I was privileged to be George H.W. Bush’s chief speechwriter in his last year as Vice President, as he was beginning his 1988 campaign for the White House. He was self-effacing to a fault, having been raised not to brag or boast. He was so well trained and generous that his boyhood nickname was “Have half” – he was always willing to share. This was not a political asset, though: He was so adverse to self-praise that he would glide over applause lines in his speeches before the crowd could react.
As has been noted by many, he was very well prepared for the presidency. His experience as a 20-year-old combat pilot in World War II made him acutely aware of the cost of war in human lives – having seen his buddies lose theirs – and that made him very reluctant to commit U.S. troops to battle and determined to keep their exposure as short as possible.
Shaped by experience of the alliance that had won World War II, he was a great believer in teamwork, multilateralism, and the United Nations (having served as U.S. ambassador to the UN himself).
When he determined to reverse Saddam Hussein’s sudden invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the first major foreign policy test of his presidency, he delayed action until he had assembled a formidable global coalition of allies – 35 countries in all – and won the support of the UN Security Council for “all appropriate measures,” including the use of force.
Speaking to the Congress, which subsequently authorized the use of military force, President Bush said, “Out of these troubled times, our fifth objective – a new world order – can emerge: a new era – freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace. An era in which the nations of the world, East and West, North and South, can prosper and live in harmony. … A world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle. A world in which nations recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice. A world where the strong respect the rights of the weak.”
The 1991 military offensive on the ground was so decisive, it lasted only 100 hours. With the Iraqi military utterly destroyed by Operation Desert Storm, the U.S. could easily have captured Baghdad and ousted Saddam, but President Bush wisely refrained, mindful of Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn” advice: “You break it, you own it.” He ordered allied forces to suspend offensive military operations.
He later wrote of that decision, “Trying to eliminate Saddam … would have incurred incalculable human and political costs. … We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq. … Going in and occupying Iraq, thus unilaterally exceeding the United Nations’ mandate, would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression that we hoped to establish.”
The last president to have served in combat, George H.W. Bush understood the importance of standing up to evil – but after seeing the dissolution of the Soviet Union, he also aspired to a “new world order” of cooperation and peace.
Most of all, he was a genuinely nice guy. Shortly after his inauguration, after I had gone to the Department of Energy, our daughter Julia was born, and I let his secretary know about this early product of his new administration. Sure enough, a note came right back, scribbled on Camp David notepaper, that said:
Dear Julia –
You are 2 weeks old. How’s it feel?
I want to work hard so you’ll grow up in a world at peace.
Your Dad is my friend.
*Reid Detchon is Senior Advisor for Climate Solutions at the United Nations Foundation.