The Wisdom of G.H.W. Bush – and Barack Obama


Whatever one’s judgment about the goal of the Gulf War of 1991, it is difficult to argue (which hardly means that no one will) that it was not superbly managed and prosecuted. The deeply and broadly experienced George Herbert Walker Bush, in contrast to his shallow but zealously missionary son G.W., famously chose, after driving Iraqi troops from Kuwait, not to pursue the Iraqi army to Baghdad. The subsequent abandonment of the Iraqi Shia to Saddam’s revenge after Bush encouraged them to rise up was the war’s one great screw up. That tawdry entailment of proxy geopolitics gets balanced in the historical memory with the multiple subsequent lessons of how flinty is the taste for battle on behalf of people who otherwise despise you. One weighs that loss against the gain of the no fly zone and the genuine rescue of Iraq’s Kurds, who gained not only their lives but the opportunity, perhaps never more boldly seized, to build a vibrant society under constant threat of tyranny.

Son G.W., we know, screwed the pooch to world record levels in pursuing mock wars of high minded liberation. His Iraq war is over, managed carefully to an end, in the circumstances presented to  him, by Barack Obama. But G.W. screwed up more than one war in display of the anti-wisdom of his father. In Afghanistan, with the Taliban driven from power and a base for Al-Qaeda eliminated, its leadership driven from the country, the Gulf War model would have suggested declaring victory and moving on to what should have been the only Long War, against transnational terrorizing Islamism. Instead, stuck in Iraq, Bush and NATO piddled about half-heartedly for six years in a further war of nation building and battle against insurgency.

When Obama came to office, he felt again compelled by circumstance , as well as the promise of the military and the wonder what if we hadn’t screwed it up for six years, to pursue a truer commitment and see if that would make the difference in eliminating AfPac as a future base for terrorism. Obama made a major commitment, but he did not go all in, as the martial voices of the imperial GOP will always have us do, sending legion after legion into battle. Do any but unanchored GOP presidential candidates and the usual Republican Cato the Elders still believe that creating a stable, reliable ally in Afghanistan is an achievable end, a fight worth fighting any longer?

This week’s Quran burnings at Bagram Airforce Base, and the ugly murderous reaction to the incident, reinforce two lessons at least. It is very little reported why the Qurans were considered fuel for a fire. The evidence is that Taliban prisoners were passing messages to each other by writing in Qurans. Apparently, in another life affirming expression of God’s eternal love, this is a blasphemy calling for death. These Qurans might have been used for a propaganda victory over the Taliban. Well, we have our Seal Team Sixes and we have our book burnings. Life and war are messy, and screw ups really are the norm, you know. But a mistake is a mistake, and a burned book, even on purpose, is a burned book. The homicidal rage that has followed it is a degeneracy of human development that not many Americans will care to accept in return for the expenditure of American resources, blood, and will.

Obama, though, has seen this coming. Not all that long, really, after he upped the ante in Afghanistan, he began to gather his chips toward the edge of the table. He will get us out as best he can, playing the cards he was dealt. He will continue to fight the war Bush mostly mouthed, the diffuse and international war of terror groups and replicating cells. He will get no credit for that from his political enemies. You have to wonder how much credit he will ever get for devoting so much of the energy of his two presidential terms, should he get them, to carefully cleaning up the war making misadventures of his predecessor. History judges those kinds of achievements, which are a little too subtle, and honest, for the campaign trail.

Similarly, against the first push he faced to initiate a war of his own, in Libya, Obama refused to commit American ground troops or even to engage without an international coalition he insisted take the lead. This was not Roman enough for the GOP, but Libya is not looking so swell right now. Obama managed to meet what was pressed upon him as a moral obligation, to save those threatened by Gaddafi, but like Bush the Elder in the Gulf, he did not over commit the country to its detriment. In the same way, against those who would have Obama bomb Iranian nuclear sites now, and those for whom no amount of negotiation with an obdurate foe is ever enough until it has managed a course to failure, Obama seeks to work the force of arms against the force of genuine and biting international policy sanctions. If the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapons program is somehow peacefully diffused, it will be one of the signal geopolitical achievements of our era, and it will be Obama’s.

It is hard not to believe that G.H.W. would not have enjoyed a policy conversation with the current president more than one with his son. That would earn Obama condemnation from opposing quarters, but that’s pretty much the way it has been. But the truth is that in between the two men, you can’t find a surer presidential hand in foreign policy.

Now what Obama has to do in the next nine months is not break any pledges on taxes.


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