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When the World Convulsed, George H.W. Bush (Mostly) Let Freedom Happen

We should, but probably won't, learn the lesson that U.S. presidents don't have to control or even fully understand world events.

Presidents Havel and Bush, and wives, Nov. 17, 1990 ||| CTKCTKThe first time I saw a sitting American president give a speech was on November 17, 1990, in Prague's historic Wenceslas Square, on the one-year anniversary of Czechoslovakia's storybook Velvet Revolution. The speaker was George Bush (we did not know his middle initials back then), and I was appalled.

Oh, he was decent and affable enough—always was, just like the Dana Carvey impersonation that did so much to define Bush's public persona. But, my arrogant and impertinent 22-year-old self pointed out with factual accuracy if not quite moral wisdom, the supposed Leader of the Free World exhibited a stunning ignorance of and/or disregard for local and regional facts on the ground.

The warm-up music on that frigid day was a bunch of hymns and marching songs from the American Civil War—this in a country that was already careening toward a nerve-wracking fracture that would happen 26 months later. The speech and pomp were filled with references to God, amongst a people who routinely lead the world in atheism.

More substantively, the U.S. president just didn't seem to have a realistic handle on regional events, which were changing at a velocity almost impossible to convey in 2018. Besides urging in vain for Czechoslovakia to stay together—not an unreasonable ask, given that majorities in both the Czech and Slovak republics favored unification all the way up to the split (it's a long story)—Bush also seemed to think Yugoslavia was a union worthy and possible of saving. I had spent much of the previous month in the tail end of that country, and hostile dissolution seemed inevitable. The first shots would be fired seven months later.

The passage of time has changed my uncharitable interpretation of Bush's flailings. The inability of Washington to properly understand, let alone control, the mostly beneficial convulsions of the 1989-1991 world is a testament to the awesome-if-usually-dormant power of people to cast off their own shackles, at their own chosen speed. The reunification of Germany, to cite one critical geopolitical development, happened with an acceleration that alarmed leaders of East and West alike, from Mikhail Gorbachev to Margaret Thatcher. But Germans willed it to be so.

||| ReasonReasonThe further removed we are from historical events, whether through time or geography, the more they seem inevitable. They are anything but. Two months after Bush's Prague speech, Gorbachev sent tanks into Lithuania, killing 14. (The Nation contributor deserves massive credit for rolling back Soviet imperialism from the Warsaw Pact, but he fought bitterly for a unified and still-communist U.S.S.R. until the whoosh of events, too, carried Gorby off stage in late 1991.) Soviet troops only started exiting unwilling countries in the summer of 1991; Kremlin leadership could have gone any which way, and it doesn't take much imagination to create an alternative timeline in which the awful-enough ex-Yugoslav wars became a great-power conflagration.

Instead, the world saw the end of superpower proxy wars throughout Africa and Latin America, the collapse of the state-ownership model not just in the East but in Western Europe as well, and the most rapid transformation from unfree to free, socialist to capitalist, in human history.

Bush, like other world leaders of the time, deserves credit not for making all that happen, but mostly for allowing it to happen, in the form of not overly getting in the way. The powerful don't have a particularly good track record when faced suddenly with their own leaking relevance, and with the major and important exception of the Gulf War (which we will be writing more about in this space), Bush handled America's comparative unclenching with admirable calmness.

Former president Barack Obama had it about right earlier this week, at a Rice University event with former secretary of state James Baker: "When it comes to foreign policy, the work that President George H.W. Bush did with Jim at his side was as important and as deft and as effective a set of foreign policy initiatives as we saw in recent years, and deserve enormous credit for navigating the end of the Cold War in a way that could have gone sideways, all kinds of ways."

Things of course did go sideways—they always do at least a little, and some of the blame even for the 2018 geopolitical realities he probably loathed lies at the foot of 41. Bush's dream of creating an international taboo against aggressive violations against other countries' sovereignty, for example, led directly to that laudable principle being serially violated by his own country. By his own son. And by the two presidents since.

That is part of George H.W. Bush's legacy that should, but probably won't, be assessed unflinchingly during the coming tributes. But so should his otherwise non-hysterical statecraft at a time of great tumult. Let one the lessons of his passing be that sometimes American presidents don't have to know it all, and don't have to control it all, either.

Photo Credit: picture alliance / Ron Sachs/Con/Newscom

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  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Besides urging in vain for Czechoslovakia to stay together—not an unreasonable ask, given that majorities in both the Czech and Slovak republics favored unification all the way up to the split (it's a long story)—

    I doubt that's true. May be the Czechs wanted that, but the Slovaks wanted out, because they were always getting shafted. Anyway, the leaders should have gotten the Nobel Peace Prize for a completely peaceful break up. How often does that happen?

  • Matt Welch||

    There was public polling all throughout. I covered it all while it was happening. *Many* Slovaks wanted out, because of aforementioned shafting (plus unrealized national ambitions) but never a majority. Only after the fact, when the dissolution wasn't at all the disaster that most Serious People predicted, did the split poll well in both places.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Thanks for civil forfeiture, you prick!

  • Jerryskids||

    Bush, like other world leaders of the time, deserves credit not for making all that happen, but mostly for allowing it to happen, in the form of not overly getting in the way.

    Which is part of the reason Slick Willy got elected and Calvin Coolidge gets no respect - what the hell's the point of having power if you're not going to use it? You can't just sit there and do nothing, you have to get in there and direct events and when you fuck shit up, well, at least your intentions were good and who knew remaking the world would be so complicated?

  • Still Curmudgeoned (Nunya)||

    I always appreciate your snark.

  • The Knuckle||

    cc, one of the best we've had

  • gaoxiaen||

    He let it happen because he was too busy destroying freedom inside the US.

  • Juice||

    And in Central America.

  • Rich||

    Former president Barack Obama had it about right earlier this week, at a Rice University event with former secretary of state James Baker: "When it comes to foreign policy, the work that President George H.W. Bush did with Jim at his side was as important and as deft and as effective a set of foreign policy initiatives as we saw in recent years, and deserve enormous credit for navigating the end of the Cold War in a way that could have gone sideways, all kinds of ways."

    Yep, given this is the actual quote, Obama had it *about* right, since "deserve" should be "deserves". This modern perversion of English grammar in which the verb is made singular or plural based on the physical closest noun is, um, stupid and lazy.

    Moreover, is it "the work" that deserves credit for "navigating"? Perhaps Obama meant "Bush", or "Bush and Jim", or ....?

    And, yes, I know -- "Deserve's got nothing to do with it." 8-(

  • Rich||

    *physically-closest* Argh!

  • DD2TT||

    It wasn't a written speech. He was speaking off the cuff. FFS.

  • Rich||

    I, uhhh, appreciate that. Just a bump in the road as I, along with Matt, adjusts to Newspeak.

  • a ab abc abcd abcde abcdef ahf||

    It was spoken speech, and you should work it from the opposite angle, that he actually intended the plural, ask what nouns that would apply to, and realize he meant the implied two people (Bush and Jim at his side).

    That's how spoken speech works. Written speech can't take those same short cuts because all the intonations and pauses and emphasis are far too subtle for writing. Spoken speech can. You can read that sentence out loud in any number of ways, but only one makes sense.

    Look for what makes sense instead of what fits your pre-conceived notions. It applies to all sorts of situations, not just being a grammar nazi.

  • Rich||

    Fair enough. Indeed, "look for what makes sense".

  • Incomprehensible Bitching||

    He touched me in the bad place!

  • Cy||

    Settle down Ms. Ford.

  • Juice||

    Bush's dream of creating an international taboo against aggressive violations against other countries' sovereignty

    huh? When did he say that? Or act like he believed that?

  • GeoffB1972||

    You could charitably believe that's what the ejection of Iraq from Kuwait was about. In his mind, he was firming up Kuwait's sovereignty, not attacking Iraq's.

  • JFree||

    Yes there were a lot of ways that the end of the Cold War could have unrolled. I remember an article that Jeane Kirkpatrick (the original neocon when it was still called 'hawk') wrote in 1990 called A Normal Country in a Normal Time. Basically, that the US had endured 50 years of abnormal perma-war - with all of the distortions and reliance on technocrats/elites that that involves and that Eisenhower had earlier warned against as well - and that it was time to revert to being a normal society again. That debate never occurred. Partially because of events - mostly because the elites had no interest whatsoever in relinquishing that power and Americans have not the slightest ability/interest to even observe that sort of debate about the future.

    Shame too cuz I do think Bush would have been on the right side of that debate too. But he never had the vision thang - or the balls of Eisenhower to resist the technocrats that he himself had mostly managed in his public life.

  • ||

    "Former president Barack Obama had it about right earlier this week, at a Rice University event with former secretary of state James Baker: "When it comes to foreign policy, the work that President George H.W. Bush did with Jim at his side was as important and as deft and as effective a set of foreign policy initiatives as we saw in recent years, and deserve enormous credit for navigating the end of the Cold War in a way that could have gone sideways, all kinds of ways."

    I'm surprised he didn't include how he would have handled it.

    Will Obama be a judge on a Food Network show next?

  • DiegoF||

    I'd go on that show. All you'd need to win would be an undersized, underseasoned, poorly conceived meal accompanied by some 0% fat milk. The judges would throw the whole thing in the trash after tasting it and split a box of Hostess Doughnuts. Thus would you be declared the winner of the competition, a scholarship to Princeton, and perhaps a Nobel Peace Prize.

  • The Last American Hero||

    Does Welch still host that Chopped show? If so, he could probably pull some strings and get Obama a guest judge spot.

  • operagost||

    Ask is a verb. Request is a suitable noun.

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