Lessons from a President: George H.W. Bush’s Response to the Invasion of Kuwait

By Philip D. Caldwell

As we remember the amazing life of President George H.W. Bush, perhaps lessons can be learned from the way he handled decision-making and managed his National Security Council (NSC) during one of the most precarious and defining episodes of his presidency.

On Aug. 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein ordered an invasion of Kuwait. The United States and President George H.W. Bush faced a dilemma, while the physical invasion of Kuwait presented no direct national security threat to the United States, its significant economic and regional security implications did. President Bush effectively organized his NSC, allocating responsibility and power to his advisors allowing them to execute their roles effectively. This in turn allowed for the creation of effective policy options addressing unique aspects of the crisis such as military engagement, economic sanctions, and diplomacy.

National Security Advisor (NSA) Brent Scowcroft established a framework making it clear inaction would not be possible stating, “we have to begin our deliberations with the fact that this [the Iraqi invasion] is unacceptable. Yes, it’s hard to do much. There are lots of reasons why we can’t do things, but it’s our job.” Importantly, Scowcroft did not advocate for one policy option, but rather organized members of the NSC to formulate and integrate policy options relevant to their portfolio.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Colin Powell and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf of the U.S. Central Command outlined several military options and made sure that President Bush was aware of what actions he could or could not take in response to the Kuwait invasion. While this was occurring, Secretary of the Treasury Nicholas Brady successfully argued how the United States imposing sanctions on Iraqi oil exports would economically pressure them to withdraw from Kuwait. Furthermore, Secretary of State James Baker was instrumental in gathering support for a coalition, which demonstrated to both Congress and the United Nations that supporting the United States’ intervention was in the best interest of the international community.

President Bush’s management of the NSC is an example of the crucial role interpersonal relationships play in the NSC’s functionality. David Rothkopf noted, “Baker and Scowcroft knew each other; they laid out the ground rules for their relative roles very early on.”  

The dynamics of crises require coordinated responses to rapidly evolving situations across a broad spectrum of areas. While individual policy options were designed based on specific areas of expertise, together they created a comprehensive response to the crisis. Members of the NSC, although ultimately resorting to the military option, explored and exhausted all policy options before employing the use of force. 

As the country continues to remember President George H.W. Bush, we can reflect on why he managed the crisis so effectively and apply this lesson to our times. When members of the NSC are empowered by their president with a clear mandate and the autonomy to execute their roles, it is possible to achieve success.

Having all members of the NSC working together, rather than against one another, allows for policies to be quickly and effectively implemented. The implementation of clear boundaries around roles and responsibilities within the NSC can ensure it operates effectively in formulating policy and in responding to crises and events in the best interest of the security of the United States and its citizens. 

Philip D. Caldwell is a master’s candidate in the Master of Science, Global Affairs program at New York University.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons