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The Foreign Policy Of George H.W. Bush


If Ronald Reagan is credited with winning the Cold War, it's President George H.W. Bush who helped guide the country and the world through its aftermath. We've been remembering the legacy of the 41st president throughout our show today. Foreign policy, of course, is considered critical to his time in office.

And here to talk about that is Richard Haass. He served as special assistant to President George H.W. Bush and was his chief Middle East adviser. Of course, Mr. Haass is now president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Richard, thank you so much for being with us.

RICHARD HAASS: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: I'm going to quote part of what you have tweeted - quote, "he was a good and decent man of character and a demanding but fair boss." Give us some examples, if you could.

HAASS: Well, he always made clear his standards. If he didn't get what he wanted, (laughter) he wasn't too shy about letting it known and ask it to be redone. But he was sensitive to family - always asked about that. He just made it clear, also, that he wasn't going to stand for leaking. He wasn't going to stand for backbiting. There was less of that in that administration than any other administration I've either worked in or observed from afar. And I think presidents set tone. And in this case, the tone was clear. It was honorable.

SIMON: Please bring us back to how the world looked and what he confronted when he came into office.

HAASS: Well, you know, he came in. And in January '89, it was three weeks into his administration the last Soviet combat troops were leaving Afghanistan. You had great growing unrest inside the Soviet Union. The Iran-Iraq war that had gone on for a decade had ended about six months before. So that was the world he took, you know - he inherited.

What he had in the first two years of his presidency - you know, any number of tests, including Panama, Philippines. But I think the two principal tests were the situation in Europe as the Soviet Empire, both the internal empire and the external empire of Eastern Europe, began to unravel, and how he was going to react to that. And then a year and a half into his presidency, he had Saddam Hussein - the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. And he had to decide how to respond to that.

SIMON: Well, and let me follow up about Iraq because he certainly put together an international coalition, which ultimately rolled back Iraqi forces from Kuwait. But he was criticized at the time, we should remember, for not rolling on to Baghdad, and leaving Saddam Hussein in power.

HAASS: Yes. He was criticized by some at the time. That criticism tended to fade, Scott, when - what? - a decade or so later, the United States did march on Baghdad. And people got a full sense of just how difficult that could be - that it's one thing to win a military victory, it's something fundamentally different to translate a military victory into something that is political and something that is enduring.

And, you know, at the time, we talked a lot about, you know, the wisdom of stopping. And one of the things I talked to the president about then was the lessons of the Korean War, of all things. I don't know if people remember, but after we liberated South Korea from North, we then had the decision of whether to stop there - this is under Truman and MacArthur - or whether to try to reunify the entire country by force.

And Truman and MacArthur tried to do just that. And two years later, more than 20,000 Americans had died, and we were back to a divided country. And that was our lesson. You have to be very careful about overreaching strategically amidst tactical military gains.

SIMON: And is there a lesson from his administration you would commend to our interest now?

HAASS: One is the importance of process. Good process doesn't guarantee good policy, but bad process probably guarantees just the opposite. It guarantees failure. Importance of diplomacy - this president invested in relationships. He worked with allies. He, you know, worked - he took into account the views of others. He showed them respect - someone like Gorbachev. One of the ways we avoided a nationalist reaction at the time in the dying Soviet Union was the president didn't dance on the wall when it came down, but he showed real sensitivity to the Soviet predicament.

SIMON: Richard Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and worked in a couple of capacities for former President George H.W. Bush, who, of course, has died today - died last night at the age of 94. Richard, thank you so much for being with us.

HAASS: My pleasure, Sir. Be well. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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