George H.W. Bush left the White House 14 years ago predicting that history would be kind to him.
It was taken as wishful—and possibly delusional—thinking: The 41st President had just been drummed out of office with a smaller share of the vote (38 percent) than any incumbent since William Howard Taft in 1912.
But now his words smack of prescience. History is warming to George H.W. Bush by the day—just as it cools toward his son.
A new poll released over the weekend shows George W. Bush’s approval rating sinking to 28 percent—noteworthy because, for the first time, he has edged beneath his father’s low-water mark of 29 percent in late 1992.
But the sins that accounted for the father’s low numbers—mainly an inability to comprehend a painful recession and a general disengagement from domestic policy—seem benign next to the son’s. Many Americans lost their jobs in the early 1990’s, but more than 3,000 have lost their lives this decade in an unending war of choice that even its proponents concede has been horrifically mismanaged.
More to the point, it has taken the ghastly global incompetence of the son to illustrate—dramatically—the basic wisdom of the father in the overseas course he charted. Only now can the elder Mr. Bush receive credit for his pursuit of a foreign policy that was dismissed as unimportant in 1992 by an electorate that had turned its attention inward as soon as the Cold War ended.
A popular refrain in the 1990’s, spouted by tough-talkers from both parties and generally cheered by a public to whom the concept of regime change was still abstract, was that Bush 41, in calling off the 1991 Gulf War without venturing into Baghdad and snuffing out Saddam Hussein, had failed to “finish the job.”
Adherents to this philosophy were certainly present in the first Bush administration, most notably the Secretary of Defense, one Richard B. Cheney (a compromise pick for the job after the nomination of John Tower collapsed in 1989). But they were marginalized by the principal shapers of foreign policy: National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Mr. Bush himself, who brought an ease with international affairs to the job, thanks to his previous roles as Vice President, United Nations ambassador, C.I.A. chief and ambassador to China.
In the run-up to the first Gulf War, that trio had, through skillful diplomacy, built an international coalition that would be unthinkable today: Syria, France, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, among many others, all provided troops for the express purpose of expelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait. To alter the mission into a full-scale invasion of Iraq would, they realized, have destroyed the coalition and severely tested America’s relations with its Arab allies. They were also aware of the potential costs—in dollars, deaths and diplomatic ties—of what they fully knew would be a decades-long rebuilding process in Iraq.
The current President, in the course of launching the ongoing war in Iraq, thumbed his nose at France, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and countless other onetime allies, and plunged America into an unprecedented exercise in nation-building, the costs of which are recalculated upward on a daily basis.
But the contrast between the ways in which the two Bush administrations approached the rest of the world goes far beyond how they dealt with Iraq.
The first Bush Presidency also coincided with the breathtaking democratic revolution in Eastern Europe. In 1989, months after Mr. Bush was inaugurated, citizens in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Romania and East Germany all moved—in some cases violently—to wrest control from their Soviet occupiers. A year later, the Baltic states followed suit—and when Boris Yeltsin climbed onto a tank to stare down a hard-line coup in August 1991, the Soviet Union itself disintegrated.
In facing these changes, Bush 41 demonstrated remarkable diplomatic savvy. When the Berlin Wall fell in ’89, for example, he convinced Mikhail Gorbachev not to contest the reunification of Germany—a humiliating moment for the proud Soviets. And without fraying America’s friendship with either country, he prodded Britain and France—both supremely leery of a united Germany—to go along.
It’s hard to imagine the current President doing the same.
During the 2004 Presidential election, Lincoln Chafee, the only Republican Senator to oppose George W. Bush’s Iraq War from the beginning, announced that he planned to write in the name of the father rather than vote for the son.
History will likely agree with Mr. Chafee: Only one Bush was worthy of the White House, and it’s not the one who’s in there now.
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