Bush, Revisited

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By George Weigel

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GW: Let’s talk about the Bush presidency. Bush quite rightly insisted on both the reunification of Germany and the incorporation of a reunified Germany within NATO; and he hung in there when the pressure got intense to abandon that position. He saw that Saddam Hussein’s conquest of Kuwait couldn’t be allowed to stand, and he did something about it, even if we’d both have grave questions about the endgame of the Gulf War. Those are things on the credit side of the ledger.

On the debit side, though, and even more clearly in retrospect, there is this striking pattern of incomprehension about the revolutionary dynamics of the late eighties and early nineties. I’m thinking of Secretary of State Baker in Belgrade in 1991, saying that our interest in Yugoslavia was “order and stability,” thus putting our bet on Milosevic as a kind of new Tito who would hold things together. I’m thinking about what William Safire dubbed President Bush’s “Chicken Kiev speech,” which amounted to an endorsement of Gorbachev’s efforts to hold the Soviet Union together. I’m thinking about the reaction (a month after the Kiev fiasco) to the August 1991 coup in Moscow. And then there was the lack of V-C Day, or at least some statement of what this all meant.

As you look back on the Bush years, set against the previous eight years in which you yourself were so intensely involved, do you think that the Bush team self-consciously pulled back from the ideological component of the Reagan foreign policy, in exchange for a more classic, moderate Republican, Realpolitik-driven perspective? And, if so, was that a fundamental error? Did that create interpretive filters that simply didn’t permit the Bush team to see what in fact was going on?

 

EA: Yes, I think that’s basically it. I’d also stress that Bush foreign policy was a team foreign policy: it was the team of Bush, Baker, and [Brent] Scowcroft throughout those four years. And I’m tempted to say that they just didn’t get it.

But the interesting question is: Why didn’t they get it? It was partly a reaction against Reagan. The Reagan people had insisted on stressing ideological issues; the Bush people wanted to distinguish themselves from the Reagan people on a number of fronts; and so there you were—the temptation was overwhelming to distinguish themselves in foreign policy by being “more pragmatic.” In the end, of course, they were less pragmatic. But that frequently hap pens to those who seek “pragmatism” by ignoring the role of ideas.

The Bush team also believed that the Reagan approach was stylistically, even morally, offensive. Talk about “evil empires” and America as a “city on a hill”—I think President Bush found those to be offensive formulations. And the stylistic question is not entirely trivial. President Bush thought that personal behavior and national behavior ought to be judged by similar standards of what was “offensive”…

 

GW: … good form, bad form, that sort of thing …

 

EA: That’s right, good form, bad form, and the latter understood as overly nationalistic, even chauvinistic. I think some of Reagan’s formulations just grated on Bush. And that, combined with the Bush team’s desire to distinguish themselves from Reagan, led to an overreaction. Of course, President Bush himself said that he had never been very comfortable with the “vision thing” and with the “moralizing” of issues (in the best sense of that term); I think he saw world politics in a relatively old-fashioned way.

Now that served him well in a few cases. But one of the critical errors the Bush team made was to misunderstand the substitution of other actors for the nation-state as key players on the world stage. The Bush people tended to react as if, well, the nation-state has always been the main actor, so it must have some sort of right to be the main actor; what were these other actors—regions, peoples, nationality groups—doing on stage? This was playing the King Canute role, trying to restrain a tide that simply couldn’t be held back.

Now, you can understand how Bush and his people came to think of nation-states as the principal actors in the drama. But what was really somewhat odd about their view was the notion that there was something morally right about the then-extant state borders. So you got these very strange messages about Eastern Europe and the old Soviet Union. Remember the “Captive Nations Days”? No doubt there was a lot of rhetoric propounded on those occasions; and no doubt I was one of the rhetoricians on occasion. But the point is that this rhetoric, the rhetoric of freedom versus tyranny, made President Reagan glow. And it made President Bush shrink. What we saw as the liberation of the captive nations, Reagan exulted in, as it drew near; to him it was, quite simply, a great moral event. President Bush saw it as a potentially great moral event that brought with it enormous dangers. That was true, of course. But I think Bush focused too intently on the inviolability of “the system.”

Remember what I said before about people who think they’re being pragmatic and prudent but end up being impractical and imprudent? One of the problems of the Bush Administration is that it didn’t think through very carefully what would happen when you substituted “defending the system,” now packaged as “the new world order,” for the moral imperatives of the Cold War years. What would this do to U.S. foreign policy? What would it do to the American people? For over forty years, the bottom line on the Cold War had been that, in the face of immoral communism linked to Soviet power, we were, in fact, the revolutionary party: the party of freedom, of change, of getting the world beyond tyranny. Then, suddenly, we were told that the goal of American foreign policy was “defending the system.” It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the Congress and the American people suddenly lost a lot of their enthusiasm for overseas involvements. Who wants to risk his son’s or daughter’s life “defending the international system”? I have the distinct impression that the Bush people didn’t quite think that one through.

 

GW: Yet in the case of a major cross-border aggression—Iraq invading and subjugating Kuwait—they could make the case powerfully, and against a lot of opposition and skepticism.

 

EA: But it was a very odd business: a mismatch, it seems to me, of Old Think and New Think. Remember that the Bush Administration made several bizarre efforts to justify its actions in the Gulf, the most bizarre being James Baker’s claim that this was about “jobs, jobs, jobs.” And then there was the President’s curious rhetoric about defending democracy in a country, Kuwait, that had never experienced democracy and still hasn’t.

The American people, on the other hand, had a somewhat clearer, if old-fashioned, view: this was aggression, and it was wrong. Here was this familiar kind of burn, Saddam Hussein; we weren’t going to let him get away with aggression in a place that really mattered. And it really mattered because of the oil, and what that meant for the world economy and for international security. Americans understood that very, very well, I think.

One good “lesson of Vietnam” was that you had to get the whole nation involved in what would have to be a national effort: Bush managed that very well, and the American people responded. But it was a reflexive response, a traditional response, familiar to anyone who knew the American response to World Wars I and II. It was a response grounded in the belief that, at this particular moment, the Americans knew what they were up to. And that belief did more to sustain the American people’s support for the ef fort in the Gulf than many of the “interpretations” that the Bush Administration was offering us.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.