Friday, June 12, 2009

Happy birthday, prudent George

Today is the 85th birthday of former President George H.W. Bush.

We have a preliminary historical perspective on this man, 16 years after he left the White House. But we can't call it the final word. Historians are still re-assessing the first president who bore the name of George, so, clearly, 16 years is not enough time to allow for the dust to settle.

Foreign/Military Policy

Gulf War One. Bush's decision to end the war without regime change will probably be debated forever. But, in the wake of Gulf War Two, that decision looks sensible, and I lean toward that point of view. However, I can also understand the argument that we would have needed to topple the Hussein regime sooner or later, and it might have been easier in 1991 than in 2003. One clear error on Bush's part was encouraging Hussein's internal opponents to stage a revolt, when the U.S. had no intention of giving them sufficient support to carry it through.

Victory in the Cold War. The question of who gets credit for that victory, is another one that will be debated endlessly. Those who were involved before Bush's presidency, including Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, Lech Walesa, and even Harry Truman and George Kennan, in some combination get the bulk of the credit.

But Bush's reaction, when events started to snowball, shortly after his January 1989 inauguration (with the opening of the Austro-Hungarian border, the semi-free Polish general election, the opening of the Berlin Wall, and the reverse-domino-effect on the Soviet-bloc regimes in Europe), which was in large part a hands-off approach, seems to have worked well.

We can ask questions such as whether he could have done more to forestall: 1) the Balkan Wars; and 2) the resurgence of Russia under Vladimir Putin.

One can look at the subsequent violence in the Balkans in a glass-half-empty-or-glass-half-full way. The 1990s Balkan Wars were horrible, and there has been criticism of the failure to intervene to prevent specific atrocities, similar to that regarding the massacre in Rwanda.

But, overall, the level of violence in the broader transformation of East-Central Europe was remarkably light. I wonder whether any comparable geopolitical transformation was ever implemented with less violence than that. One caveat is that I can't necessarily write about this in the past tense. As last year's mini-war between Russia and Georgia showed, violence arising out of the events of 1989-91 is not necessarily over.

Given the way Yugoslavia was artificially created at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, under the direction of Woodrow Wilson, and the lunacy of the Marxist-Leninist misgovernment of the place during the subsequent seven decades, its story was not destined to have a happy ending. I don't think there was anything that any American president could have done, to totally prevent a violent breakup.

What about Russia? The higher the price of oil, the greater is Russia's ability to attempt to restore its hegemony over its region. The manner in which Bush pursued Gulf War One helped, at least in the short run, to hold that price down. It's a bit more difficult to tie his actions into the price level 10 years and more after his presidency. But I think it's clear that oil prices would have been higher than they actually have been, if Hussein had been allowed to take control of more middle eastern oil reserves. And that would have strengthened the geopolitical position of oil producers such as Russia.

I don't know that anyone can tie any aspect of the manner in which the USSR collapsed, into the eventual rise of Putin and his aggressive approach to the non-Russian former Soviet republics. But, one humorous note comes to mind. During the short-lived coup d’├ętat against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, Bush said he was wary of saying too much about that situation. It was the only time I remember him saying (other than in appearances on Saturday Night Live) that something "wouldn't be prudent".

In the next post: domestic policies, and some additional stuff.

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