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.
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 20,000−26,000 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.