WASHINGTON – George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States who passed away on Friday night, had a lot in common with another Republican leader who died earlier this year: John McCain. Both men represented a branch of the Republican Party that is disappearing under the leadership of Donald Trump.
Bush, like McCain, was a pilot in the U.S. Navy who put his life on the line for his country. Bush did it during World War II; McCain in Vietnam. It’s no coincidence that both men emerged as critics of Trump after his rise to power in 2016.
Despite being a lifelong Republican, Bush refused to vote for Trump in the 2016 election. He expressed concern beforehand about the possibility of Trump becoming the leader of the United States and like his son, the 43rd president, George W. Bush, periodically released statements that could be seen as critical of Trump – for example, after the far-right violence in Charlottesville in August 2017.
The passing of Bush and McCain within the space of three months could be seen as symbolizing the finalization of the Republican shift from their style of politics to Trump’s.
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Moderate and thoughtful Republicans like the 41st president are currently on the defensive, fighting to keep their place at the table, while more and more elected Republican officials are mimicking 45's attacks on the rule of law and his claims of election fraud.
While the news coverage in the United States will obviously focus on the biographical traits that separate “Bush 41” from the country’s current leader, it is worth noting that another huge difference between them exists in the arena of foreign policy.
In 2015, then-President Barack Obama told Fox News that George H.W. Bush was one of the “most underrated presidents” in the history of the United States. He sang the praises of the 41st president’s foreign policy achievements, most notably his successful navigation of the end of the Cold War.
“He was thoughtful, restrained and made good choices,” Obama explained. He added that Bush “understood that for us to be able to reimagine Europe and reimagine the world was going to require restraint and care.” These words seem to be the exact opposite of how the current president handles his own foreign policy.
In fairness, it’s easy to argue that these qualities were also lacking during the administration of Bush’s son, George W. Bush, who pushed for the disastrous war in Iraq; and that Obama himself also made a number of key foreign policy decisions that senior members of his own administration have criticized as wrong and damaging, such as his “red line” debacle in Syria.
But when one recalls Trump, during his visit to Israel last year, gleefully telling Israeli President Reuven Rivlin that he had “just got back from the Middle East” a short time after landing at Ben-Gurion International Airport, the difference between America’s current leadership and that of the 41st president seems bigger than ever.
Israel represents a specific foreign policy issue that highlights how much the Republican Party has changed since the days of Bush’s leadership. As president, he was willing to clash with Israel and the pro-Israel lobby in Washington in ways that are impossible to imagine in the current GOP.
In 1991, he fought hard against the request of a right-wing Israeli government, led by the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, to receive billions in loan guarantees from the United States. Bush demanded an obligation from Shamir that the money would not be used for housing in the settlements in the West Bank. Shamir refused, and Bush urged Congress not to give Israel the guarantees.
At the height of the clash over the issue, Bush went after the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. He held a press conference in the White House and said: “We’re up against very strong and effective groups that go up to Capitol Hill. I hear today there were something like a thousand lobbyists on the Hill working on the other side of this question.” Referring to himself, Bush then added that “we’ve only got one lonely little guy down here doing it.”
The only Republican in D.C. who would make such a statement today is the libertarian Sen. Rand Paul, an isolationist who otherwise has nothing in common with the foreign policy views of the 41st president.
The party has transformed dramatically on Israel since Bush’s time in the White House, just like it has on many other issues. In 1990, Bush openly questioned Israel’s claims to East Jerusalem, and denounced building in the settlements around the city. His son, in 2002, openly and strongly endorsed a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Yet in 2016, support for a two-state solution was dropped from the Republican Party platform. And late last year, Trump recognized Jerusalem – without any distinction between the western and eastern parts of the city – as the capital of Israel. His administration has cut all U.S. assistance to the Palestinians, in some cases doing so against the advice of pro-Israel former Bush administration officials.
George H.W. Bush served his country for decades, and the legacy he leaves behind is that of a respected hero. With his passing, America has lost a beloved former president.
But perhaps by shining a light on his time in the White House and specifically on his foreign policy, it can win back some truths and qualities that are more important than ever in the Washington of 2018.