In praise of restraint: George H. W. Bush's Iraq war policy is a model for today's leaders

President George H.W. Bush on March 13, 1990.

Sometimes leaders should be judged not so much on what they do — but what they do not do. Like the time when George Bush and Dick Cheney decided against invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein. Remember that? 

It’s true. Bush and Cheney analyzed the situation carefully and determined that it wasn't worth the casualties, and that America might get bogged down. Besides, who knows what might have resulted from the Pandora’s box that an invasion and occupation of Iraq would pry open?

Cheney made the case for restraint on the Sunday talk shows. Here’s what he said: "Well, just as it’s important, I think, for a president to know when to commit U.S. forces to combat, it’s also important to know when not to commit U.S. forces to combat. I think for us to get American military personnel involved in a civil war inside Iraq would literally be a quagmire.” 

He continued: “Once we got to Baghdad, what would we do? Who would we put in power? What kind of government would we have?”

Finally this: “I do not think the United States wants to have U.S. military forces accept casualties and accept the responsibility of trying to govern Iraq. I think it makes no sense at all.”  

From prudence to post-9/11 'iron-ass' Cheney

Such good points. And President Bush — a prudent man who measured risks carefully — agreed with all of them. 

By now, you’ve probably figured out that I’m not talking about President George W. Bush in 2003, but his father, President George H.W. Bush in 1991. 

It wasn't the same Cheney, either. Sure, physically it was the same terse Wyoming transplant with the famous curled-lip expression. In 1991, he was secretary of Defense. But in 2003, Cheney was vice president, and America was still reeling from the terror attacks of Sept, 11, 2001, on New York and Washington. As he acknowledged this past Sunday during an interview on Fox News, the event changed him.

"The thing that had intervened between my time at defense for 41 and my time as vice president was 9/11," Cheney said. 

In the panic that ensued after 9/11 — at one point that scary autumn, the Bush administration even believed that terrorists had smuggled a nuclear weapon into New York City — caution went out the window. Cheney, who was so uncertain and adamant against going into Iraq just a few years before, now had crystal clarity about doing just that: “My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators,” he said on NBC's "Meet the Press" on March 16, 2003 — just days before the U.S. invasion. His boss, George W. Bush, agreed. And so a very different Bush administration developed a very different policy for Iraq. 

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Incidentally, Cheney's support for Persian Gulf War II earned him criticism from the elder Bush, who told biographer Jon Meacham that he considered Cheney an "iron ass" for "seeming knuckling under to the real hard-charging guys who want to fight about everything, use force to get our way in the Middle East."

Yet the elder Bush publicly supported the person ultimately responsible for that war: his son, the president.

That the second Bush administration ran into the very same problems — the very same ones — that the first Bush administration had analyzed so well a dozen years before underscores the importance of some of the most essential, if unheralded, qualities of presidential leadership: caution and restraint. Tempting as it might have been to go on to Baghdad itself, in 1991, George H.W.’s limited strategy — and the ensuing containment of Iraq — saved countless American and Iraqi lives.

Bush 41's restraint on Iraq served America well 

For all the second-guessing about the senior Bush's judgment on Iraq, the troubles encountered by his son speak for themselves: An estimated 4,563 Americans have been killed, and more than 32,000 wounded. The comparable Iraqi figures are far higher, of course. Then there is the multitrillion dollar cost to U.S. taxpayers, who will be footing the bill for the second Gulf War until mid-century. The cost to America in terms of squandered prestige and reputation is harder to quantify, but it has hardly been insignificant.    

All of this isn't so much a criticism of George W. Bush for the tremendous damage his decisions wrought — though he certainly deserves it — but an appreciation for very similar damage that his father was able to avoid. 

We mourn more than the passing of a president. We mourn the passing of a leader who was careful and used his power cautiously. A man who experienced war as a teenager and knew that it is not something to be approached cavalierly. To use a word that was tossed about in the spring of 2003, war is not a “cakewalk.” Those who aspire to higher office would do well to study Mr. Bush’s example. The father, that is. 

Paul Brandus, founder and White House bureau chief of West Wing Reports, is the author of "Under This Roof: The White House and the Presidency" and is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter @WestWingReport

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: In praise of restraint: George H. W. Bush's Iraq war policy is a model for today's leaders