Although a patriot in service to his country, the late US president’s domestic and foreign policy was not free of controversy. Here’s a look at the some of his most contentious actions.
Former US president George H W Bush died on Friday November 30 at age 94. He has been hailed as a statesman who served his country to the fullest by both friends and opponents.
Former president Barack Obama described his life as “a testament to the notion that public service is a noble, joyous calling. And he did tremendous good along the journey”.
His son former president George W Bush described him as a man “of the highest character”.
Notably, he refused to vote for Donald Trump in his 2016 elections, calling him a “blowhard”.
His political career was distinguished by military service, election to Congress, service in the CIA and eventually the White House. During his tenure, he helped end the Cold War.
Bush was also a loving grandfather and great-grandfather to his 17 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
As well as his successful political career and significant accomplishments, Bush Senior also came in for criticism.
Here are some of the more controversial decisions he made that had a major impact on the nation and the world.
1. Racist election advert
George H W Bush rose to the presidency on top of what many saw as a racist election campaign.
During his 1988 presidential run, Willie Horton escaped while serving a life sentence for murder and raped a woman in a state where Bush’s opponent Michael Dukakis was governor.
An advertisement called ‘Weekend Passes’, released by a political group with links to the Bush campaign, emphasised that Horton was black while the rape victim was white.
Bush’s campaign manager Lee Atwater would go on to boast: “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’s running mate.”
Atwater would express regret for the racist advertisement before he died. But Bush never did.
2. Lied about the first Gulf War
Around 13 years before his son was accused of lying about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, Bush allegedly fabricated evidence that would trigger a US military operation against Iraq in what would later come to be known as the first Gulf War.
Investigative journalist Joshua Holland stated the first Gulf War “was sold on a mountain of war propaganda”.
Bush told the US that Iraq invaded Kuwait “without provocation or warning”.
He never mentioned that then US ambassador April Glaspie gave Saddam Hussein the go-ahead to invade Kuwait, telling him a week before Iraq’s invasion: “We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.”
But it doesn’t end there. He also cited intelligence that never existed. In August 1990, Bush moved US soldiers to the Arab Gulf on the pretext that it was in defence of Saudi Arabia.
The Pentagon cited “top-secret satellite images” estimating that up to “250,000 Iraqi troops and 1,500 tanks stood on the border, threatening the key US supplier”.
This didn’t add up though. Commercial satellite imagery of the Saudi Arabian border showed noIraqi forces, removing the entire justification for sending in the military.
3. War crimes
Under his tenure, the US used at least 88,500 tonnes of bombs in its campaign against Iraq and occupied Kuwait, yielding grotesque civilian deaths.
One strike against a bomb shelter in Baghdad killed more than 400 Iraqi civilians. Even though the US Department of Defense reportedly knew the site was used to house innocents, they bombed it without warning.
This constituted a grievous violation of the Geneva conventions that govern warfare.
The United States also carried out a strategic bombing campaign that intentionally targeted critical infrastructure such as power plants, food-processing plants, flour mills, and water treatment centres.
An investigation by the Washington Post in June 1991 found the bombings were carried out to create leverage over Iraq after the war.
“Their intent was to destroy or damage valuable facilities that Baghdad could not repair without foreign assistance,” Barton Gellman wrote.
Four months after the war came to an end, a Harvard public health team discovered the devastation caused to Iraq’s key infrastructure triggered malnutrition and cholera and typhoid epidemics.
Seven months later, it was estimated the war killed 158,000 Iraqis; 13,000 civilians during war and 70,000 post-war from the impact of ruined infrastructure on public health.
4. The Iran-Contra affair
The Iran-Contra affair goes down in history as one of the darkest episodes of US history. In a black books operation during the Reagan administration in 1985, the US sold 1,500 missiles to Iran in exchange for seven American hostages. Much of the $30 million paid by Iran for the weapons went to fund the Contras, a South-American armed group fighting the Communist Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
A scandal erupted over violations of the embargo against selling arms to Iran and of the Boland amendment, which forbade the US Department of Defense or the CIA from funding the Contras in any way, given their reliance on the cocaine trade for revenue. The scandal would go on to find some of the highest tiers of US leadership guilty.
Bush — a former CIA director — was vice-president at the time.
The final report in the Iran-Contra affair stated that Bush was “fully aware of the Iran arms sale”.
When examined by a congressional investigation, he wouldn’t hand over a diary “containing notes relevant to Iran/Contra” and did not agree to being interviewed by the investigation.
In 1992, a US television show described documents detailing his meeting with an Israeli intermediary in the arms deal.
During his tenure, Bush eventually issued six presidential pardons for those found guilty.
5. Misinformation in the war on drugs
Speaking on television in 1989 from the White House, Bush held up a bag of cocaine as a prop claiming that it was seized from a drug dealer right across the street from the White House.
An investigative report by the Washington Post would later reveal that the FBI ‘lured’ the drug dealer into a park across from the White House, to buy it from him. The drug dealer didn’t even know where the White House was or the location of the park, and asked for directions to get there.
Bush used the incident to increase spending on the war on drugs by $1.5 billion, leading to millions being imprisoned and spending billions on a war that did not address the root causes of drug abuse.
His escalation of the “War on Drugs” would have little or no effect on cocaine traffic or the addiction crisis. Instead, it lead to fraud, corruption, rampant violence, racial profiling and senseless death.
6. Invading Panama
Bush oversaw some of Latin America’s most brutal death squads as CIA director.
With the Cold War over, he sought to expand American influences where Soviet influences no longer existed, starting with Panama.
Panamanian Manuel Noriega was once a CIA cold war asset under Bush’s oversight. He was linked to Bush in illegal covert operations influencing the civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, working as a valued informant.
Noriega helped the US counter Cuban influence, and act as the middleman between the US and the Contra rebels, in spite of the fact that he was closely linked to Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar’s cartel. By the early 1980s, Noriega was leading the Panama army and was thought to be working with drug traffickers and cartels.
He eventually stopped taking orders from the US. But because he knew too much, he had to go.
Bush declared him most wanted, to which Noriega reacted by declaring war with the US.
Bush launched Operation Just Cause, sent 26,000 soldiers into Panama to “capture” Noriega in December 1990. Noriega went into hiding in the Vatican embassy in Panama City. In the ensuing stand-off, the US army blasted loud heavy metal music into the embassy until Noriega surrendered.
Tried in Miami, his defence was not allowed to present any evidence related to his work for the CIA, payments received from the US government, his ties to Bush, knowledge of US covert action in South America and their support for him as a dictator.
While George H.W. Bush may have served his country with distinction, his legacy nonetheless remains controversial, and is a stark reminder of an era where illegal interventionism and disregard for laws and conventions was the norm.