Last night, President George H.W. Bush died.
In a hundred years George H.W. Bush will be ranked among America’s greatest presidents. Maybe in the top five, with Washington, Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and, yes, his predecessor, Ronald Reagan.
It will be said that Lincoln saved the union but Reagan and Bush saved mankind.
It is hard to remember how dangerous the times were. In the Netherlands a school teacher told her class that it didn’t matter what university they chose because the world wasn’t going to last that long. Today we worry about what would happen if nuclear weapons fell into the hands of terrorists. In the Reagan-Bush years that had already happened. Both the Soviet and Chinese government’s had nuclear weapons and both sponsored communist regimes that were barbaric.
Pol Pot, who ruled Cambodia practiced the most virulent form of Marxism. He targeted for execution anyone in academia, medicine, the military, government bureaucracies, and private business. He marked for execution anyone who wore eye glasses. His thinking was that if they wear eye glasses they can probably read and if they can read we must eliminate them to restart our nation without contamination from the West.
President George H.W. Bush kept one of the escapees from the Cambodian killing fields on his senior White House staff as a reminder of what he was facing down.
Reagan started the process that ended the Cold War but it finally ended on the watch of George H.W. Bush. Reagan called for the Berlin Wall to come down. But it finally happened under the patient, brilliant guidance of George H.W. Bush who not only knew when to act but also understood the value of restraint and who knew when to remain silent.
During the unraveling of the Soviet Union, advocates for Freedom for the Baltic States and Eastern European countries begged Bush to attack. They said that there might not be another chance in 100 years. But he had Moscow and the whole USSR in checkmate, he was not going to let them go to pick up a pawn. And eventually, the whole thing came undone and all of them got their freedom.
When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Bush united the world against the action. When he led the Gulf War, the invasion against Iraq, his allies, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait paid for half of the cost.
Within three months, allied forces defeated Saddam Hussein and drove the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. President George H.W. Bush called an end to the hostilities.
It is true that George H.W. Bush allowed Hussein to remain in power in Baghdad. He was heavily criticized for his decision.
Others advocated eliminating the Saddam Hussein government altogether, while we had the chance. But Bush Sr. feared that it would destabilize the region and upset the delicate Sunni-Shiite balance of the Mideast.
It’s not very often in history that we get to see what would have happened if a leader made a different decision but in this case we can. Years later, Bush’s son, President George W. Bush would be confronted with the same choice and he would topple Saddam Hussein. The region was plunged into chaos, hundreds of thousands lost their lives, millions were uprooted, Christian communities dating their history back to the apostle Thomas were exterminated, wars spread across the Mideast, and the U.S. — who borrowed the money from world banks to fight their war — was plunged into its second worst economic crisis in history.
Someday, a hundred years from now, when historians catch up to all of these details, there will be marble statues of George H.W. Bush. And when they pass by parents will tell their children, it is not only what you do that makes you great, sometimes, it is what you don’t do. It is when you stay calm, or stay silent, or as another president, Theodore Roosevelt, once said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”