BRYAN, Texas — Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates moderated a sprawling discussion Saturday on foreign policy and the triumph of freedom at the George Bush Presidential Library Center to celebrate the 25th anniversary of George H.W. Bush's presidency.
Gates, who served as CIA director under Bush, sat down with national policymakers and an ambassador and traced back seminal moments in foreign policy during Bush's presidency, from top-level deputy committee meetings to pancake breakfasts with the president as he reviewed documents warning of a brewing military coup in Soviet Russia. The conversation covered the process by which Bush's administration arrived at its much-celebrated foreign affairs and national security policies, then focused specifically on the delicate handlings of the Cold War and Gulf War.
Joining Gates was a who's who of top foreign policy officials during Bush's presidency: Richard Haas, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and Bush's special assistant and senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs on the National Security Council; Stephen Hadley, board chairman of the United States Institute of Peace and Bush's assistant defense secretary for International Security Policy; Richard Kerr, who served more than 30 years with the Central Intelligence Agency; and Robert Kimmitt, who was Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs from 1989 to 1991 before serving as U.S. Ambassador to Germany from 1991 to 1993.
Historians, diplomats, family and friends gathered over the weekend to the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum over the weekend.
The men acknowledged that the discussion was much like walking down memory lane for the formative leaders in America's foreign policy during Bush's administration. Then-Secretary of State James Baker and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft were in attendance for the panel and later joked with them for only getting about half their facts right.
The panelists explained the behind-the-scenes work on foreign policy and how interdepartmental communication worked under Bush: the deputies' committee. The gathering allowed officials across agencies to get together, discuss and present information in order to receive feedback and craft policy without dealing with intermediaries.
Hadley said Bush was skilled at bringing together administrative officials who knew and trusted each other from their formative years starting under Gerald Ford. Gates said the continuity of the group during tumultuous years helped the administration work smoothly to craft and hone policy.
Hass said there was a common understanding that American foreign policy should focus on shaping the foreign policy of others, such as with the end of the Cold War and Tiananmen Square.
"I believe that intellectual consensus distinguished this administration to varying degrees from those which came before and those which came after," Hass said.
When the talk turned to the Cold War and Gulf War, Kerr set the table by explaining that Bush's administration came during a time when the world was very unstable, pointing to riots in the Middle East, unrest over the West Bank, and change and turmoil in South Africa and Yugoslavia.
"[The Cold War] was not a single problem that everyone could focus on at once," Kerr said. "This was a complex set of problems, all coming not quite at the same time but, really, nearly simultaneously."
Kerr said the handling of foreign relations during a delicate time was "so brilliant you didn't know it was happening." Kimmitt said Bush had what Germans call a "fingertip feel" for tectonic shifts in the world.
Gates said he knows of no other time in history that a major empire collapsed without a major war, and he thinks, in time, Bush will get credit for managing that process. He read from his notes about the president's visit to eastern Europe in the summer of 1989, during which Bush visited with leaders in Poland, Hungary and the Soviet Union. While some saw the trip as misplaced sympathy, Bush brought a message of encouragement and support to these leaders in order to smooth the transition out of power and avoid bloodletting.
"Only later would anyone, including those of us involved, see that it had been a remarkable high-wire balancing act, in which a misplaced step could've been catastrophic," Gates read.
Hass said one of the hallmarks of Bush's presidency was that he invested in relationships before crises happened. He said Bush was also willing to compromise in a time when other countries were dealing with crushing domestic pressures, and he had the maturity to be criticized to allow other countries to have short-term gains.