Legacy of George HW Bush: Invaluable lessons on diplomacy

For a time, when George W Bush was America’s 43rd president, it was in many circles a matter of faith to sneer at him, deriding him as an incompetent son of privilege. This tribal distaste grew to a two-for-the-price-of-one dismissal and was directed at his father, too, George HW Bush, the 41st president of America, who died on Friday, aged 94.

The Bush Boys became a comic staple and that derision, some of it justified but not all, contributed to today’s atmosphere of contempt and distrust — again, some of it justified but again not all — which is radically changing world politics. Comedy, as it does today, inculcated cynicism.

Any judgement of those who were so critical of the Bush Boys must be tempered, as they could not have imagined — who could? — a President Trump. 

Neither could they, unless they were particularly distressed, have imagined presidents Putin, Erdogan, Duterte, or Bolsonaro. 

Indeed, they may have, like most of the world, regarded Aung San Suu Kyi as a hero, a champion of democracy and human rights. Indeed. They could certainly not have imagined prime ministers May, Orbán, Morawiecki, Khan or Morrison. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, anyone? All of a sudden, the Bush Boys seem, if not admirable, then relatively more benign than one might have originally thought. George HW Bush was a son of privilege and he was educated in a way that tradition decreed, in a way that consolidated inherited influence rather than challenged it. 

Then, the Second World War intervened. Bush flew 58 combat missions and won a Distinguished Flying Cross. That formation meant he became one of America’s most successful foreign-policy presidents, spoken of in the same terms as Harry Truman or both Roosevelts.

He had seen what the refusal to compromise actually meant. He marshalled America and its allies through the collapse of communism, because he had befriended Mikhail Gorbachev and won the Russian’s trust. He, despite trenchant opposition from Margaret Thatcher, encouraged the reunification of Germany. 

He was later to claim, and it cannot be denied, that “in less than a year we had accomplished the most profound change in European politics and security for many years, without confrontation, without a shot fired”. Brexit would have appalled him.

He led allies to repel Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Victory in war, as Winston Churchill knew, did not guarantee re-election, as Bush had a limp grip on economic management. 

This opened the door for Bill Clinton who, in 1993, encapsulated this vulnerability: “It’s the economy, stupid!” 

That Democratic victory ultimately led to the Trump presidency, but Bush, who voted for Hilary Clinton, was forthright on Trump, calling him a “blowhard”.

How you view Bush Sr will be defined by your politics, but whether you remember him as supporter of right-wing Contras terror or a patrician democrat committed to high ideals — probably both — he would have been appalled by the polarisation destroying America and how that polarisation has spread. 

Tragically, the lessons he gave on the power of diplomacy and bipartisan politics were, at the moment of his death, more relevant than at any point of his political career.

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