Africa could not progress and industrialize without full participation of the majority Black community. He decided to dismantle the Apartheid system. This was bitterly opposed by the hardcore white community, who argued sanctions would never be ended in return for ending Apartheid. By threatening violence, they tried to block approval of the agreement that de Klerk had negotiated with Nelson Mandela for a new South African political future.
When President George H.W. Bush heard of the stalemate, he acted, based on his authority to remove U.S. sanctions when political progress had been made. He told de Klerk and Mandela, with both of whom he had good relationships, that he would lift U.S. economic sanctions, thus, helping to get majority white approval for the constitutional pact. The U.S. was the first to remove sanctions against South Africa.
Coalition and Alliance Builder
— Chester Crocker: Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (1981-89)
The George H.W. Bush administration had more success in foreign policy in four years than any other modern administration I can think of. The peaceful end of the Cold War; the restructuring of relationships with Russia and China; the freedom for Russia’s neighbors; the reunification of Germany were all major achievements. An excellent use of American power was the 1991 Gulf War. Bush got strong UN Security Council and Congressional mandates to use force to liberate Kuwait. He did not crow or beat the drum about it. He just went out and did it.
Bush was a coalition builder. He understood the importance of building alliances. He built relationships based on mutual interests. Hence, he could rely on them when he contacted leaders in every region of the world. I saw this as I worked closely with him on Africa. At a critical point his intervention with de Klerk and Mandela, for example, removed a roadblock to ending apartheid in South Africa.
Another characteristic of the man was that he chose the best, most experienced people. He was comfortable with those who knew more about issues and regions of the world than he did, and from whom he could learn. This showed at the top level – his marvelous team of Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, Colin Powell – and lower down as well. He understood, reached out, and listened to career people. I saw this as I traveled around Africa with him.
He was a strong leader who did not flex his muscles for TV cameras. His leadership style was to quietly reach out to others to work with him. He did not appeal just to domestic audiences. He knew we needed to understand many overseas audiences, also, and weigh them in the balance. He was comfortable within himself. This kind of leadership can be strong, effective and successful. It was for him and for our country.
Human, Cheerful Style
— William Harrop: Ambassador to Kenya and Seychelles (1980-83), Ambassador to Zaire/Congo (1987-91); Ambassador to Israel (1992-93); Inspector General of the Foreign Service (1983-86)
We thought the world of George and Barbara Bush and are saddened by their deaths. Here is an anecdote about a visit we had from them when I was ambassador to Kenya that is quite typical of their human, cheerful style.
In 1982 George and Barbara Bush—he was then vice president—spent three days with Ann and me in Nairobi. They were the most gracious houseguests we ever had. One morning after breakfast, Barbara was about to set off with Phil and Loret (then Peace Corps Director) Ruppe, on a day trip to the highlands to visit Peace Corps volunteers. We realized that Phil was not warmly enough dressed. Visitors often forget how cool it can get in the Kenyan highlands even though they are on the equator. Ann asked our steward to get out one of my sweaters to loan him.
On the party’s return that evening, Barbara said they had had a wonderful day but it was rather embarrassing since Phil Ruppe was wearing the most disgraceful sweater, full of holes. Then she realized, to her embarrassment, that the sweater was mine.
Two weeks later we received a handsome new sweater from Bermuda where they had stopped to refuel on the way back to Washington. The card read, “From Old Foot-in-the-Mouth Bush”. On returning to Washington the Bushes telephoned each of our four sons to report that they had been with us in Kenya and we were fine.
A truly grand American couple we were honored to have known.
Commitment to Drug Enforcement
— Robert Bonner: DEA Administrator (1990-93); Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (2003-05)
As head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, I was struck in my meetings with George H.W. Bush by his genuine interest in drug enforcement. Twice he visited DEA headquarters and inspired and energized DEA. I was impressed by the depth of his knowledge and his geniality.
In June 1992, I had my most memorable interaction with him. He accepted my invitation to dedicate DEA’s new field office in New York City. I flew with him on Air Force One and rode with him into the city. Passing through Greenwich Village, Bush pointed out the window and remarked heartily: “Would you look at that!”
I looked. On the sidewalk stood a crowd of people, two or three deep, about one quarter of whom appeared to be flipping the President of the United States an obscene finger gesture. He took this in perfectly good humor. The crowd was undoubtedly reacting to what, in NYC, they called “Bush Lock” (traffic jams caused by presidential motorcades).
But as we spoke, there was a wistfulness in his comments. It was clear he would be very happy and at peace without a second term. He told me that Barbara would prefer that. He was neither behind in the polls at that point, nor did he think he would lose. I had the strong sense that his heart was not in running again. It wasn’t until late September 1992, when faced with the prospect of losing to an upstart governor from Arkansas, that his competitive juices were stirred.
He was a great president. But few recognized how deeply committed he was to end what he rightly called “the scourge of drugs.” He was a true friend and supporter of DEA and federal law enforcement. He had our backs at home and overseas.
Personal Relationship with Gorbachev
— Roman Popadiuk: Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Press Secretary for Foreign Affairs (1986-89). Parts of this essay appeared in the author’s The Leadership of George Bush, Texas A&M Univ. Press, 2009
The passing of George H.W. Bush led to much public discussion and nostalgia about his personal qualities. Observers wistfully lament the absence of these qualities in today’s political dialogue. Unnoticed, however, is the impact that they had on Bush’s policies. For him, personal relations were both a personal responsibility and a policy mechanism that facilitated relationships I experienced his personal decency frequently, including in his interaction with domestic and foreign leaders
A few simple rules guided him. He avoided making policy debates personal, holding grudges, or demeaning adversaries. These could create enemies, undermine trust, or preclude cooperation – this last, the bedrock of politics. He sought to identify interests, so he might mesh them with U.S. goals. He hoped these would translate into trust and cooperation.
His approach was very evident in his relationship with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. His impression was that the West could do business with Gorbachev. Bush set up a meeting with Gorbachev that became the 1989 Malta Summit, beginning a personal relationship and cooperation between the two countries. When Gorbachev resigned in 1991, Bush felt he had lost a friend.
Gorbachev shared these feelings. Years later, at Bush’s eightieth birthday in Houston, Gorbachev said that “of all my counterparts in the world arena, George Bush was the best. He was a reliable partner; he had balanced judgement, and he had decency. He had qualities that were and are central to trust. And trust is what makes it possible to solve any international problem.” His restraint opened communication and showed Bush to be a trustworthy partner, not an adversary exploiting events.
Bush brought together a rare combination of personal qualities and government experience that helped guide the United States through a tumultuous and historic period. Overall, he demonstrated the importance of personal relations and decency in the policy process and the world of diplomacy.
Shaping NATO’s Nuclear Strategy
— W. Robert Pearson: NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs (1987-1990); Ambassador to Turkey (2000-2003); Director General of the Foreign Service (2003-2006)
The 1989 NATO summit in Brussels, only months after President Bush took office, presented him with an important, complex problem. As Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs at NATO and Chair of NATO’s Political Committee, my committee’s job was to bring the Alliance’s security policy up to date. Within that assignment, we needed to update the Alliance’s nuclear strategy, including NATO’s stance on intermediate range nuclear missiles based in Europe.
Over the two years leading up to the 1989 Summit, through several drafts, debates and meetings, we closely observed how the U.S. position was developing. When the Summit convened, the debate history and the pending issues as well as the various national positions, including German, British and American, were well known. Once President Bush arrived at the summit, what he hoped to accomplish was clear to me — meet German concerns, reassure the Brits, maintain a clear stance on deterrence and, most importantly, demonstrate American leadership of the Alliance. He accomplished all of them.
In the course of the Summit it was obvious that the President’s leadership, character, reputation, and personal acquaintance with NATO’s senior leaders created the atmosphere necessary to reach a final agreement.