George H.W. Bush was elected the forty-first president of the United States in 1988. When he entered office, he may have been one of the most prepared presidents in modern U.S. history for the international challenges he would face during his one term. He had already held many important government positions prior to the presidency, served in a major war, and worked in the oil business.
Bush was born in Milton, Massachusetts in 1924 to a political family with a successful history in business. His father, Prescott Bush, was Senator from Connecticut (19521963) and provided his children with a comfortable life. Before graduating from Yale in 1948, Bush served in the U.S. Navy during the World War II, flying fifty-eight missions as a combat pilot.
World War II affected Bush profoundly. Secretary of War Henry Stimson spoke at Bush's prep school graduation, which occurred shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Stimson told his audience of young men to finish their educations before entering military service, noting that the country would turn to them in due course. But Bush felt the need to serve immediately. He rejected Stimson's advice, along with his father's preferences, and enlisted on his eighteenth birthday.
Bush noted years later that, "I came out of a very sheltered background," and when he entered the Navy he experienced a "rude awakening from exposure to the rest of the world." (Parmet, Herbert, George Bush: The Life of a Lone Star Yankee (New York: Scribner, 1997), p. 46.) He became an officer and won the Distinguished Flying Cross. He also witnessed the destructive force of war and came close to dying himself when his plane was shot down over the Pacific Ocean. After three hours in a life raft, he was rescued by a U.S. submarine. The experience seemed to have reinforced two ideas that affected his decisionmaking during the Persian Gulf crisis. He was convinced that service to country was an important duty in the face of international aggression, but he understood such service meant the ultimate sacrifice for some. Bush took from his service in the war a sense that one should be cautious about relying on military force, but if such force had to be used to be resolute in its application. This mentality would parallel the thinking of his future Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell.
He returned from the war to attend Yale University. After graduating from Yale, Bush set off to Texas to start a career in the oil business. He had become convinced through conversations with navy comrades that the oil business would be ripe with opportunities after the war. Bush was proved right. He not only gained valuable business experience in Texas, but more importantly, he developed a deep understanding of the importance of oil to industrialized economies. Bush understood the politics behind oil economics, both domestic and international. The immediate decision to place an embargo on Iraqi oil after the invasion may have seemed at odds with expectations that oil prices would rise and further hurt the receding US economy. However, Bush seemed to grasp instantly that oil meant leverage for Iraq and in terms of potential bargaining would have strengthened the Iraqi hands. By cutting off Iraqi oil and working through his strong relationship with the Saudis, who increased their production, Bush was able to undercut Iraq while stabilizing gas prices in the United States. His personal experience in the oil industry gave him confidence and some credibility to make quick decisions that would affect the flow of the crisis through the fall of 1991.
In 1966, he followed his father's footsteps into politics and was elected to represent Texas in Congress. From the beginning of his political career, the presidency was Bush's goal. In 1968, while watching Richard Nixon accept the Republican Party's presidential nomination, Bush commented to family members that he would be up on that platform some day accepting the nomination.
Bush's focus on international, rather than domestic politics, began with his appointment as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in 1971 and followed that diplomatic posting with an ambassadorial appointment to China. In 1976, President Gerald Ford requested that Bush return from China to serve as director of the CIA, which he did until 1977 when Jimmy Carter took office. In 1980, Bush competed with Ronald Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination and settled for the number two position on the ticket. Bush served as vice president for the eight years, cementing his expertise in international relations by often representing Reagan abroad and building an extensive network of friends and contacts.
In 1988 when he became president, Bush focused on the Soviet Union's growing instability. As the cold war was coming to a close, Bush had to manage Washington's evolving relationship with Moscow, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, and the reunification of Germany. Facing a military challenge in the Middle East was not on the international radar screen of this former navy pilot in early 1990. However, Bush's experience with both war and oil, combined with his personal contacts with many world leaders, certainly positioned him well to react to the unexpected Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. But why did Bush so quickly decide that the Iraqi invasion had to be reversed and why ultimately did he decide on war as the best option?