COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Watching the chaotic cacophony that passes for Trump foreign policy makes me recall the most skilled presidential foreign-policy operation I ever covered — that of George H.W. Bush.
So, last week, when I traveled to the Texas A&M University campus to speak at a symposium, I made a point of visiting the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum. A walk-through offered a sobering reminder of what made U.S. foreign policy so successful under Bush 41 and why President Trump’s approach has produced such an incoherent mess.
For starters, and most obvious, Bush had wide and deep experience overseas. And he took the concept of public service very seriously.
One exhibit displays a photo, taken by an intrepid military photographer, of young Navy pilot Bush being rescued by a U.S. submarine after being shot down by Japanese antiaircraft fire over the Pacific during World War II. Bush flew 58 combat missions, as compared with Trump’s five draft deferments.
And of course there was Bush’s long series of high-level positions before becoming president: two terms as a congressman, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, America’s top man in Beijing, director of the CIA, and vice president.
But, despite that background, the mammoth global changes Bush confronted during his presidency could have proved overwhelming. Witness the museum’s exhibits on “crisis management” in the Bush years: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, the unification of Germany, and the first Gulf War.
One of the most fascinating exhibits is a series of (now declassified) memos from 1989-90 between Bush and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, displayed at the click of a screen. The two men discussed how to make German unification happen and how to convince Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that a neutral Germany was “out of the question.”
No tweets, no public bombast, no talk of trade imbalances, but a super-serious dialogue about how to help ease the transition of a nuclear-armed superpower from confrontation to peace. Imagine how badly that transition might have ended without a serious U.S. leader immersed in world affairs.
In comparison, the current risky global transition — from unipolar U.S. leadership to America First, combined with a rising China and an anti-American Russia — highlights the danger of an inexperienced American leader. Especially one who doesn’t care to learn what he doesn’t know.
The museum exhibits also make clear that Bush’s foreign-policy successes were grounded in something beyond presidential personality and knowledge. Ever present were Secretary of State James Baker and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, who honed a smooth policy operation. And having put together such a talented team, Bush backed them to the hilt.
“There was an extraordinarily close relationship between President Bush and the secretary of state,” recalls Princeton University professor Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt who worked closely with Baker. “There was never any external sense of anything beyond coordinated policy. And when Baker walked into the room, everyone knew he was speaking for the president.”
“Baker was a supremely talented diplomat and negotiator,” Kurtzer added, “who knew what had to be done on the world stage.” I witnessed Baker’s skills at the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 when, in unprecedented fashion, he maneuvered Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinians to the negotiating table. He knew just when to offer carrots and when to hang tough.
Also central to the Bush foreign-policy machine was Scowcroft, a retired Air Force lieutenant general with broad governmental experience in security affairs. “Scowcroft did a masterful job at running the NSC smoothly and presenting the president with policy options,” says Kurtzer, “and he had the backing of the president.”
So there you have the formula: a savvy president and team that worked seamlessly together like a well-tuned machine. “If I do a compare and contrast with Trump and the current situation,” says Kurtzer, “almost none of those elements exist.”
Had he wished, Trump could have compensated for his inexperience by appointing a secretary of state with a deep background in foreign policy, for example, Sen. Bob Corker (R.,Tenn.), who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee. Instead, the president chose an oil man, Rex Tillerson, who appears wholly out of his depth and unable to fill the role of America’s chief foreign-policy advocate. When he (rarely) has spoken out, Tillerson has been swiftly undercut by presidential statements and tweets.
Moreover, the staff wars in the White House have undermined the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, about whom Trump blows warm and cold. Defense Secretary James Mattis, a retired general, sometimes steps into the breach but can’t offset the shortcomings of his boss.
Indeed, all signs are that an ill-informed Trump still believes he can make foreign policy via bluster and tweets and resists any cohesive policymaking process.
That should not be surprising. Bush 41 focused outward, on the world, and public service, and he built a team that served U.S. interests. Trump’s foreign-policy focus is far more self-centered, aimed at making mythical deals and promoting his brand.