Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Why the late George H.W. Bush is the most underrated great US president

  • From Iraq to Ukraine (and the Middle East to Europe), the world today would have been a much better and more peaceful place if his successors, especially his son, had followed Bush Snr’s diplomacy and its underlying rationale

“For the 28 years that he served as chancellor of Germany, Bismarck preserved what he had built by a restrained and wise diplomacy, which was the single most important element in maintaining the peace of Europe.” – Henry Kissinger

Some people complain I never have a good word to say about the United States. That’s not quite true. I am sure if I dig deep enough, I can find a piece or two from a daily column that spans more than a decade where I said something nice.

But today, I will change tracks: George H.W. Bush, the 41st US president. The more I read about him, the more it seems to me he has been the most underrated president of the last century. Sadly, that tends to be the fate of one-term presidents.

If his international diplomacy, designs and rationale had been followed by his successors, especially his son and the 43rd president George W. Bush, the world we live in today would have been a more peaceful place. His diplomatic restraint was worthy of Otto von Bismarck; alas at a moment of unipolarity as the United States became the world’s first hyperpower, his successors hardly understood what the word even meant.

Here, for contemporary relevance, I will pick only two points about the 41st and his achievements: Ukraine and Iraq.


Bush Snr’s historical reputation is underrated by design. It has been most unfortunate that it could not be praised too highly without exposing the highly destructive and utterly moronic administration of his son; or how Junior inadvertently became the best enabler of Iran’s regional ambitions today. The same goes with the current war in Ukraine as the Western-US narrative on the pure evil of the Russians and their unprovoked invasion would be hard to sustain.

People could argue till kingdom come whether Bush Snr and his secretary of state James Baker ever promised Mikhail Gorbachev that there would be no Nato expansion across eastern Europe towards the Russian borders. That was supposedly in exchange for the Soviet leader’s consent for German reunification. Historians may eventually be able to tell us conclusively one way or another.

What is beyond dispute is that all three men understood Russia’s security concerns and their implications for German reunification and the future of Nato. After the Soviet Union formally dissolved, so far as Bush Snr was concerned, there was no reason for Nato expansion. In fact, Western statesmen of his generation had even entertained the idea of Nato’s obsolescence as an anti-Soviet military alliance.

Gorbachev’s successors Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin had repeatedly warned against Nato expansion. Both men toyed with the idea of joining Nato. Putin later explicitly linked the issue against Ukraine. However, Bush Snr’s successors all ignored them, including his own son. Why should the victor listen to the vanquished? And so they thrust Nato’s expansion down Russia’s throat, peacefully.

This in no way justifies Russia’s brutal invasion, but it’s absurd to claim Nato’s expansion posed no threat to the Russians who were just being paranoid. Someone like Bush Snr would have handled the Nato issue with much more prudence and moderation.


Hubris goes with power. That urge, rooted in human nature, is especially hard to resist when you have become the most powerful nation in the history of humanity. It takes the most extraordinary leaders to exercise power with restraint.

The neoconservatives in charge of the Bush Jnr administration were handed extraordinary powers and it’s too bad they were. However clever and accomplished as individuals, they were far from being extraordinary leaders. It was doubly ironic that some of those neocons were followers of the German-American political philosopher Leo Strauss, who preached moderation as a prime political virtue.

The neocons believed America’s power, especially its military might, could be applied anywhere anytime it saw fit. At the start of his presidency, Bush Jnr was taught about what American power meant by his top adviser Karl Rove, who criticised his boss for being “reality-based”.

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Rove reportedly said: “That’s not the way the world really works any more. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Despite the grandiose pseudo-philosophical language, it was patently childish, nay, actually infantile. Only infants really think they are at the centre of the universe. As we learn from child psychologists, most children, as they grow older and repeatedly crash with harsh realities, begin to understand the limits of their egoism. With language, they learn to articulate a sense of reality.

With such people in charge, is it any wonder that the Iraq debacle was preordained? The elder Bush liberated Kuwait but refused to go all the way to Baghdad. Many people did not understand why back then. What was worse was that the neocons thought it was actually a mistake that they would ratify.

Now we all understand why. And that is one big reason why George H W Bush was one of the last century’s great statesmen who sadly cannot be celebrated too openly, lest the subsequent American and Western ignominies be too exposed.