Monday, December 3, 2018

Goodbye, Uncle George

Once again we see a hagiography being written for a venerable elder statesman.  This time George Herbert Walker Bush.  Historians as well as the mainstream media have either forgotten or are conveniently sidestepping the more onerous aspects of his administration out of deference to a 94 year-old man.  Not even any mention of the amusing groping incidents that were revealed last year, for which the former president apologized.  All told, eight women accused him of inappropriate behavior.

However, there are far worse allegations that can be leveled at George H.W. Bush, namely his role in propping up Manuel Noriega in Panama when he served as CIA Chief for President Ford between January 1976 and 1977.  It's hard to say how much Bush was aware of Noriega's double dealing, but he didn't do anything about it.  Republicans gave the dictator carte blanche in his war on communism, even if that meant looking the other way as he helped funnel drugs for Pablo Escobar into the United States.  When Bush finally became President in 1988, after an unsuccessful run in 1980, he made sure to bring Noriega to justice and eliminate any skeletons in the closet.

The invasion was largely viewed as a success in the American media, but Barbara Trent tells a very different story in The Panama Deception, which was made while Bush was still in office.  She presents the military incursion as nothing less than a coup, designed to not only take out Noriega, but the Panamanian Defense Forces, so that the US could wipe the slate clean.  This was a far more direct approach than previous incursions where the US provided financial and  logistical support to the "Contras" in Nicaragua and other rebel groups throughout Latin America.  Trent puts the number of Panamanian soldiers killed at over 4000, whereas the Bush administration issued an official result of 516.  Accounts vary widely.

Bush was neck deep in all the wars being fought in Latin America throughout Reagan's administration, as it had become the Gipper's prime concern to rid the Western hemisphere of Communists.  As the first season of Narcos illustrates, this provided an excellent cover for drug dealers, who went largely undetected until the later part of Reagan's tenure.

When it was finally found out that these "good guys" we had been propping up in Central America were helping the Medellin Cartel funnel drugs into the United States, we still focused largely on Nicaragua and not Panama.  It didn't matter to Escobar who was in power as long as they were willing to do business, which underscores the first season of Narcos.  Escobar actually hung out in Panama, courtesy of Noriega, until things settled down a little in Columbia.

At his peak, Escobar was so rich that he could afford to pay off Columbia's national debt but the new government refused his offer and a massive drug war ensued.  The US has been a close friend of Columbia ever since despite the fact the successive governments could be just as harsh on its' rivals as was the Medellin Cartel.

By Bush's tenure, the War on Drugs had become a dominant theme in American politics.  He revved it up a notch by initiating a much reviled zero tolerance policy that resulted in the confiscation of  property even for the pettiest of infractions.  Harsher sentences were also introduced, which meant the swelling of the prison population for little more than felony marijuana possession, which was 20 grams in most states.  Still is in Florida.

Nabbing Noriega helped take some of the pressure off Bush's draconian drug policy, although it was largely seen as an unwarranted coup by the rest of the world.  This would set the stage for the Persian Gulf War two years later when Bush felt the need to liberate Kuwait from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, another US ally who had gone rogue.

In between, the Berlin Wall came crashing down as did the Soviet Union, but Bush didn't seem to pay too much attention to these events, especially in Lithuania, which stood down the Soviet army in January 1991.  The same month he launched the Persian Gulf War, beginning our long-running war with Iraq continued by his son in 2003.

We hear all this praise being heaped upon George H.W. Bush by James Baker and others, but his foreign policy was awful.  Time and again, Bush misjudged events and often found himself having to play catch up, usually with devastating results.

No one inside the Reagan or Bush administration had any idea what was going on in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.  The fall of the Eastern Bloc countries and eventually the Soviet Union caught them totally by surprise.  They had no plan to deal with it.  In fact, the Bush administration was working with Gorbachev to try to stabilize the Soviet Union when it was long past the point of no return.  After many breakaway republics declared their independence in 1991, the Bush administration was still funneling aid through Moscow, which meant these countries saw very little if any of it.

Bush was too absorbed in the Persian Gulf.  He achieved the short term gain of getting Hussein out of Kuwait, but the tyrant remained in Baghdad, and would for another 12 years before his son finished the job.

One of the few bright spots in his foreign policy was the backing of the Madrid Conference that led to the first negotiations between Israel and Palestine over a two-state solution to the long festering dispute over territorial rights in Israel.  He would leave the leg work up to his successor, Bill Clinton, as George H.W. Bush was soundly defeated in the 1992 elections.

Whatever good intentions George H.W. Bush may have had largely went for naught.  He left a world order in disarray that would further blow up in a war in the Balkans that would serve as the genesis for a resurgent Russia by the end of the 1990s.  Russian leaders treated the bloody civil war in Yugoslavia as a new rallying cry for pan-Slavism, led by a young Vladimir Putin, who was first appointed prime minister in 1999, and subsequently elected President in 2000.

The basic problem with Bush is that he grew up in the 1940s and 50s, and his world view was largely shaped by events from those decades.  He surrounded himself with similar Cold War-minded advisers so that he never really grasped how fast the world was changing in the 80s and 90s.  His foreign policy was hopelessly antiquated, more a product of Eisenhower, whom he revered, than it was the events shaping the world during those tumultuous later decades.  As a result, the United States got caught off guard and never really recovered.

The drug war continued.  The Middle East and Central Asia became embroiled in conflict.  The Balkans were in ruins.  What little attempt had been made to curb nuclear warheads in Russia had ended in a stalemate. China was rising as the dominant economic power in the East, eclipsing Japan, our Cold War ally.

We can remember Bush fondly if we like but this doesn't diminish his failed foreign policy legacy.  What makes it worse is that Bush is someone who should have known better, having served in successive Republican administrations since 1971 and was well acquainted with foreign leaders.  Yet, he was too ideologically bound to grasp the enormity of events that came together between 1989 and 1993 to really do anything about them.

At best we can view him as dotardly Uncle George, out of step with the world around him.  A throwback to a previous age where the adversaries were more clearly defined and you could follow the playbook handed down by George Kennan.  Bush thought he could just switch Latin American and Central Asian bad guys with Soviets and Chinese without realizing we were being played.

Unfortunately, we really haven't learned our lessons.  The Republicans still try to follow the old playbook, albeit to suit their cynical purposes.  Democrats are only a shade better in seeming to realize the world is much more complex these days, but are at a loss as to how to go about reconciling ourselves with it.  We still pine for the post-WWII days when we controlled world events,using the CIA to shape troublesome countries to our liking.  Now, we find our media being manipulated and our elections being hacked by Russia and other countries.

George H.W. Bush quietly slips away with heart-felt eulogies that praise his enduring character, the same way we would an uncle whose best years were long behind him, conveniently forgetting all the troubles he caused.

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