Humans react to the death of people they know or of famous people with sadness and feelings of sorrow for surviving loved ones. However, personal sadness should not be confused with historical amnesia. Reminiscing about recently deceased President George Herbert Walker Bush should not be an occasion for reinventing history because understanding history matters. If we do not understand the past, we will recreate its errors in the present and the future.Reviewing George Herbert Walker Bush’s executive experience, it should be remembered that as Vice President, he supported President Reagan’s brutal war on the peoples of Central America, particularly in Nicaragua and El Salvador. The Contra war on the Nicaraguan government continued in the Bush years and when President Daniel Ortega ran for reelection in 1990 the United States funneled $12 million to the candidacy of his opponent, Violeta Chamorro. In addition, United States 1980s funding of the brutal Salvadoran government continued despite the fact that Salvadoran soldiers invaded the Central American University, killing six Jesuit priests and two aides in November,1989. The Jesuits were advocating a negotiated settlement of the ten-year civil war in that country.
Two months before the Nicaraguan election Bush ordered a 26,000 marine invasion of Panama to depose its president Manuel Noriega who had decided to end Panama’s collaboration with the US support of the Contras fighting in Nicaragua. Further, the invasion sent a message to Nicaraguans just two months before their election that if they chose to reelect Ortega, their country might suffer an invasion also.Concerning the ending of the Cold War, President Bush decided to “reward” the former Soviet Union for shifting to markets and reducing its influence over Eastern European states as opposed to calls from hardliners in his administration to become more tough with the Soviets to force its collapse. However, the United States in the Bush years violated informal agreements with the Soviets, initiated in 1988 and 1989 for a mutual withdrawal from “trouble spots” such as Afghanistan, Angola, and Central America. What was called “low intensity conflict” in the Reagan years continued under Bush. In other words, while the Soviet Union was withdrawing its troops and support for its allies in zones of conflict, the United States did not.
The George Herbert Walker Bush presidency is most known for his initiation of the Gulf War (which would be continued by his son in the new century). After a decade-long war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s, one in which the United States funded its ally Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the United States turned against Iraq when the latter sent its armies into neighboring Kuwait. Although the Iraqi invasion constituted aggression against the smaller (but wealthier) Kuwait, Hussein’s decision was based on numerous economic and geopolitical factors. These included signals that Iraq continued to get from the United States government that it would not respond if Iraq chose to invade Kuwait. The United States Ambassador to Iraq told Saddam Hussein in July,1990 that disputes with Kuwait were matters for the Middle East to resolve. Again, while Saddam Hussein’s reasons did not justify his military aggression, his moves were not what Bush later called “Hitler revisited.” Bush like every president since the 1930s would cull up the shopworn but functional “Munich Analogy” which declared that the United States could not allow aggression to stand as the European powers did in the 1930s. The world learned from its experience in 1938, the analogy goes, that dictators, like Hitler, should not be “appeased.”The record is clear. President Bush decided within a few days after the Iraqi invasion on August 2, 1990 that he would launch a war, preferably a global coalition effort, against Iraq. Over the next several months he engaged in a sustained campaign to get the reluctant military on board (including allowing Secretary of Defense Dick Chaney to threaten organizing his own DOD-led invasion), to lie to the American people about why war was necessary, to convince many members of the United Nations, including the faltering Soviet Union to join a military coalition, and finally to convince Congress to authorize military action. On January 17, 1991, Operation Desert Storm was launched. The media salivated over the brutal high-tech assault on Baghdad, which was televised almost as a video game, and over the next month, Iraqi troops were forced out of Kuwait and much of Baghdad and Saddam Hussein’s strongholds were attacked. The Iraqi army surrendered on February 28, 1991. At a press conference announcing the end of the war, President Bush declared: “At last we have licked the Vietnam syndrome.” In other words, the American people would no longer be opposed to US militarism around the globe.
In the years to follow, Presidents Clinton and George Walker Bush would continue economic sanctions against Iraq, causing, according to a United Nations estimate, 500,000 deaths of Iraqi children under the age of five because of starvation. Clinton would engage in periodic bombing campaigns against Iraq in so-called “no-fly zones.” And finally, George Walker Bush and his key advisors, including his father’s Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney, would employ a propaganda campaign such as the one used in 1990 to create support among the American people for renewed war on Iraq after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Both the Gulf War of the first Bush and the Iraq War of the second led to the turmoil, instability, and killings of masses of civilians that continue today.So to paraphrase an old Mother Jones statement, we need to mourn for the dead and fight like hell for the living. In this case, we can mourn the death of a United States President but we should learn from reflecting on his policies that we need to build a more powerful peace movement to insure that the violence and war he endorsed never happens again.