There Is Nothing Kind or Gentle About George H.W. Bush’s Legacy

Bush 41 had a long career of ruthless war-making. It must not be whitewashed.

Christopher D. Cook December 7, 2018

Former President George H.W. Bush is interviewed for 'The Presidents' Gatekeepers' project about the White House Chiefs of Staff at the Bush Library, October 24, 2011, in College Station, Texas. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images).

The tri­umphal and counter-fac­tu­al cel­e­brat­ing of Pres­i­dent George H.W. Bush as an hon­or­able” leader who evoked kind­ness and civil­i­ty” rais­es a potent­ly cru­cial ques­tion: What does it mean to be civ­il and kind in per­son and in word, yet bru­tal in pol­i­cy and deed? Despite the gen­tle­man­ly veneer, even a cur­so­ry recall­ing of Bush 41’s record shows a lega­cy of war, vio­lence and venal­i­ty that belies the media’s amne­si­ac heroizing.

Bush’s waging of an unprovoked, unilateral, undeclared war lacking congressional approval, to oust a man he had kept as a spy on the U.S. payroll at taxpayers’ expense, speaks profoundly to the stealth and depth of his long career as a spymaster and war-maker.

In the ear­ly morn­ing hours of Decem­ber 20, 1989, less than a year after promis­ing a kinder, gen­tler nation” at his inau­gu­ra­tion, Pres­i­dent George H.W. Bush mobi­lized 26,000 troops for a pre-Christ­mas inva­sion of Pana­ma to oust for­mer CIA con­trac­tor Manuel Nor­ie­ga. Around mid­night, the bombs began drop­ping and flames bil­low­ing over Pana­ma City, in a swift, intense and mer­ci­less” inva­sion that led to thou­sands of casu­al­ties and deaths, as mil­lions of Amer­i­can tax dol­lars were swal­lowed up in three days of bru­tal vio­lence,” report­ed the award-win­ning doc­u­men­tary, The Pana­ma Deception.”

Bush 41’s Pana­ma inva­sion killed an esti­mat­ed 500 to 1,000 Pana­man­ian peo­ple and was round­ly con­demned by the UN gen­er­al assem­bly as a fla­grant vio­la­tion of inter­na­tion­al law” and of Panama’s sov­er­eign­ty. In bomb­ings that rav­aged civil­ians in bar­rios like El Chor­ril­lo — which U.S. planes indis­crim­i­nate­ly bombed because it was thought to be a bas­tion of sup­port for Nor­ie­ga” — about 10,000 peo­ple were left home­less after the inva­sion,” Pana­man­ian offi­cials estimated.

As Human Rights Watch report­ed, Bush 41’s admin­is­tra­tion under­took sev­er­al covert actions designed to remove Nor­ie­ga before launch­ing an inva­sion.” This includ­ed $10 mil­lion worth of CIA med­dling in Panama’s elec­tions that year to finance oppo­si­tion activ­i­ties, includ­ing clan­des­tine radio broad­casts, print­ing, and oth­er elec­tion expens­es.” (While wor­ry per­sists over Russia’s influ­ence in Trump’s 2016 win, this inten­sive — and expen­sive — U.S. intru­sion on for­eign elec­tions, shep­herd­ed by Bush Sr., mer­its reminding.)

Thir­teen years ear­li­er, as CIA direc­tor, Bush had giv­en Nor­ie­ga a raise to $100,000 on the CIA pay­roll. Then, as vice pres­i­dent head­ing up a drug traf­fick­ing task force, Bush kept pay­ing Nor­ie­ga as a CIA infor­mant. One key rea­son: as the Rea­gan admin­is­tra­tion expand­ed its covert Con­tra” war against the San­din­ista gov­ern­ment in Nicaragua, Nor­ie­ga proved extreme­ly help­ful” coor­di­nat­ing an arms sup­ply net­work pro­vid­ing weapons to Con­tra bases in north­west­ern Cos­ta Rica,” accord­ing to The Pana­ma Deception.”

Bush’s wag­ing of an unpro­voked, uni­lat­er­al, unde­clared war lack­ing con­gres­sion­al approval, to oust a man he had kept as a spy on the U.S. pay­roll at tax­pay­ers’ expense, speaks pro­found­ly to the stealth and depth of his long career as a spy­mas­ter and war-mak­er. What’s par­tic­u­lar­ly intrigu­ing is how Bush’s Pana­ma inva­sion con­nects to his ear­li­er and lat­er acts of stealth and vio­lence, in the Iran-Con­tra scan­dal and Per­sian Gulf War — a mur­der­ous his­to­ry that is any­thing but kinder” or gen­tler.”

Although the Pana­ma inva­sion is a large­ly for­got­ten blip on history’s radar, many argue it set the tone for future wars, from Bush Sr.’s Gulf War just a year lat­er, to his son’s pre­emp­tive” assaults on Afghanistan and Iraq. As Greg Grandin wrote in The Nation in 2014, you can’t begin to ful­ly grasp the slip­pery slope of Amer­i­can mil­i­tarism in the post‑9/​11 era — how uni­lat­er­al, pre­emp­to­ry régime change’ became an accept­able for­eign pol­i­cy option, how democ­ra­cy pro­mo­tion’ became a sta­ple of defense strat­e­gy, and how war became a brand­ed pub­lic spec­ta­cle — with­out under­stand­ing Panama.”

Bush’s Key Role in Iran-Contra

Before Pana­ma, when Bush was padding Noriega’s bank account and polit­i­cal rise, then as Reagan’s vice pres­i­dent, he played a sub­stan­tial role in the Con­tra” war to, again pre-emp­tive­ly, over­throw Nicaragua’s San­din­ista gov­ern­ment. It’s impor­tant to recall that the entire Con­tra” project — propped up by Amer­i­can mil­i­tary per­son­nel and weapon­ry, and tax­pay­er dol­lars — vio­lat­ed U.S. and inter­na­tion­al laws, pro­mot­ed the law­less illic­it traf­fick­ing of weapons and drugs and led to tens of thou­sands of deaths.

In 1983, as once-secret doc­u­ments from the Iran-Con­tra inves­ti­ga­tion lat­er revealed, Vice Pres­i­dent George H. W. Bush chaired a com­mit­tee that rec­om­mend­ed the min­ing of the har­bors of Nicaragua in 1983.” These Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Archive doc­u­ments illu­mi­nat­ed Bush’s sig­nif­i­cant role in and knowl­edge of the ille­gal min­ing of Nicaraguan har­bors, and the larg­er Iran-Con­tra scan­dal: The mem­o­ran­dum on crim­i­nal lia­bil­i­ty not­ed that Bush had a long involve­ment in the Con­tra war, chair­ing the secret Spe­cial Sit­u­a­tion Group’ in 1983 which rec­om­mend­ed spe­cif­ic covert oper­a­tions’ includ­ing the min­ing of Nicaragua’s rivers and harbors.’…[and] no less than a dozen meet­ings that Bush attend­ed between 1984 and 1986 in which illic­it aid to the Con­tras was discussed.”

Bush’s cen­tral involve­ment in this bla­tant vio­la­tion of inter­na­tion­al law led to a 1986 rul­ing against the Unit­ed States by the World Court, demand­ing repa­ra­tions for acts con­trary to gen­er­al prin­ci­ples of human­i­tar­i­an law.” But by then, the U.S. had announced that it was end­ing its pol­i­cy of auto­mat­ic com­pli­ance with Court decisions.”

Bush’s War and High­ways of Death”

Less than a year after Bush’s Pana­ma inva­sion, he launched the Per­sian Gulf War to dis­ci­pline and pun­ish Iraq Pres­i­dent Sad­dam Hus­sein, anoth­er for­mer U.S. ally. The U.S.-led assault on Iraq was near apoc­a­lyp­tic,” bomb­ing the nation back to a pre-indus­tri­al age,” accord­ing to a Unit­ed Nations fact-find­ing mis­sion. Experts from Human Rights Watch and the Project on Defense Alter­na­tives esti­mate that near­ly 3,600 Iraqi civil­ians and 20,00026,000 Iraqi sol­diers died dur­ing Bush’s Oper­a­tion Desert Storm.” Green­peace and oth­er groups put the civil­ian death toll far high­er, at between 5,000 and 15,000.

Per­haps most egre­gious were the High­ways of Death” — entire free­ways of car­nage as Bush ordered the U.S.-led bomb­ings of Iraqi troops and civil­ians. As jour­nal­ist Joyce Che­di­ac chron­i­cled, The indis­crim­i­nate bomb­ing of tens of thou­sands of Iraqi troops and civil­ians retreat­ing from Kuwait is one of the most heinous war crimes in his­to­ry.” Chediac’s account recalls high­ways lit­tered with remains of 2,000 man­gled Iraqi mil­i­tary vehi­cles, and the charred and dis­mem­bered bod­ies of tens of thou­sands of Iraqi sol­diers, who were with­draw­ing from Kuwait on Feb­ru­ary 26th and 27th 1991 in com­pli­ance with UN resolutions.”

Fol­low­ing the Bush’s Gulf War, Iraq lay in sham­bles, with 80 per­cent of its elec­tri­cal pow­er out and most of its infra­struc­ture dec­i­mat­ed. Cit­ing Bush admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials, the New York Times report­ed in June 1991, the coun­try remains seri­ous­ly inca­pac­i­tat­ed, fac­ing a poten­tial­ly cat­a­stroph­ic health cri­sis this sum­mer and many years of rebuild­ing its civil­ian economy.”

This com­plete wreck­age of Iraq, aug­ment­ed by more than a decade of sanc­tions launched by Bush 41, destroyed a nation and has killed hun­dreds of thou­sands of Iraqis in the name of bring­ing one vile man to jus­tice. One could call it Pana­ma on steroids.

Civil­i­ty and Condolences

Lest any­one for­get, Bush 41 leaves plen­ty of domes­tic lega­cies of harm, too. His 1988 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign ben­e­fit­ed from racist Willie Hor­ton ads, fea­tur­ing an African Amer­i­can man released on a week­end fur­lough by Gov­er­nor Michael Dukakis, set­ting a low bar for future dog-whis­tle politics.

Bush often opposed strength­en­ing civ­il rights pro­tec­tions—run­ning against the Civ­il Rights Act in his first bid for Con­gress in 1964, and veto­ing a major civ­il rights bill in 1990. The rhetoric may be gen­tler and kinder, but the poli­cies of George Bush are no less dan­ger­ous and regres­sive than those of Ronald Rea­gan and Ed Meese,” said Ralph Neas, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence on Civ­il Rights, at the time.

Then there is the grow­ing list of women who accuse Bush Sr. of sex­u­al harass­ment and assault, a pat­tern sure­ly not indica­tive of civil­i­ty. As Lau­ra McGann wrote for Vox, Sex­u­al harass­ment or assault can’t be brack­et­ed off as part of a politician’s pri­vate life. It’s an impor­tant part of the sto­ry of their lead­er­ship, their use of pow­er, and their pol­i­cy. The same is true for Bush.”

Every pres­i­dent (even Nixon) gets laud­ed with embar­rass­ing­ly inapt hon­orifics fol­low­ing their death. It’s tempt­ing to call it fake news.” With Bush Sr.’s pass­ing, much as with Sen­a­tor John McCain’s, the pre­vail­ing media nar­ra­tive fret­ted over the end of a more civ­il” time in pol­i­tics — as if a politician’s demeanor and poli­cies are sev­er­able. No one can doubt that Bush 41, McCain, and even Bush 43, pro­vid­ed a kinder, gen­tler touch than Pres­i­dent Trump’s hideous denud­ed vio­lence, even as they pumped up un-kind, un-gen­tle mil­i­tarism and wars.

In anoth­er casu­al­ty of our times, we suf­fer from what the favored son, Bush 43, called the soft big­otry of low expec­ta­tions.” With his pass­ing, Bush Sr. offers a nation­al reminder of how low the bar has sunk in the Trump pres­i­den­cy. But Bush 41’s death also pro­vides an impor­tant teach­ing moment on the absur­di­ty of sep­a­rat­ing politician’s per­son­al and pub­lic behav­ior. In pol­i­tics, and in life, deeds and poli­cies are what count, and those of Bush Sr. were not remote­ly kind, gen­tle, or civil.

Christo­pher D. Cook is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist and author of Diet for a Dead Plan­et: Big Busi­ness and the Com­ing Food Cri­sis. His writ­ing has appeared in Harper’s, The Atlantic, The Nation, the Los Ange­les Times and else­where. You can reach him at http://​www​.christo​pherd​cook​.com/.
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