Politics 1 December 2018 | 10:31

The lessons bequeathed by George Bush Sr

01 December 2018 10:31

History is no more or less than the honest attention paid by the present to the past. Which is why the death of George H W Bush, the 41st President of the United States, should command our respect and inspire reflection.

We live in an age in which many seem to think that the Cold War is a pop group fronted by Chris Martin, and a TV reality star can become President – not in spite of his lack of credentials, but because of them.

Bush was the epitome of an entirely different era. At 18, he was quite possibly America’s youngest flying officer, assigned to bombing missions against the Japanese in World War Two, shot down in September 1944.

In 1966, he was elected to Congress, becoming US ambassador to the UN in 1971 and heading the newly-established US mission in Beijing three years later. In 1976, President Ford appointed him CIA Director. Between 1981 and 1989 he served as Ronald Reagan’s vice-president before his own term in the Oval Office between 1989-1993 – denied a second by the youthful, charismatic Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, who personified the new centrism that was to be the engine of global democratic politics until the more recent advent of the populist Right.

Bush will be remembered for driving Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in the first Gulf War – a straightforward defence of national sovereignty, much less complex than the conflict in Iraq waged in 2003 and beyond by his son – and, preeminently, for the part he played, with Mikhail Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl in bringing the Cold War to a remarkably peaceful conclusion.

Many lessons of his era were not learned: the West conspicuously failed to build upon the fall of communism with a new Marshall Plan to prevent the murderous disaggregation of former Yugoslavia and the rise of a resentful authoritarianism in Russia. Having contained Saddam’s expansionism, the West found no systematic answer to the Iraqi dictator’s ambitions to build an arsenal of WMD – ambitions that became a clear and present danger after 9/11, inspiring one of the worst and most panicked failures of intelligence (and, more to the point, its use) in modern times.

Bush lived long enough to see much of what he had fought to defend scorned, ignored and forgotten. He watched the world transformed by digital technology, celebrity culture and the politics of the show business buffoon. He was wise enough to know that, in human affairs, upheaval is the only constant and that, as Tennyson wrote, the old order changeth, yielding place to new.

But the slate is never wiped clean, even though humanity often acts otherwise. His death, at the age 94, should be a reminder that the true progressive never forgets the hard-won wisdom of the path that has led us all to the point at which we stand.