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George HW Bush with Troops Gulf War

“The Republican Party, which achieved its greatest vigor in this century during the presidential terms of Ronald Reagan, now seems in the sere and yellow leaf.” – Russell Kirk, February 27, 1991, the day before President George Bush declared victory with Operation Desert Storm.

Scholars Bradley J. Birzer and Adam Fuller reflect on Russell Kirk’s assessment of the First Gulf War of 1991.

Bradley Birzer: President George H.W. Bush had destroyed Reagan’s honor, the honor of America, and the honor of western civilization, Dr. Kirk thought, and we would pay for this crime for a century. All for the sake, as Kirk put it, “of the oilcan.”

Adam Fuller: This wasn’t one of Kirk’s better moments. Why is it a destruction of America’s honor to win a war? Moreover, how was the waging of the first Gulf War such a departure from President Reagan’s principles of statecraft? Reagan used military force several times, including in the Middle East. I see it as an extension of the honor Reagan wanted to leave as America’s legacy, not its demise.

Russell Kirk

Russell Kirk

Birzer: Adam, this is one of the most important discussions any American—or, frankly, any citizen of the West—can have. It is, probably, the most crucial question that needs to be asked by us and our children and grandchildren. We have, I fear, failed miserably at understanding the complexity of a post-ideological world, a post-communist world. While Kirk might have always chosen the most prudent word when it came to his passionate reaction to the George H.W. Bush administration, he foresaw a number of problems. Kirk was, admittedly, moving toward a radical pacifist position. But, for sake of argument, if we can dismiss this for a moment, there’s much to be taken seriously in Kirk’s complaint and fear. He believed in and trusted Ronald Reagan, and he thought the build-up of the military crucial to bring the Soviets to the negotiating table. Kirk’s goal—like Reagan’s—was never to use the military, except when absolutely necessary. To Kirk’s mind, there was a huge difference between having a huge military and expanding that military abroad. That is, he was a hawk of sorts, but a one centered on home rather than empire (as he would’ve put it).

Fuller: But Reagan certainly used the military on several occasions, most notably Beirut, Grenada, and Libya. In fact, in Grenada he restored the ousted regime, which is the same as what President Bush did with Kuwait. Did Kirk oppose those operations, too? If not, why were those “absolutely necessary” while the Persian Gulf wasn’t? Certainly, Reagan didn’t want an armed conflict with the Soviets, but hardly anyone wanted that, neither on our side nor on the Soviet side. Nuclear parity created a reality of mutually assured destruction, which indeed made it possible for the threat of an escalated conflict to be dealt with diplomatically. This is not so when it’s the powerful free West versus tin-pot tyrants like Saddam. Reagan’s position was that these tyrants have to know where the line is drawn that they can’t cross, and that America’s vast military arsenal is rendered meaningless if we’re not prepared to actually use it when our enemies cross that line. I would also add that, like Reagan, George Bush led a broad international coalition. It wasn’t just America acting alone. I also find the term “empire” to be overused hyperbole by critics of neoconservatives, but we can deal with that issue later.

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan

Birzer: Thanks, Adam. I’m certainly no expert on foreign affairs, and, for better or worse, I did try to avoid the term imperial in my previous comment. When it came to Reagan, he was, by no means, perfect, of course. Who is? He carried out his foreign affairs in two important ways. First, he only went for limited action. That is, when necessary (whether in retaliation or preemption), he struck forcibly, and he struck hard. He also struck quickly. With the exception of Lebanon, his military actions did not leave us in the region beyond the most fleeting of moments.

Second, his foreign policy in the Americas reflected his own ideal visions of what government should do at home. That is, it intervened, but it did so by arming the locals and would, therefore, empower them to reclaim their own lands. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in his arming of the Moskito Indians (Contras) in Nicaragua. He did the same in Afghanistan and in Angola and elsewhere. In Eastern Europe, he did this through the passing of information rather than weapons.


Adam Fuller

In Grenada, he saw the hand of the Soviets through the Cubans, and he determined not to allow the creation of another Soviet proxy in the area. He intervened very directly and forcibly there. Let me note, further, that Reagan had no problem with force, but he did fear getting bogged down anywhere. An invasion of Grenada, close to home, was an entirely different matter than an invasion of Iraq, which required months and months of troop deployments, thus necessitating (if only as a means of PR, but of course for other reasons as well) a continuous presence in the region to guarantee such an expenditure of lives and material had been worth it.

Fuller: Brad, thanks for the thoughtful response and the spirited discussion. My reply is simply that the Gulf War met the same standards that you say Reagan applied to his foreign policy. The action was limited, forcible, hard, and did not prolong. It was done, as Machiavelli describes a well-used cruelty, “at a stroke.”

Although that war had its detractors here at home, President Bush handled it well and was rewarded with high public approval. I’m still not sure why Kirk opposed it. The only reason I’ve seen him give for opposing it is that he thought it was carried out for political economic reasons—hence, the “oilcan” metaphor. It is also possible that he viewed it as serving Israel’s geopolitical interests more than our own. As the Russell Kirk expert between the two of us, you would know more about that than I do, but he did give that infamous speech at the Heritage Foundation in 1988 in which he alleged, “neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.” As a Jewish American, I don’t consider that remark anti-Semitic, so that’s not where I’m headed with this. I just think it’s an immensely inaccurate depiction of neoconservative motivations. As for the economic motivations behind the war, I believe that there was a vast array of vital Western (and humanitarian) interests being served in both Iraq wars, and yes, one of them was oil. During the second Iraq War, I even said at the time that it was absolutely imperative that America can’t allow a thug like Saddam Hussein to have so much control of the world’s supply of oil—an absolutely vital commodity that the free world absolutely needs to sustain life for our people. Nations have fought over resources since the beginning of time and it has always been seen, only until very recently, as a legitimate reason for war. Fortunately, the modern age has provided us with numerous peaceful ways of resolving our disputes over such things, and I think that’s far more preferable, but sometimes we have little choice other than to engage in armed conflict. Part of being a conservative is recognizing that we can’t change human nature, and war is a reality of human nature.

gulf warLastly, I think it’s important in this discussion to distinguish between the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War. The first one—which is what Kirk was talking about, because that’s the one he was still alive during—met the standards that you just applied. The second one did not, I agree. While I still believe that the Iraq War was justified for a host of reasons, I think many unnecessary mistakes were made in the waging of it and in its aftermath, such as disbanding the Ba’athists, and insisting on democratization. I think in places like Iraq, the best solution, as Aristotle taught us about such societies, is to install another tyrant, but one who rules at the privilege of the United States and thus crosses no lines we set on human rights and doesn’t work against Western interests.

I want to conclude by thanking Brad for the great discussion. Although Dr. Birzer and I are each of the Right, there is no foreign policy approach that is definitively “conservative.” Each of us has a claim to a proper and prudent course, and each of us believes the answer—though contested—is the means by which we should understand not only the recent events of the past but also the events sure to occur over the next decade or two.

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19 replies to this post
  1. Hindsight is indeed a privilige we enjoy that is never enjoyed by those making a difficult political judgment at the time, so yes, it is easier for us now to blame the first President Bush for the first Gulf War.

    Foresight, however, is the wisdom to use imagination in order to better understand and judge the possible results of a given policy. Certainly Russell Kirk demonstrated amazing foresight in that Heritage speech, for even if we grant the rather dubious claim that a war for resources is just, then clearly by depriving Saddam Hussein of his power over oil, we have merely helped secure the power of ISIS over oil and where there were once imperfect states there is now perfect chaos.

    While emotions run high, it is important to have such discussions not to apportion blame, but to learn from mistakes and figure out what to do now, for the problems hinted above still exist and have gotten more complicated. On the whole, I think that this is the context in which Kirk’s Heritage speech deserves attention, not to say I told you so, but to say “this man was right. Let’s think along his lines to avoid continued errors.”

    As for honor: how does winning a war besmirch honor? American honor is not Thrasymicus’ honor. American honor is not honor resulting from power. American honor is pride of justice, not pride of strength. Strength must serve justice, but justice must guard against the temptations of strength. Winning an imperial war dishonors a republican soul.

    • While one can appreciate sincerely your reiteration of certain well-established axioms, there is, nonetheless, the necessity of scrutinizing decisions by presidents, legislators, judges, princes, kings or bishops.

      Granted the concrete focus of personal prudential decisions, once dubious motives have been established to have been a factor in such, along with culpable ignorance, one is obliged to judge choices of an individual subject to such, particularly those holding public office, as having lacked integrity to a certain degree, or perhaps even to actually have been evil in terms of means selected and ends sought.

  2. The gulf War brought the neocon/paleocon conflict into sharp visibility. It is hardly unsurprising the Kirk sided with the Paleos. The aggressive interventionism of the neos -a form of internationalist social engineering- must have been anathema to a champion of prudence and limits such as Kirk.

    It is quite unfortunate that two of the most eloquent and visible conservative skeptics of messianic internationalism, Pat Buchanan and especially Joe Sobran, developed the habit of making intemperate and, at times, cruel remarks about the Jewish community. This certainly did not help the paleo cause.

    Kirk’s voice would have been a leaven during the days of Bush the second. Conservatism was crying out for a prophetic foe of ill conceived and decidedly un-conservative interventionist adventures.

  3. I agree with Fuller, that “wasn’t one of Kirk’s better moments.” Besides the obvious international issues, from a domestic point of view this resolved the post Vietnam syndrome about the American military and power.

  4. “. . . there is no foreign policy approach that is definitively “conservative.” Each of us has a claim to a proper and prudent course.”


    Considering many of the complex central factors that entered into the Iraq and Kuwait antagonism, Dr. Kirk, on the whole, seems to have been correct.

    The primary motive of the administration (and those influencing its decision) at that time, arguably, was for oil and vested financial interests, coinciding with imperialist ambitions on the part of some and greed on the part of others.

    I am rather doubtful that Reagan’s motives for his approved “interventions” can be so transparently reduced to such a list.

  5. Russell Kirk largely reflects my view across a range of conservative issues but not on foreign policy and military policy. My view is what he would probably describe as “neoconservative” ,though I prefer to call it a position of American strength. I go pretty far – I think we’ve closed too many military bases, cut our military way too far back ,and would like to see a dramatic resurgence in that area. Not only is it helpful to our strength, it’s helpful to our economy, as well. What’s all the more absurd about the rollback in bases and spending has been the fact we’re actually in a more dangerous world now than we were in the Cold war. North Korea, China, Russia, ISIS, Iran, terrorism in general, not to mention our problems in the Western Hemisphere still.

  6. Whether the first Gulf war should have been fought is something that only those people with sufficient information and sound perception can say. In hindsight, it was a mistake. The Bush administration bungled the situation across the board/ His ambassador as good as gave Hussein the notion that his invasion of Kuwait was okay. If Bush wanted to go in, he should have gotten a promise from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia not only to dissolve OPEC, but to lower oil prices to their pre-Israeli-Egyptian war level. If there was no agreement, he should have wished the two countries luck and headed for the golf course. A punster might have quipped, “The golf coarse rather than the Gulf course .” Forgive me for that. It smacks of Jesse Jackson. In fact, you might stretch the “disagreeable” rule, declare it nauseating, and disallow it. Once Bush launched the war, he should have finished it, ending Hussein’s rule. Even a child could see that Hussein was not a man to cross with impunity. And Bush encouraged the Kurds to get involved, then turned his back on them.

  7. Peace through Strength: I’m curious as to whether the Iraq War forced you to rethink any of your premises. My understanding of the neo-con position ,at least in its more extreme form, is that Western style democracy is a from of government applicable anywhere in the world. the only thing that prevented the rule of law in Iraq was the nasty disposition of Sadaam Hussein. Subsequent events proved democratic nation building to be a far more fraught and challenging exercise.

    Conservatism properly understood is about the recognition of limits. Neo-conservatism was born out of a recognition of the limits of domestic policy (this recognition stemmed from disappointment with Great Society programs). Yet, in the realm of foreign policy neo-cons don’t seem to respect limits. They still think the world can be remade in their image.

  8. The last retrenchment from Islam cost all of north Africa, half of Spain, all of the middle east, southeastern Europe and was only stopped by Divine intervention. It was not a question of resources, it was more, if not completely, of the loss of the sense of justice. Those who would reduce the argument to an oilcan have had their imagination blurred. Critical consequences have been unforeseen. What can not be accepted is another retrenchment. Our Helaire Beloc predicted another rise to Islam. If the pure evil of Islam’s first rise is not considered in current, strategic calculations, then most certainly that same pure evil must be believed now. If Russell Kirk’s direction was to tell our citizens that the answer is fortress America, that is not the triumph of freedom and not the fulfillment of that “we do these things for our posterity” as duty calls. It may be that the best question now is, why have the Christians, the Kurds and those other communities been sacrificed on the alter of Islam?

    • The recent actions in Iraq (Syria and Libya) and many other places Islamic have no true relation with the principles and objectives that inspired the Crusades in the Middle Ages; nor were they in line with what occurred when the Christians reconquered Iberia or later when Christians valiantly fought at Lepanto and Vienna.

  9. Mr. LeLoup,
    To answer your question: “the Christians, the Kurds and those other communities” have been sacrificed on the altar of (radical) Islam(ism) because American foreign policy since 9/11 destroyed all of the secular Arab states holding the radicals at bay over the last 15 years and our official policy today is still “Assad must go” as Syria too evaporates before our eyes. Meanwhile, oddly enough, we are very closely allied to the one country which funds radical (Wahhabi) Islam, namely Saudi Arabia. (Though in fairness I do not see any easy answer to this problem).

    In fairness to the first President Bush, this was not his doing, as his execution of the first gulf war (independent of whether or not one supported it) was relatively prudent. The problem was that a false consensus developed on the Republican side that had Bush only toppled Hussein in 1991, democracy would have blossomed in the region. Thus the debate kept shifting to how we “need to finish the job” and never to “we need to understand the complexities of the region now that we are involved”.

    In the end, we inadvertently did radical islamism a favor not only by toppling Hussein, but by supporting “Arab springs” – and I think that this may have been the strategy all along on Bin Laden’s part: to get America to start the radical islamic revolution in the gulf states by toppling the secular and pan-Arab governments which had held radical islam at bay.

    Finally, we ought not forget that the terrorists plaguing Western Europe (and partially the US) are homegrown, often third generation, people who often don’t even speak or read Arabic as well as they do French and whose radicalism is a function of their alienation now and of lax immigration policy as well as failed assimilation over the years.

    But not to sound too much the pessimist, at least President Obama managed to get the Iran deal right in the region, so that is a positive step. Mr. Fuller mentioned that President Bush worked in a coalition with UN approval. That was an important point because if you would like to really build some lasting order, you need multilateral action, so whatever we do in future we must do together with the world – not because we are weak and submissive – but because while we are capable of destroying everything on our own, it is impossible as a matter of practice to build or rebuild order without the world.

    So of course, rather than fume at President GHW Bush, I would say we need to go back to his prudence at the very least. If you support American engagement and if American engagement will not stop (though I think it should), then at least make it constructive and form a broad coalition of states to work out some kind of post-war order so the fighting can stop.

    • Except this puts America in a no win situation. We are attacked on moral grounds if we support tyrants (think the shah of Iran) and we are attacked on practical grounds if we abandon them (khadaffi in Libya, etc.)

  10. Adam Minsky wrote: “Kirk’s voice would have been a leaven during the days of Bush the second. Conservatism was crying out for a prophetic foe of ill conceived and decidedly un-conservative interventionist adventures.”

    True that, despite Mr. Fuller’s saying that there is no “foreign policy approach that is definitively “conservative.””

    Fuller’s comparing Reagan’s limited adventures into Grenada and the bombing of Libya with the Gulf Wars is like comparing the swatting of a hornet with taking a baseball bat to a live hornet’s nest; the latter being what the Bush Adventures into the Middle East were. The Elder at least had enough sense to leave Hussein in power, understanding that a secular despot is still fitting for a Middle Eastern country in the late twentieth/early twenty-first century since such keep the jihadists down, while the Younger came to believe, despite earlier campaign speeches, that democracy is like making cookies: all one needs are a recipe and a cutter. For Reagan’s part, he had the sense to leave Beirut after the bombing of the Marine barracks, and never sought revenge, let alone a project of Middle East democracy as his support for Afghan “freedom fighters” was part of the longstanding fight against Soviet-style communism. Today’s neoconservatives likely would call the policy decision to leave Beirut “making us look weak to both our enemies and allies.”

    In answer to the title question, then, I think Kirk got it right, at least from a conservative perspective. Too bad Bush the Younger didn’t keep in mind and apply to the Middle East the foreign policy he spoke of concerning the former Soviet states when he stated during a campaign 2000 debate: “I just don’t think it’s the role of the United States to walk into a country and say, we do it this way, so should you… I think the United States must be humble and must be proud and confident of our values, but humble in how we treat nations that are figuring out how to chart their own course.” After 9/11 however Bush the Younger would say, “There is a value system that cannot be compromised, and that is the values we praise. And if the values are good enough for our people, they ought to be good enough for others.” But Russell Kirk put the conservative perspective well when he wrote, “There is one sure way to make a deadly enemy, and that is to propose to anybody, “Submit yourself to me, and I will improve your condition by relieving you from the burden of your own identity and by reconstituting your substance in my image.”

    From a domestic policy perspective, conservatives understand that war always enlarges the state and squats upon the limiting thereof. To Franklin’s challenge then, alas we couldn’t keep the Republic Ben, but built an Empire and some wish to keep it. From a foreign policy perspective, conservatives understand that a country is organic and must be left to its own ways and customs to the end of, as Bush the Younger once put it, “…figuring out how to chart their own course.”

  11. Mr. Mack is right. For the sake of fairness, I will admit that as I wrote in my very first TIC post (, being right is not a jolly thing, and many of us (myself included), even if we were sceptical of the project pursued by the Republican foreign policy establishment of the 1990s and early 2000s were also – I think – completely unprepared for just how much of a deep, aweful divide there would be between what was proposed and what happened.

    Vietnam lingered in our minds, but Gulf War I cured America of the military doubts raised by Vietnam (as Dr. Fuller mentioned) and the relative peaceful success of transitions from communism to democracy in Eastern Europe and the former USSR seemed to cure America of the political doubts raised by Vietnam.

    As a people, we were ready to believe that the world had really changed, that a consensus was building across the globe for some very basic things: representative government, freedom of speech – the usual. The notion that all that had to happen was for America to push aside anachronistic dictators and allow civil society to flourish was, given the military and political results of the end of the Cold War and the first Gulf War – very, very tempting.

    We seemed to have sleep walked into things. I remember being rather shocked when the United States began to bomb Yugoslavia – my shock was the result of a youthful mispreception that under Ronald Reagan, America had used – as Dr. Fuller and Dr. Birzer note above – persuasion to help bring down Communism in Eastern Europe. The power of persuation and of setting a good example, when juxtaposed with the constant presence of force in Communist societies, was an indominable asset to American political ambitions in the region.

    It seems to me that somewhere along the way, Americans became over-optimistic and over-confident. We did not recognize that our bombing of Yugoslavia represented – in the eyes of the Russians who had just given up their Empire – a signal that NATO had gone from being a defensive to being an offensive pact. We usually date our trouble back to the Iraq war in 2003, but our geopolitical nightmare actually began with our intervention in Yugoslavia. We didn’t see it then, because Russia was too weak to do anything to defend Serbia – but our actions then erased ALL of the good will that President Ronald Reagan had built up in the 1980s with the Russians.

    In the end, it is extremely hard for a people long practiced in domestic peace and tranquility to understand that somewhere in the world there might be people who have no such practice and who actually require a tyrant.

    Tyrants arose in the ancient world when democracies failed. We tend to see their rise as something to be resisted rather than something to be welcomed. We think all tyrants are necessarily like Hitler. We insist, if tyrants do arise, that they save the republic and relinquish power. But if there is no republic to save, only a violent people to rule?…. This is something we cannot fathom, it is beyond our comprehension. It is something we encountered in old books, like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It is Kurtz’s Horror and we thought – as many before us no doubt thought in times of enlightenment and advance – that we were past the times that tyranny was a necessary virtue.

    We are not. Tyranny, in the modern world, is a virtue, because the tyrants provide order and their foe is not republican self-government, it is mass slaughter and the end of the world. There is no joy in this statement, but that is – to my mind – the choice we now face.

  12. Well said Mr. Rieth, both here and the prior essay you wrote. This from your essay says it all: “I do not even know anymore, given the deep ethnic and religious divisions there, whether one can speak of Iraqis as such. In fact, I fear I simply do not know anything about that part of the world.”

    We understand little of the divisions in these countries and therefore cannot really even recommend just how it is they should apply in every case institutions of democracy for themselves. I think what we can know is it will be a long process just as it was in the West. I think too that many in the West who deny the human condition do not realize just how thin the line is between our own culture, and the return to barbarity.

  13. I recently encountered what I thought was an arresting theory. Both the Right and the Left spend a great deal of time and energy trying to recreate their respective finest hours. For the Left this was the civil rights movement. This explains ,among other things, the Black Lives Matters movement. For the Right, this was victory in the cold war. Conservatives ,particularly neo-conservatives, are on the constant lookout for a new Berlin Wall in need of tearing down.

    One can understand the temptation on both sides. It was to the great credit of Russell Kirk ,and his paleoconservative co-thinkers, that he was able to resist the temptation to view foreign policy through the lens of cold war victory and heroism. The world would be a safer and more stable place if those in power had heeded his advice.

    It would also be fruitful if the Left could stop searching for an Edmund Pettis to march on. There is much about the Left that is admirable: their impatience with injustice, willingness to explore bold visions, and concern for the underdog. But they need to realize that viewing every issue through a binary lense of good and evil is hardly helpful in a Republic.

  14. For me, personally, the biggest mistake of the 2nd Bush Admin was in refusing to deal with the issue of the WMD’s that never showed up in Iraq. I don’t think Bush actually *lied* about WMD’s, since I think Bush is an essentially honest person, but they certainly allowed that impression to form by their silence. And Donald Trump was right in one of the debates in asserting that was not merely a mistake, but a mistake of giant proportions, one that absolutely *demanded* a full and thorough explanation, and which we never got.

  15. Regarding Eric’s view: “Except this puts America in a no win situation.”

    Yes, you are right. The whole wisdom of Kirk’s conservative thought is that you begin with the premise that you are in a no win situation called Original Sin and this in turn draws you away from any scheme of human perfectability in favor of desperate attempts to shore up what little good order there is. That is exactly the point.

  16. General Hal Moore, the officer in charge of a very bloody battle in Vietnam depicted Hollywood style with Mel Gibson playing the role of General Moore, who I believe was a Colonel at battle time, was asked a question, by Raymond Arroyo, of EWTN stature, whether or not he- Colonel Moore- had prayed during the battle. General Moore’s reply seems significant, ” There was no time for prayer during the fighting. We did all our praying as a unit, back in Georgia, before we left.” [quote paraphrased} Paying unto Rome what belongs to Rome is a multifaceted advise and command that General Moore seems to have put into a proper perpective. The Church ‘prays and prays constantly’ for those who won’t or can’t. To base arguments, mixing God and Rome, would appear to have limitations, according to our Lord. General Moore’s status presently is unknown, but at the time of Mr Arroyo’s interview, he seemed to be my kind of die hard Catholic as I believe is true of Mr. Kirk Different answers for different persons in different situations, but situations, I believe, our Lord made provisions for. ‘Pray that you are not put to the test’ is something none should worry about because sufficient for the day will grace be provided. Dr. Kirk passed his test and so has General Moore. We are the benificiaries of both those passings.

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