The Costs of George H. W. Bush’s Foreign Policy Genius

Will the System He Left Behind Survive?

President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker in the Oval Office, February 22, 1991 Rick Wilking / REUTERS

A few days after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, President George H. W. Bush surprised even his closest foreign policy advisers. Walking from the presidential helicopter toward the White House, Bush paused to tell assembled reporters on the South Lawn: “This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.”

The dramatic and definitive declaration caught many in Washington, including on Bush’s own team, off guard. According to Bush’s biographer Jon Meacham, minutes later in the Oval Office, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft asked the president, “Where’d you get that?” Bush replied, “That’s mine.”

The ad lib was a rare moment for Bush. The president, who died last week at 94, has been lauded by Ivo H. Daalder and I. M. Destler (“The Foreign Policy Genius of George H. W. Bush,” December 4) and others not just for the national security decisions he made but for the process in which he made them. One of Bush’s lasting legacies is the system of meetings and committees, known in Washington as the “interagency,” that helped him respond to world events and remains the heart of regular order in Washington today, even under President Donald Trump, who defies both words.

As Bush and Scowcroft’s system turns 30 years old next month, it is worth considering whether their interagency is still the right fit for a world and a government that have changed dramatically. In the decades since Bush told reporters what he really thought of Iraq’s aggression, U.S. officials have tangled over which were the best policies to lead the post–Cold War world, prosecute the war on terror, and stay ahead in a new era of great power competition. Today, with Trump at the table and amid growing public doubts about a “deep state,” it remains to be seen whether the Bush-Scowcroft interagency will outlive its fourth decade.


The Bush-Scowcroft interagency process was the product of a time of broad agreement in the Washington foreign policy establishment. After the interpersonal

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