Everything Wrong with the George H.W. Bush Administration
Hailed at his passing as “the most successful one‐term president in the nation’s history,” George H.W. Bush has a far better claim to being the most destructive.
“Everything Wrong with the Presidents” series focuses on, as the title suggests, everything each president did wrong while in office. While many presidents enacted worthwhile, and even occasionally beneficial, policies, that’s not what these essays are about. Thus, silence regarding the good actions should not be taken as denial of their existence.
If we Americans are ever too hard on our presidents while they’re in office, we more than make up for it once they give up the ghost. A former president’s death brings on the final presidential perks: a state funeral worthy of a fallen pharaoh and a posthumous victory lap in which the departed gets lathered with more praise and affection than he ever enjoyed while upright.
Even by the usual standards of presidential farewells, the December 2018 sendoff for our 41st president, George Herbert Walker Bush, laid it on pretty thick. “He was the last of his kind,” Todd Purdum mourned in the Atlantic , “In contrast to the incumbent of the Oval Office, he looms in memory as the valiant remnant of a Periclean age.”  “On his watch, a wall fell in Berlin, a dictator’s aggression did not stand, and doors across America opened to those with disabilities,” historian Jon Meacham eulogized, “Strong and gracious, comforting and charming, loving and loyal, he was our shield in danger’s hour” 
“The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations”
In fairness, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for a faraway time when the president’s most mockable character trait was an alleged excess of “prudence.” And, of course, George H.W. Bush’s reputation has only been enhanced by the disasters that followed him. Nearly every opinion‐page tribute drew the obvious contrasts with George W. Bush—the 43rd president and architect of the disastrous Iraq War—and the erratic and vulgar conduct of the current president, Donald J. Trump. Credit where it’s due: George H.W. Bush comported himself respectably in public and, unlike his son, knew just when to call a halt to an unnecessary war. But that’s hardly the shining epitaph 41’s eulogists imagine.
Grading on a curve shouldn’t mean abandoning all our standards. Presidents are properly judged on their fealty to two oaths: the one they’re required to swear—to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution”—and one that should be implicit for anyone entrusted with vast power: “first, do no harm.” In his brief tenure, the 41st president flagrantly violated both, to our lasting detriment. Hailed at his passing as “the most successful one‐term president in the nation’s history,”  George H.W. Bush has a far better claim to being the most destructive.
He Had No Ideas, Yet He Was a Nuisance
“The vision thing,” Bush’s dismissive rejoinder to demands that he articulate a transformational domestic agenda, became a useful gibe for his political opponents. Even so, the phrase suggested a healthy attitude: peace and prosperity tend to suffer when the executive branch brims with bold ideas.
Alas, on the home front, 41 proved that you don’t need the “vision thing” to be an activist, meddling president. He backed and signed a dozen major bills, a legislative record as frenetic as any modern president’s, save FDR’s and LBJ’s. 
Conservatives have long focused their ire on the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990, in which Bush abandoned his campaign‐trail “read my lips: no new taxes” pledge. A betrayal, to be sure, but as Milton Friedman stressed, “the real cost of government, is measured by what government spends, not by the receipts labeled taxes.”  On that score, Bush wasn’t an especially profligate president. He did better at holding down overall spending growth than any of the six presidents who preceded him, including Ronald Reagan. 
More damaging by far was the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). As sweeping and intrusive a social engineering effort as anything since Johnson’s Great Society, the ADA brought a new, and loosely defined, protected class under the umbrella of federal civil rights law and imposed “a de facto universal building code” on nearly every retail business in America.  A boon for professional litigants and the plaintiffs’ bar, the law has mostly failed its intended beneficiaries: fewer disabled Americans are employed today than before the ADA’s passage. 
The “kinder, gentler” president was determined to deal harshly with Americans whose consumption choices and forms of political protest offended him. “There are few clear areas in which we as a society must rise up united and express our intolerance,” Bush declared in his Inaugural Address, “the most obvious now is drugs.” A more ardent prohibitionist than even Reagan, President Bush ramped up the militarization of the drug war, approving the use of the National Guard for drug interdiction at home.
Bush also proved himself as shameless a flag‐botherer as Donald Trump. In 1989, when the Supreme Court struck down a Texas statute criminalizing flag‐burning, Bush led the fight to amend the Constitution by tearing a hole the First Amendment. “The law books are full of restrictions on free speech. And we ought to have this be one of them,” he declared (thankfully, the effort failed). 
Still, if judged solely on his domestic record, George H.W. Bush might rank, as he once feared, as “an asterisk,” in a list of more dramatic and destructive presidencies. It’s in his conduct of foreign affairs where Bush earned the dubious distinction of being a “transformational” president.
Watching the World Wake up from History?
“It really is true that foreign affairs is the only important issue for the President to handle, isn’t it?” a shaken President Kennedy privately remarked to Richard Nixon after the Bay of Pigs debacle: “I mean who gives a shit if the minimum wage is $1.15 or $1.25, in comparison to something like this?”  It’s a sentiment George H.W. Bush expressed repeatedly, if less colorfully, in his personal diary. 
In 1989, the “Year of Revolutions,” Bush could hardly be blamed for finding international relations more gripping than domestic budget battles. His first year alone saw the Tiananmen Square Massacre in June; Solidarity’s sweep of Polish elections in August; and the fall of the Berlin Wall in November.
It’s here, in navigating the end of the Cold War, where 41 deserves some praise for prudent restraint. At the time, critics on both sides of the aisle wanted the president to do some sort of sack dance celebrating the West’s victory in the long twilight struggle. Recognizing Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s precarious position, Bush refused. “I think back to George Mitchell’s stupid suggestion that I go to the Berlin Wall,” Bush wrote in November 1989, “and I think to myself, ‘God, the guy has got to have been nuts to suggest you pour gasoline on those embers.’” 
Yet Bush would be damned if he’d let the collapse of the Soviet empire serve as an excuse for reducing American military commitments abroad. There would be no postwar return to “normalcy” on his watch: instead, Bush forged “the greatest transformation of American foreign relations since World War II.” 
On December 2, 1989, less than a month after the Wall fell, Bush and Gorbachev met at the Malta Summit, where Gorbachev effectively declared an end to the Cold War. After leaving Malta, Bush got exasperated when a reporter pressed him to agree with Gorbachev: “Things have moved dramatically. But if I signal to you there’s no Cold War, then it’s ‘What are you doing with troops in Europe?’ I mean, come on!” 
That was the sort of question many Americans were asking at the time. Why couldn’t the U.S. return to its traditional policy of “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none”? Talk of deep defense cuts and the “peace dividend” animated Capitol Hill. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) introduced an “End of the Cold War Act” that would have shut down the CIA.  “Who’s the enemy? I keep getting asked that,” Bush complained to his diary: “It’s apathy; it’s the inability to predict accurately; it’s dramatic change that can’t be foreseen.… there’s all kinds of potential instability that requires a strong U.S. presence.” 
By the end of 1989, the monster we’d gone abroad to destroy had been defanged and domesticated. “Apathy” wouldn’t do for a replacement nemesis. If America was to remain “engaged” abroad, new monsters would have to be identified. Not three weeks after the Malta Summit, America was at war again.
“Operation Just Because”
Panamanian strongman General Manuel Noriega had been a CIA asset for decades, but by the mid‐80s, the drug‐running dictator had become an embarrassment to the Reagan‐Bush administration. In May 1989, after Noriega cancelled the results of a presidential election won by his opponents, Bush ordered the Joint Chiefs to draw up a plan for regime change.
In December, when Panamanian soldiers killed a U.S. Marine, Bush got the excuse he needed to act.  In his televised address to the nation on December 20, the president offered a broad rationale for intervention: we’d gone to war not just to protect U.S. citizens, but “to defend democracy in Panama.”  The invasion, initially dubbed “Operation Blue Spoon,” got a last‐minute rebranding from the Pentagon, to the question‐begging “Operation Just Cause.”  Some wisecracking U.S. officers dubbed it “Operation Just Because.”
Launched without any congressional authorization, Just Cause, with over 25,000-troops, was at the time the largest U.S. military operation since the Vietnam War. Cato’s Ted Galen Carpenter argues that the Panama precedent was pivotal: at a key moment, “it set America on a renewed path of intervention.” The rationales Bush 41 invoked for regime change were used to justify a host of humanitarian excursions over the next three decades: “After the Berlin Wall fell, the war against the Noriegas of the world could begin.” 
War of Choice in the Gulf
The Persian Gulf War featured prominently in December 2018’s encomia to the late President Bush. Most eulogists praised Bush Senior for using power cautiously, drawing a sharp contrast between 41’s prudence in 1991 and 43’s reckless decision to launch a “war of choice” in 2003.  Reasonable people are allowed to disagree about how the Gulf War should have ended, it seems, but not about whether America should have fought it in the first place.
But both wars were wars of choice. And the consequences of the Gulf War—which fueled the rise of Al Qaeda and kicked off America’s Thirty Years War in the Middle East—may, in the long run, have been more disastrous than the younger Bush’s ill‐fated decision to “finish the job” in 2003.
On August 2, 1990, when a debt‐strapped Saddam Hussein opted to “take the oil” by invading his weaker neighbor, even Bush’s National Security Council doubted that restoring the Kuwaiti emirate was worth American blood and treasure. President Bush summed up the dominant NSC view in his diary: “It’s halfway around the world; U.S. options are limited; and all in all it is a highly complicated situation.” 
But in a matter of days, after some bracing by National Security adviser Brent Scowcroft and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher,  the president decided “This will not stand.” On August 8, he announced the dispatch of U.S. forces to Saudi Arabia in Operation Desert Shield, a mission he described as “wholly defensive.” 
In that speech, Bush emphasized high principle: “the acquisition of territory by force is unacceptable.” But soon, the administration’s emphasis would shift to energy security and “jobs, jobs, jobs.” Secretary of State James Baker raised the specter of “a dictator who, acting alone and unchallenged, could strangle the global economic order, determining by fiat whether we all enter a recession or even the darkness of a depression.” 
That was nonsense: as David Henderson, former senior energy economist for Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, explained at the time, the “vaunted ‘oil weapon’ is a dud.” Even if Saddam Hussein were to achieve monopoly power over Persian Gulf oil, some 20 percent of global output, the dictator’s ability to inflict pain on the United States would be limited from the first, and rapidly undercut by market forces. “The annual cost of doing nothing in the Gulf” would, Henderson calculated, amount to “at most one‐half of one percent of GNP”—or an extra 24 cents per gallon at the pump. 
Indeed, the immediate aftermath of the August 1990 invasion shows how rapidly oil markets were able to adapt. International sanctions against Iraq had taken nearly 9 percent of world oil production offline, but four months after Hussein seized Kuwait, global output had returned to normal, thanks to increased supply from other producers. 
Henderson based his calculations on a worst‐case scenario that included an Iraqi conquest of Saudi Arabia. The evidence that Hussein plotted any such thing is mixed at best. Despite some menacing troop movements in early August,  “no plans were found as coalition forces sifted through the debris of the Iraqi military after the war.” 
In any case, deterring such an attack would hardly have required the 200,000-plus U.S. troops deployed to Saudi soil at the start of Desert Shield. U.S. airpower could strike with impunity at any armored force moving through open desert,  and, as Christopher Layne observed in Desert Storm’s aftermath, “a limited and temporary U.S. air, naval, and ground presence would have sufficed to dissuade the Iraqis from further aggression and to buy time for Saudi Arabia and its regional allies to organize an all‐Arab defense of the desert kingdom.” 
If a key goal of the international effort was demonstrating “crime doesn’t pay,” the sanctions regime had already made that clear, reducing Iraq’s GDP by some 40 percent.  As Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson explained, Saddam was unable to export oil, like a bank robber who had laid “his hands on the gold within the vault, only later to discover he was locked inside.” 
“We Have Tried Hard for Peace”
In their 1992 book The Imperial Temptation, Tucker and Hendrickson argue convincingly that a policy of “punitive containment” could have achieved key U.S. goals, even the eventual disgorgement of Kuwait, without bloodshed.  That was the approach advocated by Baker and Joint Chiefs chairman Colin Powell, the doves in Bush’s war cabinet. But Bush was never terribly interested in options that might preclude war.
In fact, the president’s diary entries show him pining for a pretext that could get the shooting started.  On October 17, 1990, he wrote: “some members of Congress feel I might use a minor incident to go to war, and they may be right.” An embassy rescue mission might do the trick, Bush mused: if Iraqis fired on U.S. forces, Americans would support “knocking the hell out of this guy.” “Curiously in this scenario,” writes biographer Timothy Naftali, “Bush appeared prepared to sacrifice the lives of some of the diplomats.” 
That month, President Bush ramped up the rhetoric, labelling Saddam Hussein “Hitler revisited.” He also approved a plan to surge another 200,000 troops to Saudi Arabia for an “offensive military option”—but held that information from the public until after November’s midterm elections.
At this point, a congressional debate was unavoidable. In public Bush insisted authorization was optional; privately, he’d already decided to launch the war with or without Congress: “If they are not going to bite the bullet, I am,” Bush wrote in his diary about a week before the vote, “They can file impeachment papers if they want to.” 
To undercut the perception that the president was bent on war, the administration sent Secretary of State Baker to Geneva for a last‐minute meeting with Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz. Scowcroft rebuked Baker and Powell for hoping Iraq would agree to unconditional withdrawal: “Don’t you realize that if he pulls out, it will be impossible for us to stay?” Bush agreed: “we have to have a war.” 
They needn’t have worried. Geneva, predictably, was a bust, and Congress voted to authorize the use of force. By sending half a million troops to the Iraqi border, the president had made the vote a fait accompli.  “I didn’t have to get permission from some old goat in the United States Congress to kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait,” he later bragged to fellow Republicans. 
On the last day of 1990, as the UN deadline for Iraqi withdrawal approached, Bush wrote an impassioned—if self-serving—letter to his children: “I have the peace of mind that comes from knowing that we have tried hard for peace,” he insisted. “When the question is asked ‘How many lives are you willing to sacrifice?’—it tears at my heart. The answer, of course, is none‐ none at all…. every human life is precious, the little Iraqi kids’ too.” 
At the time, it was reasonable to assume that war would cost the lives of hundreds of American soldiers and thousands of Iraqi civilians, including children. That was a sacrifice the president was willing to make, rather than run the political risk of sanctions and containment. 
In the event, military casualties were lighter than expected—148 coalition troops killed in action, perhaps 20,000 on the Iraqi side—as the vaunted “fourth largest army in the world” melted in the face of a 42‐day bombing campaign and a 100‐hour ground war.  Over 2,000 Iraqi civilians died as a direct result of the bombing  ; thousands more likely perished as an indirect result of the air-war’s damage to Iraq infrastructure.  Still more—30,000 to 60,000 Shiites and some 20,000 Kurds—fell in Saddam’s brutal suppression of uprisings stoked by Bush’s call for Iraqis to “take matters into their own hands.”  As John Mueller sums up, “pushing Iraq from Kuwait eventually brought about the deaths of a hundred or two hundred times more people than were killed by the Iraqis in their invasion and conquest” of Kuwait. 
“A World Transformed”
“By God,” President Bush proclaimed when the war was over, “we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” Alas, winning in such spectacular fashion gave the U.S. national security establishment leave to be a lot less prudent. In the coming decade, U.S. military intervention would reach a pace it never hit during the height of the Cold War. 
Meanwhile, for the United States and the Middle East, the long‐term costs of the Gulf War would grow even steeper. Desert Storm pulled America into a deepening entanglement, including 12 years of debilitating sanctions and no‐fly zones, punctuated by punitive air raids—all of which became rallying points for Islamic radicals. 
For Osama Bin Laden, watching American troops on Saudi soil launch the attack on Iraq “was as transforming an event as the Russian invasion of Afghanistan had been a decade earlier,” Peter Bergen writes. Al Qaeda’s 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, were timed for August 7 to mark the date the first US troops for Desert Shield arrived eight years earlier.  As then‐deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz testified to Congress in 2003: “it is that American presence in the holy land of Saudi Arabia and the sustained American bombing of Iraq as part of that containment policy that have been Osama bin Laden’s principal recruiting device.” 
History doesn’t allow us to run the counterfactual: it’s entirely possible that the United States would have faced a threat from Islamic terrorism had the Bush administration opted a solution short of war. But it’s also possible that another path would have left the Towers standing, sparing America and the world from the disasters that followed 9/11.
The rest of the story is familiar. The president set a Gallup record in the afterglow of the Gulf War, hitting 89 percent approval. But martial glory, however splendid, didn’t translate into lasting popularity or electoral victory.
The deep funk Bush fell into after losing reelection didn’t deter him from forcefully wielding the powers of the presidency on his way out the door. On December 4, Bush ordered 28,000 troops into the middle of Somalia’s ongoing civil war. ““Our mission is humanitarian,” Bush insisted, but signaled the potential for mission creep that, under President Bill Clinton, would lead to the Black Hawk Down debacle the next year: “outlaw elements” should understand that U.S. forces would “take whatever military action is necessary.” 
Then, on Christmas Eve 1992, Bush pardoned former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger and five other Iran‐Contra figures. It was a self‐serving misuse of executive power that put an end to a trial, Weinberger’s, in which Bush himself might have been called as a witness.  Publicly, the president puffed that the decision flowed naturally from his longstanding dedication to “honor, decency, and fairness.” Privately, he worried that the pardons would “put a tarnish, a kind of a downer, on our legacy.”
In his later years, George Herbert Walker Bush affected disdain towards any discussion of his legacy: “I’ve banned the ‘L’ word in our office,” he said in 2010, “let the historians figure out what we got right and what I got wrong.”  Unfortunately, the scholars who fill out the presidential ranking scorecards hardly subscribe to the notion that the historian should be a “hanging judge.” Instead, they tend to reward imperial presidents—crusaders who shrug off constitutional limits in pursuit of “transformational” visions–regardless of the destruction they leave in their wake.  By that perverse metric, George H.W. Bush has few equals.
 Todd S. Purdum, “A Kinder, Gentler Republican President Is Dead,” the Atlantic, December 1, 2018.
 “Transcript: Jon Meacham’s eulogy for former President George H.W. Bush,” CBS News, December 6, 2018. /
 Max Boot, “George H.W. Bush, the anti‐Trump,” Washington Post, December 1, 2018,; Michael Barone, “The Most Successful One‐Term President,” Washington Examiner, December 5, 2018.
 John Sununu, “Don’t Overlook George H.W. Bush’s Domestic Legacy,” Politico, December 5, 2018.
 Milton Friedman. “When Is a Tax Cut Not a Tax Cut?” Newsweek, January 17, 1977,
 As John Mueller notes, “Bush chose to have his war rather than hazard a route that might have resulted in no deaths.” Email to author, July 1, 2019.
 Center of Military History, War in the Persian Gulf Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm: August 1990 — March 1991, 2010, p. 67,
 John Mueller, “The Perfect Enemy: Assessing the Gulf War,” 5 Security Studies 1: 103 (Autumn 1995).
 See John Mueller and Karl Mueller, “The Methodology of Mass Destruction: Assessing Threats in the New World Order,” 23 Journal of Strategic Studies: 171–72 (2000); Jack Kelly, “Estimates of deaths in first war still in dispute,” Pittsburgh Post‐Gazette, February 16, 2003.
 Micah Zenko, “Who Is to Blame for the Doomed Iraqi Uprisings of 1991?” National Interest, March 7, 2016.
 John Mueller, Policy and Opinion in the Gulf War, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 144.
 David C. Hendrickson, Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 194.
 Peter L. Bergen, Holy War, Inc. (New York: Free Press, 2001), p. 77. See also Fawaz Gerges, The Rise and Fall of Al‐Qaeda, Oxford, 2011, p. 49: “Although there is no single explanation for bin Laden’s antipathy to America, the Gulf War and its aftermath, particularly the stationing of troops in Saudi Arabia, were primary.”