Saturday, August 01, 2020

Statecraft: The Bush 41 Team, on PBS

If there was a year history went off on the wrong course, it was probably 1992, well before 2016. For the previous twelve years, America was an optimistic nation, where we believed our best years were ahead of us. Clinton won the election by selling pessimism based on an economic recession that looks utterly trivial in retrospect. Years later, Trump and Obama both cynically exploited that lingering pessimism, yet back in 1992, the nation had good reason to stay optimistic. Pres. George H. W. Bush, the so-called “Foreign Policy President” had lived up to his billing, thanks to the help of his team. Top Bush foreign policy officials look back at his administration in Statecraft: The Bush 41 Team (directed by Lori Shinseki and produced in conjunction with the Miller Center of Public Affairs), which premieres this coming Tuesday on PBS.

Statecraft reminds us Bush 41’s involvement in foreign affairs started on a very personal level when he served as teenaged fighter pilot in WWII. He built an impeccable resume, most notably including his tenure as Ronald Reagan’s loyal vice-president. However, he largely brought in his own team when he succeeded Pres. Reagan. They were as experienced as he was, and in many cases they were long-time associates—often even close friends.

We hear from a number of them in substantive talking head interviews, including Defense Secretary (and future VP) Dick Cheney, Vice President Dan Quayle, Chief of Staff John Sununu, Gen. Colin Powell, and advisors like Condoleezza Rice, Robert Gates, Stephen Hadley, and Robert Zoellick. It is definitely an impressive cast, who offer some considerable insight on the history they witnessed.

There is a lot of interesting material here, but
Statecraft is at its most illuminating for general audiences when it chronicles the leading role Pres. Bush played to facilitate the reunification of Germany. We now forget both the Soviets (really the Russians at that point) and our Western European allies were dead set against it, but Bush had a prescient vision that a unified Germany, which was still a full military member of NATO, would lead to a more stable and secure Europe.

No president since Bush 41 can claim a legacy that remotely approaches German reunification and the eastern expansion of NATO. The liberations of Kuwait and Panama were also great victories. However, the Bush 41 administration’s most glaring foreign policy failure goes unmentioned in
Statecraft and is usually ignored by his fiercest critics. Nevertheless, the Bush team’s toothless response to the Tiananmen Square massacre established a dangerous precedent of appeasement that Beijing clearly has not forgotten. If they had ditched the Kissinger playbook and imposed sanctions, we would be in a much stronger geo-political position today. [Reportedly, there is a longer festival version that addresses the handling of Tiananmen, but it didn't make the PBS cut.]

China is definitely the blemish on the Bush 41 record, but there is no question they adroitly navigated many international challenges, leaving the country on a safe and secure footing. Frankly, his victories were so fundamental reshaping the global dynamic, most people do not even realize how effective he was in office.
Statecraft establishes those fundamental facts pretty clearly and convincingly. Unfortunately, it will make you nostalgic for the time when we had leadership in the Oval Office. Recommended as a sorely needed lesson in history and political science, Statecraft: The Bush 41 Team airs this coming Tuesday (8/4) on most PBS stations nationwide.