George H.W. Bush dies: A president in turbulent times | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 01.12.2018
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George H.W. Bush dies: A president in turbulent times

Former US President George H.W. Bush has died at the age of 94. The shrewd statesmen who led the US through the end of the Cold War will be remembered in Germany for his efforts in reuniting the European country.

The 94-year-old George H.W. Bush has died, according to a statement released on Saturday.

George H.W. Bush became president in 1989 after serving as vice president under Ronald Reagan. In Germany, he will be fondly remembered for the crucial role he played in uniting the East and the West in 1990. His son George W. Bush was also elected president and served two terms between 2001 and 2009.

War hero

Born in Massachusetts in 1924, George H.W. Bush enlisted in the US Navy on his 18th birthday to become its youngest aviator. He undertook 58 combat missions in the Pacific theater, earning several decorations. He was once shot down and spent four hours in a life raft before a submarine came to his rescue.

US President George Bush (R) at a press conference 23 July 1990 Photo: JEROME DELAY/AFP/Getty Images

Bush was often more successful internationally than on the domestic US stage

Bush married Barbara Pierce in 1945, and following his honorable discharge later that year, began studies at Yale University; after graduation, the family moved to Texas. With support from President Richard Nixon, Bush was elected to the House of Representatives in 1966 and in 1971 Nixon appointed him ambassador to the United Nations.

He also served as the first US diplomatic representative in China and head of the Central Intelligence Agency before being elected vice president and ultimately, in 1988, the 41st president of the United States.

Emerging from Reagan's shadow

Bush first ran for the Republican Party presidential nomination in 1980. Despite losing the race, he was later picked by fellow Republican Ronald Reagan as his running mate. Bush's foreign policy expertise in the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union played a role in the ticket's election.

After eight years as Reagan's vice president, Bush ran again for the presidency in 1988, winning the Republican nomination and the election — the first sitting vice president to be elected president in 152 years. Bush beat his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, with 54 percent of the popular vote.

Advocate of a unified Germany

Bush took office on January 20, 1989. In his inaugural address, he proclaimed "The day of the dictator is over" — presciently, as Europe's communist regimes were overturned by democratic movements later that year, bringing the Cold War to an end. Only the Soviet Union remained — it would also disappear from the map two years later — and Bush the diplomat managed to gain Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's trust.

US President George Bush (R) shakes hands with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl (L) at the end of their press conference in the White House in Washington 08 June 1990. Photo: KEVIN LARKIN/AFP/Getty Images

Bush and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl formed a strong friendship during Reagan's presidency

This was crucial in addressing the urgent question of German reunification, which had become a real possibility following the opening of the Berlin Wall in November. Bush, an early supporter of German unity, was able to assuage Gorbachev's fears of a reunified Germany. The result was the Two-Plus-Four agreement, signed in 1990 between the two German states and the World War II victors Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States. The treaty paved the way for German reunification, the restoration of full German sovereignty, the retention of German NATO membership and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the country.

After reunification took place on October 3, 1990, Bush said, "I congratulate Chancellor Kohl and the German people in both East and West Germany and in Berlin, so long divided, for keeping their dream of national self-determination ever alive."

The 1991 Iraq war

Bush used military force and ordered the invasion of Panama to arrest its drug-dealing leader, Manuel Noriega, in December 1989. The following year, after Iraq invaded Kuwait, Bush assembled an unprecedented UN coalition under US leadership that included many Arab states. When Saddam Hussein refused to withdraw his forces, the Gulf War, codenamed Operation Desert Storm, began in January 1991.

Photo taken 03 December 1989 aboard of the Soviet cruise liner Maxim Gorky of US President George Bush (L), during a joint press-conference with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbatchev. Photo: JEROME DELAY/AFP/Getty Images)

Bush thanked Gorbachev for his commitment to peace after the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991

With an overwhelming victory in sight by late February, Bush decided not to go beyond the goal of liberating Kuwait as authorized by UN Security Council Resolution 678, and stopped the troops from marching onto Baghdad. At that time he said: "It was not only a victory for Kuwait but a victory for all the coalition partners. This is a victory for the United Nations, for all mankind, for the rule of law, and for what is right."

Read more: Saddam Hussein, the Gulf War and the new Middle East

The military success was not just a victory over the dictator, but also a psychological boost for the US, still traumatized by the Vietnam War two decades earlier. Bush's idealistic victory speech on March 6 outlined his hopes for peace in the Middle East, but his call for a "new world order" raised suspicions that the US saw itself as the world's policeman. It was Bush's efforts in the wake of the Gulf War victory that spurred Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to sit down together for the first time at the Madrid Conference in October 1991.

Despite postwar approval ratings over 90 percent, Bush's failure to use his unprecedented popularity to address difficult domestic issues meant it soon vanished as the economy began to weaken.

Loss to Clinton

Bush lost the presidential election in 1992 to Bill Clinton, not least because he had agreed to an increase in the gasoline tax, a surtax on the highest earners and excise taxes on luxury items despite his election promise of "no new taxes." Clinton blamed him for the poor economy, the growing gap between rich and poor and the increasing national debt.

After his defeat, Bush withdrew from politics and settled in Houston with Barbara, where he spent the rest of his life. He repeatedly said he missed neither politics nor the press. His son George W. Bush, one of six children, served as governor of Texas and was himself elected to the White House in 2000. Another son, Jeb Bush, also ran for the Republican nomination in 2015, losing to Donald Trump.

All US ex-presidents in during a relief concert in Texas (Reuters/R. Carson)

Bush, along with other former US presidents, was an active humanitarian

Bush senior and Clinton ultimately developed a friendship, and the two worked together on relief efforts, including after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina the following year. They were jointly awarded the Philadelphia Liberty Medal in 2006.

International recognition

Even years after his presidency, Bush was honored with numerous awards. In 2008, he received the Henry Kissinger Prize in Berlin for his contribution to the trans-Atlantic partnership. In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the United States' highest civilian honor.

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