As we mourn the death of President George H. W. Bush (“Bush Sr.”), many of his life episodes and accomplishments show a style and approach that we have difficulty finding in governance today. The one this article addresses was his responding to Saddam Hussein’s conquest of Kuwait in 1989, not by an assertion of unilateral Executive power to make war, but by his coming to Congress and respectfully persuading it, by a close Senate vote, to authorize him to make war against Saddam.
I wrote a book about separation of powers in the Bush Sr. Administration. My book raised issues about many of his actions. It was natural to do so at the time, in the wake of the Iran-contra scandal, to take issue with assertions of unilateral executive power. Looking back, the Bush Sr. Administration’s partisanship seems milder that it did at the time. I do not need to review the detailed record of the George W. Bush or Trump administrations to show the superiority of Bush Sr.
But, even at that time, my book at the end of Bush Sr.’s term had a full chapter honoring how he had come to Congress for his authority to make war against Saddam. Let us review the situation. Saddam had ruthlessly invaded and crushed Kuwait. Perhaps, he had been misled by the Bush Sr. Administration’s statements to him indicating American indifference about his issues with Kuwait. Bush Sr. immediately sent 400,000 American troops to the Saudi border with Kuwait.
Bush is remembered for his able diplomatic mustering, in the ensuing months, of an international coalition so that the coming war would be seen, not as an American war, but as a broad international effort including many Arab nations. What is less remembered is that Bush put aside partisanship and worked with Congress.
There were Bush advisers, of the school of National Security Adviser John Bolton today, who told him to do the opposite: that he should launch the war against Saddam as a matter of unilateral power by the Commander-in-Chief. Indeed, he was admonished that he would weaken Executive power if he went to the Congress for authority – that he would create a precedent to be used against future Presidents. And Congress might not vote for war.
It was not at all a hypothetical consideration. Senate Democrats questioned the need for war when sanctions against Iraq had not yet been fully tried. There was no love lost for the Kuwaitis, who were unpopular even among their Arab cousins. And, there was skepticism about just how much of a threat to America Saddam was.
But, Bush Sr. ranked national unity through constitutional action and Congressional support as a high value. During this period of mourning for him, we will hear much of the contrast between his presidential leadership and what we have currently. In the end, he gained the last couple of necessary Senate votes by private assurances that he would not go to war without the Congress. When the chips were down, he reached his hand across the partisan divide, treating Congressional war powers with respect, to unify the country behind the war effort.
As a result, he did take a unified and resolute country to war with Saddam. The U.S. armed forces crushed the Iraqi military, freed Kuwait and drove a weakened Saddam back into this country. We only fully saw his wisdom, in not pursuing and topping Saddam, after 2003, when the Bush Jr. invasion of Iraq led to years of bloody chaotic insurgency, with a heavy cost of American military and Iraqi life, and a gain of influence by Iran over Iraq.
Some may wonder how much the precedent from Bush Sr. in 1990 matters. It is an issue that goes back and forth over the years. President Johnson took us into the Vietnam War with nominal but not real Congressional authorization. Conversely, Bush Jr. took us into the war with Iraq in 2003 with actual Congressional authorization, albeit obtained with a phony case about supposed Iraq weapons. Still, this principle that Congress must authorize war is one that is deeply rooted in constitutional government. It is a great principle that Bush Sr. honored, and his own respect for it, honors him.
This article originally appeared on Forbes