President Trump bemoans the fact that when it comes to wars, America’s best days are behind her. “We never win, and we don’t fight to win,” he said on the same day that he declared his new budget would include a 10-percent increase for military spending. But there is an example of American victory—and in the Middle East , no less—that the new commander-in-chief would do well to study because it provides a lesson wholly at odds with Trump’s muscle and menace style.
The lesson comes from an actual war hero who was—somewhat amazingly— branded a wimp when he landed in the Oval Office.
On September 2, 1944, Lt. j.g. George H.W. Bush’s TBM Avenger was shot down on a bombing run over Chichi Jima, a Japanese held island. As his aircraft spun seaward, Bush ordered his gunner and bombardier out of the plane, then climbed onto the wing and parachuted into the sea. Afloat on a life raft, Bush admits he feared the Japanese would find him and deliver him to Chichi Jima’s commander who, after the war, was executed for murdering captured American pilots and eating their livers. Bush later joked that he would have made a modest meal, as he was “a skinny wretch.”
It takes a lot of sand to fly into the teeth of enemy fire, but Bush’s reputation for courage didn’t stick. Forty years later, in October of 1987, he was labeled a “wimp” by Newsweek, which questioned whether he was “tough enough” to succeed Ronald Reagan as president. Even British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had doubts. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 1, 1990 and Bush seemed to waver, Thatcher bucked him up: “Don’t go all wobbly on me, George,” she said. In fact, Bush wasn’t about to.
In the weeks following Saddam’s aggression, Bush recruited an international coalition of countries to oppose him, gained the approval of the U.N. to condemn his invasion, deployed hundreds of thousands of U.S. and coalition of troops to defend Saudi Arabia, then fought a 100- hour ground war (preceded by a 900-hour air war), dubbed Operation Desert Storm, that expelled Saddam’s army from Kuwait. “We set the goal, formed the coalition, did the diplomacy, gave peace a chance, had the fight, defined the mission of the battle, fought and won,” as Bush succinctly put it. The “mother of all battles” (as Saddam bragged) was “the mother of all victories”—the last clear and decisive military triumph in American history.
For Bush, the coalition he shaped through endless telephone calls and personal meetings, was the key to victory. A diverse conglomeration of 39 nations joined the U.S.-led effort (Great Britain, Canada and Australia to be sure, but also Syria, Bangladesh and Honduras), contributing troops, weapons, expertise and some $42 billion of the $62 billion cost of the war. There’s no doubt that the U.S. could have acted alone, and won, but the coalition lent credibility: It wasn’t the U.S. versus Saddam, but Saddam versus the world.
It’s hard to imagine that Donald Trump—who describes the U.N. as a “talk shop,” disdains multinational peacekeeping agreements, conducts foreign policy by tweet, hangs up on prime ministers and thinks NATO is “obsolete”—would have the same success. Should Iran, Russia or North Korea test the U.S., as Saddam did (and as one of them almost certainly will), the U.S. will demand and expect international support. But who would Donald call first: Australia? Then, too, the “ratings” for the war (to put it in Trump-speak) were pretty good: Bush’s popularity soared, coalition commander “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf was a national hero and the idea that America was in retreat (and suffered from a “Vietnam Syndrome”) was put to rest. Bush believed the coalition showed the U.S. could lead the world so long as it kept its word, and Bush did: the U.S. liberated Kuwait—and then stopped.
In fact, while Bush was condemned for ordering a premature end to the war, he has consistently rejected the criticism. His priority was to keep intact the coalition he had shaped, he argued, and to adhere to the international consensus mandated by U.N. resolutions—which dictated Saddam’s removal from Kuwait, and no more. So it was that Desert Storm was viewed by Bush as a model for how the U.S. would manage the post-Cold War world. As the sole superpower, the U.S. would lead the world by eschewing the unilateralism that its military power conferred in favor of a “New World Order” based on building an international consensus undergirded by international institutions—the goal was, as Bush said, “the peaceful settlement of disputes, solidarity against aggression, reduced and controlled arsenals and just treatment of all peoples.” In this new world, the rule of law would govern the conduct of nations.
At the time, and perhaps not surprisingly, Bush’s template wasn’t entirely welcomed. What are now described as “neo-liberals” derided the “New World Order” as little more than a meaningless catchphrase that hobbled American power (“What’s the point of having this superb military if we can’t use it,” Madeleine Albright asked Colin Powell), while Reaganite Republicans (including Bush’s son, “Bush 43”) mocked it as a betrayal of “The Gipper’s” American exceptionalism. The lesson of Desert Storm wasn’t that multilateralism worked, they argued, but that America’s unrivaled military power could be used to shape the world as the U.S. saw fit. In retrospect, it seems, 9/11 was the turning point, a shock to the system so profound that it reanimated Bush’s critics. Desert Storm might have stopped Saddam, but it didn’t stop bin Laden. Neo-conservatives now face off against neo-liberals (with barely a wit of difference between them), with Bush moderates nowhere to be found. The “New World Order” has been consigned to the trash heap of history.
Donald Trump would like to keep it there, characterizing Great Britain, France, Germany (and Australia) using the same language conservatives once used to describe families on welfare:
as a permanent underclass of freeloaders looking for a handout. In this sense, Bush-like coalitions institutionalize global laziness—we hand out money to countries that don’t even bother to say thank you. Great Britain, France, Germany and Australia aren’t allies, they’re on the dole. We’re not building collective security, we’re subsidizing (as Trump himself has said) “other peoples’ armies.” For Bush, building a global coalition was a kind of investment in security, for Trump it’s a rip-off. Put simply, Trump is the John Galt of foreign policy: It’s every country for itself, and may the biggest military win.
The difference between Bush and Trump couldn’t be more stark: for Bush, now in his 90s and recently hospitalized, building and supporting global coalitions of the kind that defeated Saddam was (and is), an investment in the future, making the world safer. Indeed, Bush’s vision seems terribly dated, a quaint throwback to an era when forming alliances was a necessity. The U.S. was the world’s 19th strongest military in 1939, could not have defeated Hitler without Churchill and Stalin and, in the Pacific, depended on Australia as the supply base for the reconquest of the Philippines. Then too, Bush’s appeal to the U.N. in the lead-up to Desert Storm now sounds uniquely wimpy; the strongest military in the world shouldn’t seek permission from (as Mr. Trump has said) “a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.” It should, as his U.N. ambassador announced, assess “who has our backs” and warn those who don’t that “we’re taking names.”
Yet, while these statements have chilled the U.S. foreign policy establishment, they’re not new. The Trump administration’s anti-U.N. animus echoes Bush 41’s son, who only reluctantly allowed then-Secretary of State Colin Powell to plead the case for invading Iraq at the U.N. (“We really don’t need the United Nations approval to act,” he announced), then sent Donald Rumsfeld to Europe to whip France and Germany, who didn’t have “America’s back” on Iraq, into line. Rumsfeld foreshadowed Trump’s “obsolete” line on NATO, calling France and Germany “old Europe.” And, of course, it was Bush 41’s son who approved “enhanced interrogation” techniques, like waterboarding—which Mr. Trump likes—and opened up the CIA’s notorious black sites—which the new administration is considering reestablishing.
That his son’s actions bothered the older Bush is now not in doubt, though Bush senior waited a decent interval before saying so, blaming Cheney and Rumsfeld for their influence on his son’s foreign policy decisions in Destiny and Power, his 2015 autobiography. Cheney, Bush 41 said,
had built his own state department in the White House (he called him an “iron ass” who was too quick to use force), while Rumsfeld was “arrogant,” a Haley-like “kick ass and take names” bully. But the real problem was their belief that America could go it alone, Bush implied, an unwavering conviction in America’s moral rightness and a profound skepticism about the usefulness of international treaties, international institutions and international law.
Put more simply, the difference between Bush 41 and Bush 43 was that “the senior George Bush was an arch-multilateralist” while his son was “an arch-unilateralist,” as former diplomat Strobe Talbott once described it. While Donald Trump sensed this in his presidential campaign (deriding the post 9/11 interventionist wars, then garnering most of the military’s votes because of his opposition to “nation building”), it’s not at all clear that either he or his national security team are anxious to repudiate the unilateralism the new president’s predecessors (including Barack Obama) adopted. Trump’s criticism of NATO as “obsolete” attacks the pillar of American multilateralism, while the president’s support of “America First,” seems like a stand-in for America Only—a corollary to his belief that the U.S. can use whatever means at his disposal, regardless of international law. It’s hard to envision Donald Trump traipsing off to the U.N. in pursuit of a resolution backing American power.
The difference in outlook between Bush 41 and his successors, including Trump, is ideological, but it’s also generational. Bush’s multilateralism was shaped by the shock to the system of December 7, not 9/11—an era in which American military power was yet to be realized and American victory was as dependent on the sacrifice of others as it was on those sailors who fished the former fighter pilot from the sea. Multilateralism? International law? The United Nations? How passé: American has a “big stick” and should use it. Soft power is for soft people.
Maybe. But it’s hard to argue with history: The last great American military victory occurred under a “wimpy,” gosh-golly president who argued that America’s greatness came not when American acted alone—but when it didn’t.