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12.5: The Presidency of George Bush (Sr.)

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    Learning Objectives

    1. Summarize the election of 1988, and explain how George H. W. Bush was able to retain the support of voters despite his connection to the Iran-Contra Affair.
    2. Provide a brief history of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Explain how these events, along with the Gulf War, shaped the Bush presidency. Also, explain how George Bush could still lose the election of 1992.
    3. Explain the reasons for Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade Kuwait and the international response that resulted. Summarize Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and explain how the United States was able to maintain a coalition of diverse nations under its leadership.

    Election of 1988 and Domestic Affairs

    The presidential election of 1988 featured a number of scandals and personal attacks against the leading candidates. Colorado senator Gary Hart was the leading Democratic contender, at least until he was photographed with a woman who was not his wife aboard a yacht that was fittingly titled Monkey Business. Opponents of Democratic candidate Joe Biden released a tape that made it appear as though the Delaware senator had plagiarized part of one of his speeches. Candidate Jesse Jackson issued a forceful critique of Reagan’s policies that won him early supporters. However, many white Americans turned away from the civil rights veteran as he was increasingly hounded by reporters regarding a distant relative’s criminal record and his relationship with outspoken leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan. Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis and Jesse Jackson were even in the early primaries until Dukakis won several large states and carried the momentum and the Democratic nomination.

    Republican candidate and Vice President George H. W. Bush faced his own detractors, many of whom viewed the Texas politician as Reagan’s lackey. Despite having served as a member of Congress, the director of the CIA, ambassador to the UN, and vice president for eight years, many in the media portrayed Bush as inexperienced and untested. A handful of journalists even labeled the vice president as a “wimp.” This particular journalistic expose provided the same level of sophisticated analysis one would expect to find on a grade-school playground where such labels were normally applied. However, similar to the way that nicknames tend to follow school children, the vice president of the United States had to confront this negative image of him else it derail his popularity with voters.

    The Bush campaign responded with its own playground antics leading up to the general election. The Bush campaign exaggerated the significance of the governor’s veto of a Massachusetts law that mandated the recital of the pledge of allegiance—a law that would have been struck down by the Supreme Court had Dukakis not saved them the trouble. In this and many other ways, the Bush campaign sought to exploit the image of easterners and liberals as unpatriotic. The most notorious attack by the Bush campaign was an ad that tried to connect Dukakis to the rape of a white woman by a black prisoner who had been allowed to leave prison under Massachusetts law.

    The Dukakis campaign also waged its own attacks on the character and image of Bush. The Dukakis team was especially malicious in its attempts to slander the intelligence of Bush’s vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle. The Dukakis campaign chose to avoid substantive accusations, such as the likely association between Bush and the corruption of the Iran-Contra Affair. As a result, voter turnout was low as the electorate tried to choose between two candidates that had equally destroyed the public’s faith in the other. Voters responded by supporting Bush, largely due to a promise to never increase taxes and because of his association with the still-popular Ronald Reagan.

    As president, George Bush frequently spoke of a “new world order.” Although he never fully defined what form that order should take, the president channeled the image of lasting peace and unrivaled American leadership in global affairs. In such an environment, Bush and his supporters assumed that the reduction of trade barriers would naturally promote US commerce and culture throughout the globe. More specifically, the president worked toward reducing government regulations and taxes between the United States, Mexico, and Canada through an agreement called the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Although labor unions protested that unrestricted commerce with Mexico and Canada would lead to reduction in American jobs, others believed that US companies would profit from NAFTA while the agreement would encourage American companies to develop new fields beyond manufacturing. For example, areas such as California’s Silicon Valley could specialize more on developing new technology, while Mexican laborers assembled computers.

    Although the idea and the practice were anything but new, globalization accelerated over the past few decades and media sources repeatedly exclaimed that a new era without global boundaries had arrived. Improvements in transportation and the development of satellite communication and the Internet changed the way goods and information flowed across national borders. The fall of Communism inspired corporations and investors around the world to seek new markets in Europe and Asia. The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the liberalization of China’s economic policies also convinced world leaders of the merits of free trade and the shortcomings of planned economies and excessive governmental regulations.

    President Bush was also faced with the mounting debt of the Reagan years, which threatened to spiral out of control as the economy slowed. As a candidate, he had famously remarked, “Read my lips, no new taxes.” The only responsible course of action in response to the mounting debt, Bush believed, was to cut spending and enact small tax increases to at least partially reduce the annual deficits. Bush found little support among his Republican colleagues who were angered by what they perceived as betrayal. Although it harmed his political credibility, President Bush eventually secured a bipartisan agreement that provided small spending cuts and mild tax increases. The national debt continued to grow at a rate comparable to the Reagan years, and Bush was vilified among his own party. The president soon retreated from domestic matters to international affairs, which he preferred, but not before passing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, which protected the civil rights of disabled Americans.

    The rights consciousness that had been spread by the civil rights movement inspired disabled Americans to lobby for protections of their rights throughout the 1970s and 1980s. For example, students demanded and the University of California responded by creating the Center for Independent Living in 1972, one of the first programs for disabled students. The following year, the United States Rehabilitation Act prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability among programs that received federal funds. The American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities launched a nationwide sit-in in 1977 that protested violations of laws that required federal and state agencies to make reasonable accommodations for disabled persons. The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 extended these provisions to all businesses that employed at least fifteen people. The law required employers and government organizations to make certain reasonable modifications to make their facilities accessible for disabled employees and the public. The law also offered tax credits to offset the expenses faced by businesses that sought compliance with the law and fines for violators.

    Berliners Tear Down the Wall

    Mikhail Gorbachev had become a symbol of reform for the people of Eastern Europe and was welcomed as a hero when he traveled to East Germany in early October 1989. Gorbachev made no mention of the Berlin Wall during this visit, but tried to impress East German leaders that they must consider reform or face revolution. Impervious to such wisdom, the East German general secretary hoped to use force to quell the protesters until he was forced to resign by members of his own party. The new administration decided to appease protesters by relaxing travel restrictions but maintained the Berlin Wall to prevent a possible flood of defections to the West.

    Unfortunately for the new general secretary of East Germany, he did not make his intentions clear to his subordinate. In November 1989, an unwitting press secretary announced that East Germans were free to utilize any border crossing. The people of Germany understandably interpreted this decree to apply to the Berlin Wall. Within less than an hour, thousands of East and West Berliners converged on the wall. Bewildered soldiers assigned to guard the border had of course not been briefed and decided against shooting the joyous crowd that was now dancing and singing on the wall itself. German officials were in a meeting when they found that the miscommunication had inspired Berliners to volunteer their assistance in dismantling the wall with sledgehammers they had brought from home or purchased en route. Gorbachev had already gone to bed and issued his congratulatory message to the wise new leaders of East Germany. The new government demonstrated that wisdom by pretending they had indeed intended the wall to be destroyed.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{17}\): This map of East and West Berlin shows the locations of checkpoints along the Berlin Wall. Before November 1989, residents of the city could only cross into the other section through these checkpoints and with the permission of both governments.

    East and West Germans now demanded the political reunification of Germany, an unsettling prospect for many Americans who had survived World War II. It was even more daunting for the Soviets who had twice been invaded by Germany and had long insisted that German reunification was only acceptable if it occurred under the influence of Soviet Communism. President Bush met with Gorbachev in December 1989 to discuss the situation in Germany and Eastern Europe. Bush and most Americans were open to unification largely because they recognized that the Soviets and East Germans were no longer in any position to dictate terms.

    The people of East Germany demanded unification as their government and economy were disintegrating. West German chancellor Helmut Kohl likewise favored German unification and proceeded to work toward that goal with French, British, and US support. Having yielded to events throughout Eastern Europe so far, Gorbachev now attempted to prevent the newly unified Germany from joining North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and continuing to host US military bases. In the end, 300,000 Soviet troops in East Germany departed while the newly unified German nation became one of the leading members of NATO and the headquarters of US forces stationed in Europe. The result led to harsh criticism of Gorbachev among Communist leaders and inspired formerly independent states within the Soviet Union to follow Germany’s lead.

    The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 was the most dramatic symbol of Communism’s decline in Eastern Europe. Like all historical events, government leaders in Europe and the United States had done little more than react wisely to the actions of the people. Reagan’s 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate in West Germany, where he called on Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” did little to impact the opinions of Berliners who had long protested the wall’s existence. In fact, the speech was likely counterproductive because it placed Gorbachev on the defensive. Reagan’s supporters played back the speech after the wall was dismantled, however, leading many Americans to casually credit the American President with Europe’s transformation.

    To his credit, Reagan never made this dubious claim himself. Reagan recognized that he, like the rest of the world, was too surprised by the rapid pace of events to have been the architect of the Berlin Wall’s destruction. The Reagan administration’s efforts to support West Berlin while working behind the scenes with Gorbachev and European leaders to facilitate political and economic reforms helped to create a situation where Berlin and Germany could be reunited. Without these efforts, the elimination of one wall would have had little historical importance.

    In Europe, the fall of Communism was a dramatic conclusion demonstrating the agency of ordinary citizens and the forbearance of political leaders. Chinese leaders beginning with Mao’s pragmatic successor Deng Xiaoping also demonstrated forbearance, mixing Communism with free enterprise in ways that enriched the government and many Chinese entrepreneurs. Other leaders embraced Capitalist business practices while maintaining the restrictions against free speech and genuine democracy that were trademarks of the Maoist era.

    Students and other protesters inspired by the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe took to the streets in April and May 1989, demanding similar democratic reforms. Protesters erected a miniature Statue of Liberty across from the portrait of the late Chairman Mao in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Tens of thousands of college students throughout China demonstrated solidarity with the protesters by wearing buttons bearing the image of the Statue of Liberty and other symbols of democracy. These protests continued despite government orders to desist, largely due to the toleration of dissent under the moderate Chinese leader Hu Yaobang. The protests continued after Yaobang died in April 1989. His successors feared that the continued toleration of dissent might result in the Chinese Communist Party sharing the fate of Communists in Eastern Europe. On June 3, 1983, students and other citizens refused the government’s order to abandon the protests. The Chinese government responded by sending soldiers and tanks into the streets, a conflict that escalated until hundreds of unarmed protesters were killed. Known today as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the protests demonstrated the reliance on force by Chinese Communist leaders. The massacre continues to serve as an international symbol of the continued fight for democracy in China and around the world.

    The Soviet Union and Panama

    The Soviet Union was a collection of states with limited autonomy, although most power was vested in the national government based in Moscow. However, that balance of power was shifting to the states as a result of Gorbachev’s reforms. The most dramatic evidence of this transfer of power from the national to the state governments was the declaration of independence by the Soviet states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 1988 and 1989. Each of these states had been independent nations before being absorbed by the Soviet Union. Similar to the people of Eastern Europe, many citizens of these areas longed to free themselves from Soviet domination. Alarmed by the apparent dissolution of their nation, Soviet military leaders and Communist hard-liners in Moscow attempted to seize control of the government from Gorbachev in August 1991. They arrested Gorbachev and blamed his toleration of the anti-Communist revolutions in Eastern Europe for the secession of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.

    Russia was the largest and most powerful of the Soviet states and was governed by the extremely popular Boris Yeltsin. He and other leaders of the remaining Soviet states feared that the coup would reverse their recent autonomy and return the Soviet Union to a hard-line Communist state. Because Moscow was in the middle of Russia, and because most military leaders remained loyal to Yeltsin, the Russian leader’s refusal to support the coup led to its undoing and the return of Gorbachev. However, Gorbachev recognized that his authority would never be the same. The Communist Party had been splintering into different factions for many years and the attempted coup represented the way many influential people felt about his leadership.

    Gorbachev also recognized that his return to office was only made possible by Yeltsin and other state leaders, most of whom were calling for the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the independence of their own states. Gorbachev could do little to stop the process of devolution he had helped create, both by instituting reforms and by permitting the revolutions. On December 25, 1991, the Soviet Union was replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose confederation of eleven independent nations that had formerly been states of the Soviet Union. Boris Yeltsin soon became the leader of the Federation of Russia, the most dominant state of the former Soviet Union. The Commonwealth of Independent States continued to coordinate affairs of most Soviet States, but it was ineffective in preventing a number of military conflicts between members in the following decades.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{18}\): A map of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union showing the years in which each nation dissolved its Communist government. In December 1991, eleven of the states that had been part of the Soviet Union were united as the Commonwealth of Independent States. Many of the other states such as Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia had previously been independent and once again became sovereign nations.

    Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was one of the leading money launderers for the international drug trafficking business. In May 1989, Noriega’s supporters were defeated by an opposition party by an estimated 3-1 margin. However, Noriega supporters severely beat the winning candidates in front of live television cameras and then declared the entire election a fraud. Several other Panamanian efforts to take control of their nation from Noriega were likewise defeated by the use of violence.

    President Bush came under growing pressure to intervene, both as the president of a nation that claimed to protect human rights and democracy and as an outspoken opponent of the drug trade. The problem for Bush was that he had supported the decision to pay Noriega hundreds of thousands of dollars while he was the head of the CIA in the 1970s and continued to support Noriega as vice president during the Iran-Contra Affair. Noriega had been one of the leading CIA contacts in Latin America. Although Noriega had sided with the United States over Soviet agents and even assisted US efforts against certain drug traffickers, Noriega had also sheltered many others and assisted their efforts to traffic narcotics into the United States. Because of his “loyalty” during the Cold War, the federal government overlooked Noriega’s connection to drug cartels during the early 1980s. However, they reversed course once reports about Noriega’s double-dealing became public information.

    The Bush administration attempted to convince Noriega to recognize the election results and step down. When he refused, relations between the Panamanian military and US troops in the Panama Canal Zone grew increasingly tense. After an off-duty US Marine was killed in Panama, President Bush sent more than 25,000 troops into Panama to arrest Noriega. Referred by President Bush as a “police action,” the rest of the world called the events that followed the Panamanian Invasion. The US used bombs and heavy artillery to crush the surprisingly strong resistance by Panamanian troops who remained loyal to Noriega. Rockets and other explosions led to numerous fires that killed an estimated 2,500 civilians and left many others homeless.

    Noriega himself evaded capture by taking refuge in a church, surrendering only after a weeklong siege that included loudspeakers blaring rock music. After his surrender, Noriega was flown to Florida where he was imprisoned on drug charges. The action removed a dictator from office, but the manner in which the operation was conducted led to UN condemnation. In addition to the fires, the aftermath of the attack led to looting that caused millions of dollars of damage. With the exception of the lone US representative, the Organization of American States voted unanimously to condemn the poorly planned operation. In addition, twenty-three US troops perished and several hundred other soldiers were wounded.

    Desert Shield and Desert Storm

    Iraq’s failed invasion and prolonged war with Iran resulted in its government becoming indebted to surrounding nations such as Kuwait. Oil producers in Kuwait had enjoyed tremendous profits and improved relations with the West when it went against the designs of Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and raised production. In addition, the border between Iraq and Kuwait was a modern invention created by the British and a boundary that many Iraqis still considered to be illegitimate. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein believed that “reclaiming” Kuwait would help his nation escape its debt obligations and give it access to new oil fields and valuable ports. The close relationship between Iraq and the Reagan-Bush administration during the 1980s led Hussein to believe that the United States would not intervene when his military seized Kuwait on August 2, 1990. He was shocked to find instead that the United States led a coalition of dozens of nations that demanded Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait or face military action.

    Saudi Arabia recognized that the invasion of Kuwait was likely the first step of many Hussein would attempt in support of his goal of uniting the Middle East under his authority. A number of Arabic nations feared the rise of Hussein would threaten their interests. Leaders of these nations joined the United States and other Western nations in a coalition that deployed troops and surrounded Iraq in Operation Desert Shield. By January 1991, ten Islamic nations had dedicated ground forces along with nearly two dozen other nations that had sent troops or some other form of military assistance to prevent Hussein from invading other countries.

    Desert Shield soon became more than a defensive operation as Allied forces began staging a planned offensive to enter Iraq and liberate Kuwait unless Hussein surrendered and withdrew from Kuwait. Hussein instead predicted defeat of the Americans and their allies in “the mother of all wars.” Although many criticized the Bush administration as being motivated primarily by oil rather than the freedom of the Kuwaiti people, these criticisms were deflected by the diplomatic success of each stage of Desert Shield. Bush secured the support of Congress for each move, including a resolution approving force against Hussein on January 12, 1991. Perhaps more importantly, Bush sought and received the unanimous support of the UN Security Council and most UN members—a marked contrast from the unilateral invasion of Panama two years earlier. The inclusion of Islamic nations was especially important, although it required the United States to distance itself from Israel. The Israelis were forbidden to enter the coalition else America’s fragile Middle Eastern alliance fall apart due to the long-standing conflict between the Jewish and Arabic worlds.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{19}\): Two US Marines participate in a training exercise during Operation Desert Storm. At the time, many feared that Saddam Hussein would use chemical weapons against US forces.

    On January 16, 1991, US and UN forces began pounding Iraqi positions with cruise missiles and fighter jets. Millions of Americans watched the aerial onslaught live on Cable News Network (CNN), complete with reports from journalists and camera crews that had entered Baghdad before the assault. Hussein refused to withdraw, massing his troops in preparation for an amphibious landing on the beaches of Kuwait. Instead, combat operations under the codename Operation Desert Storm unleashed armored columns of US forces that crossed the Iraqi border on February 24th and secured control of both Iraq and Kuwait in fewer than one hundred hours. With the exception of a few elite units, most Iraqi troops were conscripts with little loyalty to Hussein and were understandably reluctant to engage the superior military force that quickly encircled their positions.

    Hussein launched several SCUD missiles at Israel in hopes of drawing Israeli retaliation that might destroy the alliance between the West and the Islamic states that now opposed him. Israel did not take the bait, and most of these missiles fell harmlessly short of their target or were destroyed in midair by US Patriot missiles. Desert Storm was a resounding victory for US and UN forces, as well as a triumph for the American Special Forces, which utilized techniques of psychological warfare. For example, US aircraft dropped thousands of tons of high explosives that were mixed with pamphlets in Arabic and Kurdish that promised humane treatment to all who surrendered. These and other aspects of psychological warfare, combined with low Iraqi morale and even lower chances of successfully defeating US and UN forces, led some Iraqis to surrender to CNN reporters. Estimates of Iraqi fatalities exceeded 30,000, while only 148 American lives were lost. Hussein soon agreed to withdraw from Kuwait, and the small oil-producing nation would remain a US ally in the following decades.

    The most pressing question following the rapid success of Operation Desert Storm was whether to withdraw from the region or attempt to remove Saddam Hussein from power. American diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern nations remained tenuous despite the success of their joint operation. The original objectives of Desert Shield and Desert Storm had been reached, and many feared that expanding the objectives to include the removal of Hussein and transition of Iraq under US authority would anger other nations in the Middle East.

    The lightning-quick operation had led to a surge in outward displays of patriotism in the United States, and Bush’s approval rating approached an unprecedented 90 percent. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney explained Bush’s decision to withdraw from Iraq as an assessment of the probable costs and casualties that would result from the attempt to occupy Iraq and remove Hussein from power. Cheney and others in the Bush administration agreed in the early 1990s that Hussein did not present a threat to the United States. They also agreed that any attempt to remove Saddam from power might backfire and lead to unacceptably high US casualties.

    The Election of 1992

    William Jefferson Clinton, a popular governor of Arkansas, secured the nomination of the Democratic Party by branding himself as a moderate. A shrewd politician, Clinton gave a speech during the 1992 election at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Government on the campus of the University of Texas without making any mention of Johnson, the president who was associated with liberal policies such as the War on Poverty. Equally careful to not alienate his Democratic base, Clinton offered cautious support for a number of liberal social issues such as abortion rights. He also expressed a more tolerant view of homosexuals than most leading politicians at that time.

    However, Clinton devoted far more time on the campaign trail espousing surprisingly conservative opinions regarding the need to limit the size and power of the federal government and preventing tax increases. Clinton recognized that President Bush was vulnerable on economic and tax issues. The problem became increasingly acute following a minor recession. Just as the costs of Desert Storm mounted, tax receipts dropped, and Bush was forced to increase taxes. These tax hikes violated the president’s infamous campaign promise of “no new taxes” and did little to reverse the nation’s growing deficit and 7 percent unemployment rate.

    More than anything, Clinton was adept at speaking to the economic frustrations faced by “average Americans” who had suffered during the recession and feared losing their jobs. Clinton attacked Republican policies that were favorable to multinational corporations based in the United States as accelerating deindustrialization the loss of American jobs overseas. Bush responded by trying to remind Americans of the prosperity the nation had experienced under the past twelve years of Republican leadership, but Clinton seized this issue by reminding voters at every opportunity that their nation had slipped into a recession during the last four of those years. To highlight the importance of this message to their campaign, Clinton’s Little Rock headquarters displayed an internal memo that simply read, “It’s the economy, stupid.” The sign was intended to remind Clinton supporters to keep talking about how the economy had stumbled once President Bush took office.

    Unlike several previous Democratic candidates, Clinton was able to convert popular anger against his opponent into an electoral victory. The unusually high approval rates Bush enjoyed during the height of the Gulf War had dropped rapidly, hitting a low of 30 percent in the months leading up to the election. Bush’s support was further eroded by leaders of the religious right, such as Pat Buchanan, who criticized the Bush administration’s toleration of homosexuals. Evangelicals were also angered by Bush’s failure to pass legislation restricting abortion or furthering other concerns of social conservatives.

    Perhaps even more damaging than the criticism of the far right was the third-party candidacy of Texas billionaire Ross Perot. Nearly one in five Americans voted for Perot and his promise to run America like one of his successful business enterprises. Perot failed to win any votes in the Electoral College, although he polled well throughout the nation. Perot and his vice presidential candidate James Stockdale, a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient who endured seven years in a Hanoi POW camp, won the support of many Americans who were frustrated by the perceived failures of the two major parties. Given Perot’s probusiness and antiestablishment orientation, most historians believe the Perot candidacy cut into Bush’s Republican base slightly more than it detracted from Clinton. In the end, Clinton won with nearly 70 percent of the Electoral College. However, Clinton had only received 43 percent of the popular vote to Bush’s 38 percent and Ross Perot’s 19 percent.

    This page titled 12.5: The Presidency of George Bush (Sr.) is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anonymous.

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