He kept his cool as the world caught fire

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVID E. HOFF­MAN

Ge­orge H.W. Bush came to the pres­i­dency with real ex­pe­ri­ence in for­eign af­fairs, from Mao Ze­dong’s China to the United Na­tions, from CIA di­rec­tor to the vice pres­i­dency with Ron­ald Rea­gan. An early cam­paign slo­gan once boasted, “A Pres­i­dent We Won’t Have to Train.” But Bush learned about the world in an era of Cold War con­stancy that was turned on its head dur­ing his pres­i­dency, a pe­riod of heav­ing tu­mult far more dra­matic than Bush or any­one else an­tic­i­pated.

He kept his cool. He kept it be­cause that is who he was, at the very core driven by his own per­sonal code: pru­dence and stew­ard­ship. When the world blew up on his watch, Bush gripped the wheel, kept his eyes on the road and tried to avoid a wreck.

Dur­ing his White House years, China’s lead­ers mas­sa­cred pro-democ­racy stu­dent demon­stra­tors in Bei­jing’s Tianan­men Square; Sad­dam Hus­sein in­vaded Kuwait and was re­pelled by an ex­ten­sive U.S.-led war coali­tion; the Berlin Wall tum­bled and Ger­many was

re­uni­fied in NATO; and Mikhail Gor­bachev lost con­trol of the Soviet Union, which im­ploded. In a pe­riod of im­mense flux and un­pre­dictabil­ity, Bush was buf­feted by sur­prises, made mis­takes he re­gret­ted, har­bored doubts about him­self and never proved a vi­sion­ary. But when it came to the hard­est mo­ments, he prized sta­bil­ity and prac­ticed cau­tion. He was a prag­ma­tist, not an ide­o­logue.

He had “grown up and come of age in a po­lit­i­cal world shaped more by a com­mit­ment to ser­vice than a con­test of ideas,” wrote his bi­og­ra­pher, Jon Meacham, who called Bush a bal­ancer and a guardian, not a rev­o­lu­tion­ary.

He cer­tainly did not see him­self as the apos­tle of a new world or­der. As it turned out, the world re­made it­self dur­ing his four years as pres­i­dent.

Bush placed high value on per­sonal re­la­tion­ships, cul­ti­vated over many years, and worked hard at them, of­ten fre­net­i­cally. Some aides called him the “mad di­aler” for all his tele­phon­ing; he woke up Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Mar­garet Thatcher in the mid­dle of the night. He rel­ished a pri­vate word with King Hus­sein of Jor­dan on a speed­boat in the Gulf of Aqaba, or with Gor­bachev on a hik­ing trail at Camp David, or with French Pres­i­dent François Mit­ter­rand look­ing out at the sea at Walker’s Point. In a cri­sis, he called the White House Sit­u­a­tion Room at 5 a.m. for up­dates. He didn’t like to be alone and was rarely idle.

He was old school, be­liev­ing that a com­mit­ment was a word of honor and must be kept. His gov­ern­ing meth­ods were those of a pre-In­ter­net age, with de­ci­sions forged in pri­vate meet­ings and mes­sages sent by per­sonal let­ter through back chan­nels. Bush re­spected the Wash­ing­ton es­tab­lish­ment, in­clud­ing the For­eign Ser­vice, the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity and the mil­i­tary, as well as Con­gress, and he sur­rounded him­self with ex­pe­ri­enced pol­icy hands who knew how to make gov­ern­ment work.

His first big test came when China’s se­cu­rity forces mas­sa­cred thou­sands of pro-democ­racy stu­dent demon­stra­tors in Tianan­men Square in June 1989. He had been the U.S. en­voy to China from 1974 to 1975, af­ter Pres­i­dent Nixon’s open­ing but be­fore for­mal re­la­tions were es­tab­lished, and he was of­ten seen ped­al­ing his bi­cy­cle around Bei­jing with his wife, Bar­bara. He of­ten quoted a fa­vorite phrase of Mao, dis­miss­ing “empty canons of rhetoric,” which meant ig­nor­ing the daily head­lines and pay­ing at­ten­tion to deeds and ac­tions. When the Tianan­men mas­sacre shocked the world, Bush ig­nored the de­mands for harsh re­tal­i­a­tion and in­stead pur­sued a cal­i­brated re­sponse. Ten days later, he sat down at his elec­tric type­writer and wrote a pri­vate let­ter “from the heart” to Chi­nese leader Deng Xiaop­ing, ask­ing whether he could send a se­cret emis­sary, which he did, dis­patch­ing na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Brent Scowcroft with a mes­sage that he would give the Chi­nese some breath­ing room.

It was clas­sic Bush: cau­tious, work­ing be­hind the scenes, try­ing hard not to over­re­act and send­ing a se­cret mes­sage.

The most in­tense over­seas cri­sis of his pres­i­dency fol­lowed with Iraqi Pres­i­dent Sad­dam Hus­sein’s in­va­sion of Kuwait in Au­gust 1990. Hus­sein’s forces rolled over in­ter­na­tional bor­ders, looted the rich emi­rate and threat­ened oil­pro­duc­ing be­he­moth Saudi Ara­bia. Im­me­di­ately af­ter the in­va­sion, Bush told re­porters “we’re not dis­cussing in­ter­ven­tion,” but added he would not dis­cuss it openly “if I were.” Call­ing around, he was alarmed to hear that Arab lead­ers, in­clud­ing Saudi King Fahd, might cave and re­ward Hus­sein’s ag­gres­sion with some kind of deal. Within days, Bush de­clared, “This will not stand.”

Thatcher fa­mously told Bush on that mid­dle-of-the-night call, “This is no time to go wob­bly.” But Bush’s dic­tated di­ary en­tries, re­vealed in Meacham’s land­mark 2015 bi­og­ra­phy, “Des­tiny and Power,” show Bush wasn’t go­ing wob­bly. With his close friend, Sec­re­tary of State James A. Baker III, the United States be­gan to build a vast mil­i­tary coali­tion, even­tu­ally joined by 28 na­tions and 700,000 troops for “co­er­cive di­plo­macy,” to per­suade Hus­sein to ei­ther re­treat or be driven out of Kuwait.

By the end of Au­gust, ac­cord­ing to his di­ary, Bush was speak­ing pri­vately of war, al­though the coali­tion-build­ing and di­plo­macy would re­quire many more months. The U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil had set a dead­line of Jan. 15, 1991. “It has been per­son­al­ized,” Bush dic­tated to his di­ary of Hus­sein on Aug. 29. “He is the epit­ome of evil.”

In Septem­ber, fish­ing one day with Scowcroft, Bush “asked im­pa­tiently when we could strike.”

But Bush’s ea­ger­ness was tem­pered by worry. The Viet­nam War had left a last­ing im­print on Amer­i­can pol­i­tics: fear of an­other mil­i­tary quag­mire. In pri­vate, Bush fret­ted about whether he was walk­ing into an ex­tended con­flict that might ruin his pres­i­dency, much as the war had done to Pres­i­dent Lyn­don B. John­son.

“If it drags and there are high ca­su­al­ties, I will be his­tory,” Bush dic­tated to his di­ary, ac­cord­ing to Meacham, “but no prob­lem — some­times in life, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

The Demo­cratic-con­trolled Con­gress was re­cal­ci­trant about war. Bush was de­ter­mined to go to war with­out con­gres­sional ap­proval, but he pri­vately feared he might be im­peached if he launched full-scale mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions with­out a con­gres­sional vote and the war went badly. Ac­cord­ing to Meacham, Bush al­luded to im­peach­ment in his di­ary on five dif­fer­ent oc­ca­sions be­tween Dec. 12, 1990, and Jan. 13, 1991.

Just three days be­fore the U.N. dead­line, he won nar­row ap­proval from Con­gress to wage war un­der a Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion au­tho­riz­ing the use of “all nec­es­sary means” if Iraq re­fused to leave Kuwait by the set time frame. As it turned out, the war was brief, and Hus­sein’s mil­i­tary was crushed, in part, by Amer­i­can high-tech weaponry, de­ployed for the first time since Viet­nam. The war es­sen­tially broke the spell of the Viet­nam syn­drome.

When it was over, Bush was not tri­umphant. He strug­gled with his cau­tion and pru­dence.

He had de­ter­mined early on that the goal of the war was lim­ited — to eject Hus­sein from Kuwait — and that is what the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil ap­proved. Bush or­dered the ground war halted once that goal was ac­com­plished. He stopped short of send­ing troops all the way to Bagh­dad to de­stroy the Iraqi leader and his regime. Baker re­called that all of Bush’s team urged him to stop at that mo­ment.

Baker wrote in a mem­oir that had the troops gone to kill Hus­sein, the war could have been por­trayed as one of con­quest, not de­fense of Kuwait, and could lead to “a mil­i­tary oc­cu­pa­tion of in­def­i­nite du­ra­tion,” with ur­ban com­bat that could cre­ate “a po­lit­i­cal firestorm at home.” The pru­dent Bush cer­tainly did not want that. He stuck by the rules he had cre­ated.

But he also had mis­giv­ings; Hus­sein sur­vived. “As I think about it, it would be very good if we didn’t leave him in­tact,” Bush said to his di­ary in the early days of the war, spec­u­lat­ing that maybe the Iraqi peo­ple or army would “take him out.” They didn’t.

“We need the clar­ity of pur­pose if we’re go­ing to fi­nally kick, in to­tal­ity, the Viet­nam syn­drome,” Bush told his di­ary. “We need a sur­ren­der, we need Sad­dam out. And yet our ob­jec­tives are to stop short of all that.” He did not get such a de­ci­sive end to the war, and prob­a­bly erred by not de­mand­ing Hus­sein sign a hu­mil­i­at­ing sur­ren­der.

“Bush and his com­man­ders had pro­jected power and ac­com­plished a care­fully de­fined ob­jec­tive at min­i­mal cost in Amer­i­can blood,” Meacham wrote. But the pres­i­dent lamented to his di­ary, speak­ing of Hus­sein: “Hitler is alive, in­deed, Hitler is still in of­fice.”

When it was over, the pres­i­dent strug­gled with a pe­riod of quiet “de­spon­dency,” his bi­og­ra­pher found, that was hid­den from the pub­lic. The let­down “was rooted in his fail­ure to bring about Hus­sein’s fall.”

‘The Cold War is not over’

In May 1988, Pres­i­dent Rea­gan de­liv­ered one of the most pow­er­ful speeches of his pres­i­dency at Moscow State Univer­sity, cel­e­brat­ing the re­forms and growing co­op­er­a­tion with Gor­bachev. As he strolled around Red Square and the Krem­lin, Rea­gan was asked if he still con­sid­ered the Soviet Union to be an “evil em­pire.”

He replied, “No.” Sur­prised, re­porters asked why. Rea­gan replied, “You are talk­ing about an­other time, an­other era.”

Bush, then vice pres­i­dent and run­ning for the White House, watched the Moscow spec­ta­cle from Ken­neb­unkport, Maine. He had doubts about whether the Gor­bachev re­forms were real. A few weeks later, speak­ing in San Fran­cisco to the World Af­fairs Coun­cil of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, Bush said the United States “must be bold enough to seize the op­por­tu­nity of change,” but also be pre­pared for pro­tracted con­flict. “The Cold War is not over,” he warned.

De­spite dra­matic moves by Gor­bachev, in­clud­ing a United Na­tions speech on Dec. 7, 1988, that an­nounced un­prece­dented Soviet uni­lat­eral troop re­duc­tions and a pull­back from East­ern Eu­rope, Bush re­mained wary. He saw the leader’s re­forms as more of a com­pet­i­tive threat to U.S. dom­i­nance than an op­por­tu­nity. Upon tak­ing of­fice, he or­dered pol­icy re­views, in­clud­ing one on the Soviet Union, hop­ing to put his own stamp on things. The pol­icy re­view led to de­lay, and didn’t pro­duce much. Bush didn’t seek an early sum­mit with Gor­bachev.

“I’ll be darned if Mr. Gor­bachev should dom­i­nate world pub­lic opin­ion for­ever,” Bush wrote to a friend.

Af­ter Gor­bachev an­nounced he was uni­lat­er­ally pulling some nu­clear war­heads out of Eu­rope, the White House spokesman, Mar­lin Fitzwa­ter, called the Soviet leader a “drug­store cow­boy,” sug­gest­ing some­one who makes prom­ises they can’t keep. Fitzwa­ter later re­gret­ted the re­mark as too glib, but it stuck in the head­lines for days.

Bush’s cau­tion was re­in­forced by Scowcroft, his na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, who was even more skep­ti­cal of Gor­bachev than the pres­i­dent. But pres­sure built on Bush that spring to be­come more proac­tive. His visit to Poland and Hun­gary in July ex­posed him to the tor­rent of change in Eu­rope — lead­ers urged him to con­tact Gor­bachev.

Af­ter months of wait­ing, Bush wrote to Gor­bachev on July 21, sug­gest­ing “I would like very much to sit down soon and talk to you.”

The Soviet em­pire was crack­ing. Gor­bachev’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, Ana­toly Ch­ernyaev, wrote in his di­ary that so­cial­ism in East­ern Eu­rope is “dis­ap­pear­ing,” the planned econ­omy “is liv­ing its last days,” ide­ol­ogy “doesn’t ex­ist any more,” the Soviet em­pire “is fall­ing apart,” the Com­mu­nist Party “is in dis­ar­ray” and “chaos is break­ing out.” Ch­ernyaev called 1989 “the lost year,” and in some sense it was.

On the evening of Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall was breached, 28 years af­ter it was erected, and the long Cold War di­vi­sion of Eu­rope was over.

In Wash­ing­ton, re­porters were sum­moned to the Oval Of­fice, where Bush was ner­vously twist­ing a pen in his hands. He later re­called feel­ing awk­ward and un­com­fort­able. He re­fused to crow or herald the mo­ment with any ring­ing rhetoric.

He was wor­ried that any com­ments he might make could trig­ger a Soviet crack­down, and the bru­tal­ity of Tianan­men Square was still fresh in his mind.

When Les­ley Stahl of CBS News re­marked that he didn’t seem that ex­cited about the epochal event, Bush replied, “I’m not an emo­tional kind of guy.”

Later, he of­ten said he didn’t want to “dance on the wall,” a phrase that cap­tured his mod­esty. But the com­ment also re­flected his deep-seated cau­tion and sense of stew­ard­ship. Bush re­called to his di­ary how years ear­lier the press was pound­ing on Rea­gan for too much “Evil Em­pire” rhetoric, and now they were crit­i­ciz­ing him “for not be­ing out front enough.”

He was hav­ing none of it. He said: “Just think if we had done some­thing to ex­hort East­ern Eu­rope to go to the bar­ri­cades and . . . man­i­fest free­dom in the way we thought best. You would’ve had chaos, and the dan­ger of mil­i­tary ac­tion, blood­shed, just to make a few crit­ics feel good — crazy.”

Bush “went to great lengths not to poke Gor­bachev in the eye,” Baker re­called.

The changes in the Soviet Union and Eu­rope ac­cel­er­ated. Ger­many was re­united af­ter a painstak­ing ne­go­ti­a­tion in which Baker and Bush played a lead­ing role. Gor­bachev came to Wash­ing­ton for a sum­mit with Bush that in­cluded a flight on Ma­rine One to Camp David. Two years be­fore, Bush had been skep­ti­cal that the Cold War was over. On the chop­per, he saw that both he and the Soviet pres­i­dent were ac­com­pa­nied by mil­i­tary aides car­ry­ing the nu­clear codes by which the two na­tions could launch nu­cle­ar­armed mis­siles at each other — sym­bols of an ear­lier era.

Bush tried, re­peat­edly, to show sup­port for Gor­bachev and his re­forms, but the po­lit­i­cal winds shifted in both na­tions, and in op­po­site di­rec­tions. Gor­bachev faced more re­sis­tance at home to re­form. De­spite the surge in his pop­u­lar­ity af­ter the war, Bush faced a pub­lic weary of for­eign en­gage­ments and a re­elec­tion cam­paign. Bush could sim­ply not pro­duce huge fi­nan­cial aid for the Soviet Union. Try­ing to help Gor­bachev, Bush gave an ad­dress in Ukraine in the sum­mer of 1991, when Ukraine was eager to break away from the Soviet Union and be­come an in­de­pen­dent na­tion. Bush warned Ukraini­ans against “sui­ci­dal na­tion­al­ism.” It was a badly mis­taken sig­nal that the colum­nist Wil­liam Safire dubbed Bush’s “Chicken Kiev” speech. The pres­i­dent was be­hind the curve — within months, Ukraine was in­de­pen­dent and the Soviet Union gone. The pace of change was breath­tak­ing for ev­ery­one.

On June 20, 1991, the U.S. Am­bas­sador in Moscow, Jack F. Mat­lock Jr., was told that hard-lin­ers were plot­ting an im­mi­nent coup — maybe the next day — against Gor­bachev. Mat­lock got the in­for­ma­tion from a close ally of Boris Yeltsin, who had just been elected Rus­sian pres­i­dent and was Gor­bachev’s ri­val. At that mo­ment, Yeltsin was in Wash­ing­ton and due to visit the Oval Of­fice at 3 p.m. Mat­lock sent the in­for­ma­tion to the White House.

Bush dis­creetly de­liv­ered the warn­ing to Yeltsin, who scoffed that it wasn’t pos­si­ble. Nev­er­the­less, at Yeltsin’s sug­ges­tion, they tried call­ing Gor­bachev from the White House to warn him. For some rea­son, the call could not go through. Mat­lock was sent to per­son­ally tell Gor­bachev. The scene was telling: Bush at the cen­ter of the ac­tion, seek­ing to avert a dis­as­ter, the “mad di­aler” reach­ing for the phone.

As it turned out, the coup didn’t come the next day but two months later, on Aug. 19, 1991.

More than ever, Bush was de­ter­mined to avoid chaos. His in­stinct was not to do any­thing that would ig­nite trou­ble. While Gor­bachev was held in­com­mu­ni­cado by coup plot­ters, Bush’s re­marks were mea­sured, al­though he did note, “coups can fail.” The coup at­tempt col­lapsed in a few days, in part, due to Yeltsin’s de­fi­ance. “The thing is to be calm,” Bush told his di­ary dur­ing the coup. Af­ter­ward, he dic­tated, “We could have over­re­acted, and moved troops, and scared the hell out of peo­ple.” He didn’t — and was proud of hav­ing found “the proper balance.”

Af­ter the coup, and be­fore the Soviet col­lapse, Bush took one of the bold­est moves of his pres­i­dency. On Sept. 27, he de­liv­ered a na­tion­ally tele­vised ad­dress, say­ing, “The world has changed at a dra­matic pace, with each day writ­ing a fresh page of his­tory be­fore yes­ter­day’s ink has even dried.” He an­nounced that the United States would elim­i­nate and stand down a host of nu­clear weapons, uni­lat­er­ally. Gor­bachev re­sponded with his own pull­backs on Oct. 5. Sud­denly, the arms race that had con­sumed both su­per­pow­ers for decades was go­ing down­hill and in re­verse.

On Oct. 21, Bush wrote a note to Scowcroft. “Please dis­cuss,” he said. “Does Mil Aide need to carry that black case now ev­ery lit­tle place I go?” He was ask­ing about the “foot­ball” with the codes for man­ag­ing nu­clear war. Bush did not think it still nec­es­sary for a mil­i­tary aide to shadow him with it — but this time it was oth­ers who were more cau­tious than the cau­tious pres­i­dent.

They con­vinced him that it was still nec­es­sary.


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