Assessing George H.W. Bush’s National-Security Legacy
The first president Bush made the world safer as the Soviet Union crumbled.
Ronald Reagan broke the back of the nuclear arms race. Then George H.W. Bush cut bloated strategic forces and nuclear arsenals down to size. He took initiatives to remove the least safe and secure warheads from operational deployments, a move designed to elicit reciprocal action by Mikhail Gorbachev, whose country was crumbling. Bush and Gorbachev also took unilateral/reciprocal initiatives to reduce the alert rates of their strategic forces. For these monumental moves alone Bush deserves the heartfelt thanks of his fellow citizens. His leadership deserves to be remembered by those who toil to reduce nuclear dangers and weapons.
The sunny, star-kissed Reagan accomplished his feat because he was paired with Gorbachev at the peak of his ambition. Both men enjoyed sitting in the front seat of the roller coaster. They raised unorthodoxy on nuclear matters to an art form. After zeroing out intermediate-range nuclear forces, they ran out of time to tackle the problem of strategic arms reductions, bequeathing this agenda item to their successors. Bush was up to this task, working alongside a by-now shaky Gorbachev and the erratic Boris Yeltsin.
Bush and his senior-most advisers, men of consummate diplomatic skills like James Baker and Brent Scowcroft, tried their best to provide a soft landing when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics dissolved. The result wasn’t the “new world order” that Bush idealized — far from it. The “unipolar moment” that Charles Krauthammer and others crowed about turned out to be just that. The momentary peak of U.S. power was frittered away in the hubris of George W. Bush’s presidency.
Never has a generation’s passing seemed so clarified or so cruel as the one symbolized by the baton pass from Bush the Elder to Bush the Younger. Bush 43 brought on board Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld from his father’s top tier but their judgment was deeply impaired by 9/11, after which they eschewed 41’s hallmark prudence. Many of Bush 41’s second- and third-tier advisers also joined 43, moving up in rank. Some referred to their cohort as “The Vulcans” and advised accordingly.
So here we stand, with heads bowed: A “Global War on Terror” that has generated two trillion-dollar wars without victory and NATO’s expansion far eastward, ensuring blow back when the Russian Federation recovered from its great depression, boosting the fortunes of Vladimir Putin, the latest in a long tradition of authoritarian Russian leaders seeking redress from grievances born of national weakness. We have traversed from Bush 41’s enlightened internationalism to Bush 43’s American triumphalism. After that didn’t work out so well, the Republican brand has moved on to Donald Trump’s America First campaign.
Bush the Elder wasn’t immediately decisive in dealing with momentous change. Even after the breakthrough INF Treaty on Reagan's watch, he doubted Gorbachev’s genuineness. His press secretary's dismissive characterization of the Soviet leader was that of a “drugstore cowboy” — someone who dressed the part but wasn’t the real deal. To test Gorbachev’s bone fides before plunging into strategic arms reductions, Bush dusted off an old idea from the Eisenhower administration for “Open Skies:” If Gorbachev truly believed in glasnost, or openness, then he would accept cooperative aerial over-flights all across the Soviet Union, to be matched by reciprocal openness in the West. Gorbachev accepted, and the Open Skies Treaty has become a vehicle to forge security partnerships between the United States and the “new” Europe — if Washington is smart enough to realize this.
Then Bush 41 turned smartly to strategic arms reductions. The first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, signed in 1991, redeemed the Reagan/Gorbachev pledge to reduce force levels by fifty per cent. This treaty set aggregate limits on delivery vehicles (1,600) and warheads (6,000), as well as sub-limits on intercontinental ballistic missiles, “heavy” land-based missiles that could carry the most warheads, warheads on mobile missiles, and the carrying capacity (“throw weight”) of these missiles.
Even though START I was to be of 15 years’ duration, a second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty was negotiated quickly thereafter, in 1993, to try to catch up to the new circumstances created by the Soviet Union’s surprisingly quick demise. START II mandated the abolition of land-based missiles carrying multiple warheads — a distinct advantage for Moscow — as well as further 50 percent reductions in deployed warheads, so as not to exceed 3,000 to 3,500. START II’s bans on “heavy” and other land-based missiles carrying multiple warheads could have put to rest nuclear war-fighting plans based on prompt strikes. But this possibility was lost when Putin withdrew from START II in retaliation for Bush 43’s withdrawal from the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002.
Bush 41 also gave us a taste of arms control without agreements that may well be the template for a future without treaties. In the aftermath of the failed coup attempt against Gorbachev, Bush and Scowcroft seized the moment to signal the need to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons and high readiness rates. These steps would be unilateral but were clearly taken as an invitation to reciprocal action in a Soviet Union whose command and control mechanisms were clearly suspect.
In September 1991, Bush ordered that the bomber leg of the U.S. nuclear triad be taken off strip alert. In addition, all of the U.S. Army’s ground-launched tactical nuclear weapons were to be removed from forward bases in Europe and destroyed, along with associated warheads located in the United States. All nuclear weapons were to be removed from surface ships, attack submarines, and land- based naval aircraft, with half to be destroyed and the other half, including nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missiles, placed in storage. A new nuclear-armed air-to-surface missile initiative was also cancelled. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Colin Powell, as well as the leadership of the Army and Navy heartily endorsed these initiatives.
Gorbachev responded in full measure. He announced that the Soviet Union would eliminate all nuclear artillery, nuclear warheads on short-range missiles and nuclear mines — an initiative that was especially welcome given failing Soviet control over Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine. He also announced the removal of all tactical nuclear weapons from surface ships, submarines, and land-based naval aircraft and their placement in “central storage.” In addition, Gorbachev announced reduced alert rates for intercontinental ballistic missiles.
There were no mutually agreed arrangements to monitor implementation, and Soviet/Russian implementation of the presidential nuclear initiatives fell short in several respects. Overall, however, every single warhead that was removed from locations poorly equipped to maintain their security of from forces that knew they would be better off without them was of lasting benefit. In the future if there is to be confidence in reciprocal pledges associated with “arms control without agreements,” inspections and other forms of reassurance will be needed. This was beyond the ambit of President George H.W. Bush’s far-sighted initiatives, but here, as in formal strategic arms reductions, he pointed the way forward. His leadership is sorely missed.