Mourning a President, and Much Else Besides

George H. W. Bush and the Lost Art of Transatlantic Statecraft

President George H.W. Bush at the White House, August 1990.  Gary Cameron/REUTERS

President George H. W. Bush belongs to history now. Since I am a professor of history, I got a jolt when I opened my mailbox yesterday—the real-world, analog one—to find a heavy envelope from the Bush Presidential Library, stuffed with paper notices about documents I’d gotten released from his archive. These notices are hardly new to me, as I have been declassifying presidential files for over a decade. But it was with a new mixture of sadness and responsibility that I started reading the latest releases: the era of Bush the elder is now past, and when an era ends, it is incumbent upon my profession to discern its leading lessons.

One of those lessons concerns the importance of level-headed leadership and the value of U.S. allies, specifically those across the Atlantic. At no time was this more apparent than at the end of the Cold War, following the sudden opening of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. As Bush explained in A World Transformed, his joint memoir with former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, the fall of the Wall came to represent, more than anything else, the momentous shifts that marked his presidency. There was no shortage of such dramatic episodes, even though Bush served only one term: the massacre in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991. But for Bush, the events in Berlin stood out as the iconic and symbolic point of no return in the profound changes that were under way.

Even those who question Bush's larger strategic choices have to admire his professionalism.

How did Bush handle the end of the Cold War? Even those who question his larger strategic choices—and I am one of them, having criticized in these pages the manner in which he oversaw NATO’s expansion to eastern Germany in 1990—have to admire his professionalism. Tempers stayed cool in the face of turmoil. Internal

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