He ordered our troops to stop short of taking Baghdad.
It was the winter of 1991, American forces had achieved their stated mission of ending the Iraqi Army’s occupation of Kuwait, and military hawks here at home were clamoring for President George H. W. Bush to push on to Baghdad. Seize the moment, they urged, and take out the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussain.
As we consider the legacy of President Bush, who died on Friday at age 94, his decision to end the first Gulf War right there — to stop short of marching into Baghdad — strikes us as emblematic of his entire approach to foreign policy, where his administration achieved its most notable successes, and of his strong personal character.
Whether the decision to stop short of Baghad was right or wrong — and Mr. Bush himself later had doubts — it was arrived at by the best possible route. It was a decision made by a man who was thoroughly informed. It was a decision made in respectful consultation with allies. It was a decision made without regard to personal political gain or loss.
Above all, it was a decision made by a deeply experienced commander in chief who understood the limits of good intentions and the dangers of unintended consequences.
Most Americans will take that from a president every time.
Some three decades later, it’s easy to take for granted the reunification of Germany and the largely peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union on President Bush’s watch. None of that, though, was inevitable, and American empire-builders — those same folks who insisted our troops march into Baghdad — had urged Mr. Bush to exploit the moment to extent American hegemony.
Instead, the president, ever the diplomat, worked closely with the Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Together, they wound down the Cold War and signed treaties mandating historic reductions in nuclear weapons.
Outside of foreign affairs, Mr. Bush was not a particularly successful president, and as a politician he struggled his entire career to find his place between the moderate Republican middle and the ascendant hard-right. To this day, as a result, social moderates rue his appointment of the rigidly conservative Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. And, to this day, hard-line conservatives can’t forgive him for breaking his “read-my-lips” pledge to never raise taxes.
For our part today, though, we would prefer to remember and celebrate the George H.W. Bush who was a great public servant. He was born to privilege and could have golfed his way through life, but he devoted himself to the cause of his country.
As a daring fighter pilot in World War II. As a congressman. As ambassador to the United Nations. As director of the CIA. As vice president. As president.
Mr. Bush carried about himself a sense of decency and higher calling that, let’s face it, we pine to see in the White House today.
A good man died on Friday. A nation thanks him for his service.
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