What is the legacy of George HW Bush?

Remembering the legacy of 41st US President George HW Bush who passed away on November 30, 2018, at the age of 94

Photo Courtesy: social media
Photo Courtesy: social media

Prem Mishra

How should a politician be remembered in collective public memory? Martin Amis, the famous British novelist and a fan of Russian literary genius Vladimir Novikov, once said, he wishes to be remembered in the racks of a library. For the 41st US president George HW Bush, it was, “History will point out some of the things I did wrong and some of the things I did right”.

A son of a senator, a war veteran in the second world war, a Yale graduate, the only US president who was a CIA director before, an eight years of Vice-Presidentship under Ronald Reagan, an envoy to the UN, a father of two-time US president George W Bush and perhaps the last least controversial US president. The Bush senior’s legacy has a decent presence in the current chaos that US has nurtured.

He was a proud CIA guy who became the president at the most interesting period since the second world war; the decentralisation of Soviet Russia and the fall of Berlin wall. He was the president who enjoyed the first chapter of American exceptionalism; an unilateral power and therefore asking for an overture of an obituary.

The two events that shaped his presidency in popular imagination have been: First Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm) and the Madrid Conference; a progenitor that largely shaped the cartography of “Modern Middle East”. When senior Bush was the white face of the White House, it forced the dictator Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait. Interestingly, Saddam was debauched by then US envoy to Iraq April Glaspie who was the in-charge of all US covert operations between 1980-89 supporting Saddam during Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). Bush’s policy also did not change when Saddam attacked Tel Aviv; he called Israel and asked them to exercise restraint but things changed when the US finally understood the importance of oil and the need to safeguard Saudi Arabia. The result was: over 4 lakh American troops in the Gulf besides more than a lakh from the allied forces. What it didn’t change was the pretext every time the US intervened; that too was a face of his legacy.

The surprise element in the entire enterprise of the troops presence was the global entry of Osama Bin Laden and his hatred for US. He who was once a blue-eyed boy of the White House went rogue.

The First Gulf War was just not about Kuwait; it was also the seed of toxic sectarianism. The legacy of Bush junior and his misadventure in 2003 in Iraq was the culmination of Shia-Sunni conflict and Iraq became worse later, if one cautiously looks at it this way. Another toxicity was on ethnic lines in the face of Kurdish nationalism.

But to be fair with Bush senior, he was unlike his junior and didn’t bury the role of the UN. He brought the consensus along with UN and allied partners when storm was hovering over Saddam’s tryst with his political suicide. The Gulf War and then the prism of US-Israel relations was also an interesting phase. Bush senior who thanked Israel till US intervened in Kuwait was not a fervent supporter of its expansionist policy and neither his Secretary of State James Baker. They were against the bonhomie one finds today. The result was Madrid conference in 1991. Madrid was indeed the roadmap for Oslo accords.

For the first time Israel and Palestinian came on the same page with Lebanon, Jordon and Egypt. Its deeper resonance was significant for the involvement of Soviet Russia and European Union; its first official appearance in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Later all hell broke loose when Palestinian authority couldn’t stop violence and PLO lost its support from the Americans as an equal. In the catalogues of his many wrongs, one can’t dispel the ghost of Iranian-contra affair, a joint mischief with Reagan as a vice-president and his pardon to many culprits after he became the president.

He once said , “We don’t want an America that is closed to the world. What we want is a world that is open to America.”

Some of things, however, he did good as he wished to define his legacy, especially the response to Kosovo war. He will be remembered for not just being the architect of the chaos in the Middle East but for the better and on the contrary a saviour for thousands of Albanians. He threatened the maniac Milosevic to use military force against the Serbians in Kosovo and in Serbia. In 2008, Kosovo became a sovereign state but the architect was no doubt but the senior Bush. Albanians still thank him.

In the age of Trump, he needs to be remembered for his friendship with Gorbachev. He was a rare US president, who employed his sanity often, if not always. In July 1991, he signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) with Gorbachev in Moscow; nine years after the signing of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty by Reagan and Gorbachev in 1987. For the senior Bush it was "a significant step forward in dispelling half a century of mistrust”.

When one remembers junior Bush and his crimes, one always remembers his pretext: democracy even at gun point. For him democracy was route to all peace and and almost every American presidents have used democracy as a justification for their crimes; even if they were dictators under the garb of democracy.

For India, he was unlike his successors. He never visited India when he was in the White House. It might be a coincidence that when he was the US president, India was going through a political crisis. Four Prime Ministers in a few years and the sorry state of the balance of payments. He loved Indian democracy but had trade issues with India. He preferred Pakistani heads of the state and never criticised Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in India yet mourned the death of Rajiv Gandhi and said it was a “personal loss”. He was a war hero, carried his CIA job in his sleeves, an unofficial expert on oil but failed to withstand discontentment at home—due to a grim economic situation and rising violence in the US. In 1992, he lost to Bill Clinton.

He once said, “We don't want an America that is closed to the world. What we want is a world that is open to America.” With Donald Trump at the White House now, Bush needs to be remembered.

George H W Bush passed away on November 30, 2018, at the age of 94.

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