top of page

Death of a President,
End of an Era

by Cinzia Bianco

BY CINZIA BIANCO - George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st President of the United States, died on 30 November 2018, at 94 years of age. Born in Massachusetts in 1924, Bush enlisted in the Navy following Japan’s 1941 surprise attack on Pearl Harbour and quickly became a decorated Navy pilot. The World War II veteran then moved to Texas to become a successful executive in his own oil companies, before deciding to enter politics in the 1960s. After four years representing Texas in Congress, with the Republican Party, Bush was nominated Ambassador to the United Nations by (then) President Richard Nixon in 1971. He was Chairman of the Republican National Committee during the turbulent days of the Watergate Scandal that would, ultimately, result in Nixon’s resignation in 1974. From 1976 to 1977 he served as Director of Central Intelligence and then from 1977 to 1979 he was Director of the Council on Foreign Relations, thus shaping a remarkably strong profile in foreign affairs, international relations and international security.


In 1980, George H. W. Bush ran in Republic Party primaries where he developed a platform of moderation against a more conservative Ronald Reagan. He lost and decided to join Reagan’s ticket and became his Vice-President until 1989. Bush was, however, never fully accepted into President Reagan’s inner circle, and remained a low-profile Vice President. As a result, he could take the distances from the 1986 Iran-contra scandalous affair of the Reagan presidency. i.e.. when the US sold military equipment to the Islamic Republic of Iran to obtain the release of American hostages held in Lebanon and then funded anti-communist “contra” rebels in Nicaragua with the profits.


He further distanced himself from Ronald Reagan as he ran for the office of Presidency in 1988. He built his profile as a pragmatic public servant espousing traditional conservative economic and social programmes including: support for trade, lower taxes, gun ownership, opposition to abortion, tough stance on crime. When he began his term as President of the United States, in January 1989, Bush was among the most experienced officers elected to the highest office in the history of the United States.


The Presidency of George H.W. Bush was characterised by a series of watershed events for the Western world. Over the course of a single term President Bush oversaw the end of the Cold War with the fall of the Soviet Union, the break-up of the communist bloc in Eastern Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall. He famously declared the beginning of a ‘new world order” in 1991, the transition from a bipolar to a unipolar system, with the US as the only world’s superpower. In fact, from 1991, the US was largely seen as the leader and, at times, enforcer, of a new economic model, a certain equilibrium and scheme in international politics as well as international security. The US was the world’s policeman, a role that it only began to ebb some twenty years later. Among his significant initiatives for international economic engagements was the negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, one of the most important Free Trade Agreements of the times. However, President George H.W. Bush is especially remembered for his impact of international politics and security and, especially, for his role in the Gulf War (1991).


In the Gulf, Iraq and Iran had been at war for eight years when George H.W. became President. The U.S. had understood the war as a way to weaken the Islamic Republic of Iran, which had emerged in the 1979 Islamic revolution and was regarded as a hostile force in Washington especially following the US Embassy hostage taking. Meanwhile, the US had a primary interest in maintaining stability on the Arab shores of the Gulf, from where some 25% of US-bound crude oil imports originated. However, President Bush, and his administration, initially failed to appreciate the danger posed by Iraq under Saddam Hussein—despite the hostile rhetoric from Baghdad against other regional allies of the US and the United States itself. The Bush administration famously miscalculated so deeply that it instructed the (then) US Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, to relay to Saddam Hussein that the US had ‘no opinion of Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait.’ Taking this as a declaration of neutrality on behalf of Washington, a month later, in August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait—which held 10% of the world’s known oil reserves at the time. The US was caught by surprise, but the Bush administration quickly developed a response. Gathering a coalition of some thirty states, President Bush obtained a United Nations mandate and approval from the US Congress to launch Operation Desert Shield followed by Operation Desert Storm. The war to dislodge Iraq from Kuwait by reducing its capacity to wage war commenced on 17 January 1991 and victory was declared just over a month later on 28 February. Regional stability was thus restored but there was not push for regime change at the time. Iraq was simply put under quarantine after the liberation of Kuwait.


The Presidency of George H.W. Bush is also remembered for a substantial diplomatic breakthrough in the Arab-Israeli conflict. In fact in 1991, Bush sponsored the Madrid Conference bringing together Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). That conference generated a number of positive outcomes both at the level of Israel’s relations with the PLO than at the level of Israel’s relations with other Arab countries. In fact, the bilateral Israeli–Palestinian negotiations which followed eventually led to the exchange of letters and the subsequent signing of the Oslo I Accords, on 13 September 1993. The multilateral track launched in Madrid about the shared regional issues water, environment, arms control, refugees and economic development, led to significant improvement in practical cooperation as well as the signing of the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty.


While, inevitably, tainted by controversies and questionable choices, the career of President George H.W. Bush is arguably one of a true statesman and public servant, who strove to find the middle ground in political affairs. In 1964, H.W. Bush noted that ‘When the word moderation becomes a dirty word, we have some soul searching to do.’ How right he was.

06 December 2018

bottom of page