NOT THE GREATEST PRESIDENT, BUT WE’VE SELDOM HAD A GREATER FRIEND
George Bush Sr is not the sort of leader we’d get today, and that’s a mixed blessing
George Herbert Walker Bush was a fine man, a good president and, as Scott Morrison remarked, a great friend of Australia. It is right that we celebrate his magnificent life and mourn his passing.
However, he was not a particularly successful president, nor a particularly effective politician. Nor was he the platonic ideal of the foreign policy realist, as opposed to the crazy neo-conservatives who came after him and the wild ideologue, Ronald Reagan, who preceded him.
Frank Knopfelmacher once remarked that there is no such thing as foreign policy debate in Australia. It’s just domestic politics by other means. Similarly, the death of a political leader, especially one from long ago, weaponises obituaries in ideological conflict.
Bush Snr is praised as a realist because, although he intervened militarily to reverse Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, he didn’t push into Iraq itself. Bush was criticised for this, not least in Eliot Cohen’s magisterial book Supreme Command. Cohen argued that politicians, not military leaders, must make not only the moral decisions about war, but also the strategic decisions. These cannot be left to soldiers. Cohen argued that, by leaving Saddam Hussein unfettered in Iraq, Bush made it inevitable that Iraq would become a massive strategic problem again.
Nonetheless, it is perfectly fair to argue that Bush was properly prudent in sticking to the campaign he had a UN mandate for. However, two inconvenient facts undermine the idea of Bush as the realist among hawks and neo-cons. He was much readier to use force and engage in big military campaigns than Reagan had ever been. And he dispatched tens of thousands of US troops to Somalia in the first of the modern humanitarian military interventions, without any US national interest being involved.
I don’t criticise Bush for that. But it indicates he was a mainstream part of the Republican ebb and flow on these issues, without much doctrine. Similarly, he spoke grandly of creating a New World Order, which briefly became the centrepiece of the usual nutty conspiracy theories.
On one matter, Bush was outstanding — his deep friendship for Australia. He was the first president to visit us for 25 years. Lyndon Johnson had been devoted to Harold Holt, but after Johnson there was a long presidential absence. The insanity of the Whitlam government had poisoned relations. Jimmy Carter had little real interest in US allies. The big disappointment was that Reagan never came, though he spoke at times magnificently of Australia. Bush was invited by Bob Hawke but greeted by Paul Keating. As a traditional Cold War Republican, Bush deeply valued US allies. Further, he had fought in the Pacific in World War II. The youngest ever US Navy pilot, he was shot down and rescued, miraculously, by a US submarine.
Bush understood that he and several of the Reagan cabinet secretaries were the very last US leaders who would have that deep connection with Australia from the Pacific war. Sydney businessman Phil Scanlan was seated next to Bush on a harbour cruise hosted by Nick Greiner. Scanlan put it to Bush that a new institution was needed to weld US and Australian leaders together, not so they would always agree, but so they could benefit from dialogue and, crucially, from knowing each other well.
Thus was born the Australian American Leadership Dialogue, the most significant initiative in private diplomacy in Australian history. Bush furnished Scanlan with a presidential letter of enthusiastic endorsement. More than that, he put his administration behind the initiative.
Scanlan’s boundless energy and organisational skill turned it into reality. The first meeting took place in Washington in 1993, just after Bush had lost office. This meeting had good representation from upper levels of the new Clinton administration, just below cabinet level, but the turnout from the Bushies was astonishing.
I attended this meeting, in the basement of Georgetown’s Four Seasons Hotel, and met Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Brent Scowcroft, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Armitage and Bob Zoellick. All were hugely influential in the future. Getting to know them was a superb investment in the future for every Australian there.
If professional lobbyists had put together a group like that, they would have been entitled to charge in the millions. But this was all honorary, of course. That first meeting was notably bipartisan, collegial and frank. There were plenty of disagreements, within and between the delegations. The conversation was private, friendly and often robust.
But most striking, perhaps, was the collegiality, the sense that in that room we were all friends and all, while the meeting was on anyway, notional equals. I remember at the informal lunch in the garden sitting next to Scowcroft, who had been Bush’s national security adviser. Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of half a dozen private conversations with him. While he was always friendly in the normal American way, there was no showing off any verbal brilliance, no affectation at all. Rather, his was an extremely well organised mind, always seeking the key strategic drivers in any situation. He didn’t waste time with small talk, but paid you the great compliment of continuing, in private, the discussion in substance.
Commencing at a time when the US alliance was momentarily unfashionable in Australia, the Dialogue has for 25 years now educated successive generations of Australian and US leaders, from both sides of politics, from business, academe and media, about the alliance. It has also forged deep friendships. None of this could have happened without Bush’s understanding, sympathy and willingness to get involved.
As a domestic politician, Bush had obvious weaknesses. He had run as Reagan’s heir but ended up, domestically, offering bland centrism. Having pledged “no new taxes” he was seduced into a budget compromise which raised taxes. He got 15 seconds of grudging acknowledgment from the left liberal media in the US for this, but then was excoriated from left and right as someone who did not keep solemn political pledges.
Bush deserves great credit for overseeing the peaceful end of the Cold War but he could never celebrate politically, or meaningfully engage the American people about, the deep political and cultural values which his own life exemplified. We shouldn’t think leaders of the Bush era were much better than anyone today. The US was offered presidential leaders somewhat like Bush — notably Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich and, before that, John McCain — and steadfastly refused them, preferring celebrities and populists.
For all that, Bush was a president Americans, and the whole world, could be proud of. That’s no small thing.
Greg Sheridan is Foreign Editor of The Australian.