George Herbert Walker Bush was the last Republican realist in the White House. He was also the last U.S. president to come into office fully prepared for his job. Unlike Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and, of course, Donald Trump, none of whom had any experience with running a federal administration, Bush had served as Congressman, ambassador to the United Nations and China, Director of the CIA and Vice President for eight whole years. As far as the international order was concerned, Bush was the right man, in the right place and in the right time.
The challenges he faced in the world arena were titanic. Bush oversaw the liberation of Eastern Europe, the dismantling of the Soviet empire and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. His approach was far more pragmatic than ideological. He refrained from invoking traditional conservative values and resisted calls by fellow Republicans to use the opportunity of the collapse of the Soviet Union to strike a blow for liberty and freedom. His careful and dispassionate strategy and tactics stabilized the world, smoothed the transition and established the framework for the new Europe of the 21st century.
The 1990-1991 Gulf War launched by Bush was a prime example of Bush’s caution and international savvy. His prime motivation for the invasion of Iraq was not to save Kuwait from tyranny but to maintain U.S. deterrence and to draw a line in the sand that instructed the world on what America would not and could not tolerate.
Unlike his overzealous son, who would see his fortunes sink in the Iraqi quicksand a decade later, Bush exemplified Ariel Sharon’s maxim that “restraint is also power”. He refused to let “mission creep” alter his original goals and extricated the U.S. from the war once its original objectives were achieved.
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Bush built up an unprecedented international coalition of 35 countries against Saddam, which included distinctly undemocratic countries, such as Egypt, and even ostensibly anti-American Syria. He relied on the authority of the international institutions so reviled on the Republican right, opting to go it alone only when there was no other option.
And he refused to allow the U.S. military to take Baghdad and topple Saddam Hussein. Republican hawks, along with many Israelis, criticized Bush’s reluctance at the time but the experience of his far less cautious son proved that in foreign affairs and national security, more is often far less.
Yitzhak Shamir, who clashed with Bush like no previous Israeli prime minister, nonetheless appreciated the U.S. President’s realistic streak. The same was true of Bush’s forceful Secretary of State James Baker, whose battle with Shamir was even longer and fiercer. Shamir knew how to differentiate between Bush’s leadership on the world stage and his efforts to bring peace to the Middle East, which Shamir opposed.
It took no small amount of confidence and trust in the U.S. leadership for Shamir to compel his combative Defense Minister Moshe Arens and Israeli army chiefs to refrain from retaliating for Saddam’s missile attacks on Israeli cities.
Bush’s realistic streak propelled him to exploit the aftermath of the Gulf campaign to convene the Madrid Conference and to launch the first-ever direct talks between Israel and Palestinians, Syrians and Gulf countries. His pragmatism, however, left him woefully unprepared for the clash with Shamir’s all-encompassing ideology and dogged resistance to any and all concessions.
Shamir’s battle with Bush over the $10 billion in loan guarantees that Israel needed in order to absorb the wave of new Russian immigrants, who had made aliyah in the wake of the collapse of communism, was incomprehensible to Bush. It frustrated the U.S. President and made him lose his famous cool, leading to what is arguably the worst altercation in history between a U.S. president, on the one hand, and Israel and the Jewish community on the other.
Bush’s pent up annoyance burst out in his address to the nation on September 12, 1991, which AIPAC’s legendary executive director Tom Dine later described, Pearl Harbor style, as “a day that will live in infamy.”
Bush had angered Shamir and American Jews the year before when he blasted Israeli settlements in “the West Bank and East Jerusalem”, but his tirade against “A thousand Jewish lobbyists on Capitol Hill against little old me” sparked accusations of outright anti-Semitism. Bush was invoking the charge of “dual loyalty” against U.S. Jews, and they rewarded him with a measly 12% of their vote, the lowest ever for any Republican presidential candidate, in his 1992 run against Bill Clinton.
Bush tried to make up for his lapse of judgment in the waning days of his presidency by courting Shamir’s successor Yitzhak Rabin, but the die was already cast. He had tapped into the historical Jewish suspicion of the GOP, which, despite Ronald Reagan, was still viewed as cooler on Israel than Democrats and still blemished by the anti-Semitic views of many of its past leaders.
Like father like son, many Jews said at the time, recalling the pre-World War II activities of Bush’s father, Senator Prescott Bush, whose Union Banking Corporation served as a front for German industrialist Fritz Thyssen, a Nazi sympathizer and funder who later recanted. In a bit of historical irony, it is the same Thyssen whose conglomerate later morphed into the ThyssenKrupp group, the builder of Israeli submarines that is a central player in one of the ongoing corruption investigations against Benjamin Netanyahu.
Bush, however, was no anti-Semite. He maintained traditional U.S. support for the Jewish state and played an instrumental role in facilitating the immigration of Russian as well as Ethiopian Jews. He believed that the Middle East peace was vital to U.S. security interests, that the Gulf War had created an unprecedented opportunity to achieve it and that Israel was being pigheaded in its refusal to cooperate. His great misfortune was to let Shamir’s obstinacy get to him and make him lose his cool, thus consigning him, in Jewish eyes, to the ranks of hostile Presidents, much like Barack Obama who succeeded him 16 years later.
History will shine a more favorable light on the Bush presidency. His careful handling of the breakup of Eastern Europe as well as the Gulf War created the world that saw Israel reach a historic deal with the Palestinians at Oslo and allowed it to capitalize on the new opportunities of the post-Soviet world, including its current romance with countries such as Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. The stability instilled by Bush on the world scene allowed Israel to strengthen and thrive.
But Bush was an anachronism in many ways even when he was just elected. He came into the White House on the coattails of his far more flamboyant and conservative predecessor Reagan, and even so, may not have won the 1988 elections were it not for his exceptionally weak Democratic challenger Michael Dukakis. Bush was an Eisenhower at a time when the GOP was already transitioning to the populist, conservative and religion-based party molded by his own son, George W., and cemented today by Trump himself. He was an uncharismatic pro at a time when the GOP was already yearning for a flamboyant rabble-rouser. In today’s GOP, someone like Bush wouldn’t be elected dogcatcher.
Bush didn’t lose the elections because of Jewish outrage, though the sharp drop in Jewish donations to the GOP in 1992 certainly hampered his campaign. His place in Jewish and Israeli history is colored by their tendency to judge U.S. presidents solely by their attitude to the Palestinian problem and the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Only through this distorted mirror can a savvy international player like Bush be condemned while Trump, for example, is held up as a paragon of friendship and virtue, solely for his support for Netanyahu’s right-wing policies. It is a preference that says less about Bush than it does about the evolution of Israel’s dangerous course, which Bush tried in vain to alter.
Correction: The article previously stated incorrectly that President George H.W. Bush referred to Israeli settlements in the West Bank as "illegal."