Increasingly I suspect that George HW Bush may be one of the most under-rated American presidents since the Second World War. Politically, sure, he wasn't the smartest, sharpest or smoothest and some of his greatest achievements - most notably the management of post-Soviet eastern europe - owed something to a policy of what was, in some senses and to some extent, benign neglect. But there's a certain old-fashioned, perhaps patrician, wisdom in that too. The first Bushies got some things wrong and they got some kinds of lucky too but their reserve also helped them avoid too many self-inflicted mistakes.
It wouldn't be quite right to say that the Obama administration is Pappy's heir but its approach to foreign and security policy certainly borrows from the GHWB playbook. Nowhere is this more obviously the case than at the Pentagon where Bob Gates really could have stepped smoothly from 1990 to the present day. Here, for instance, is the kind of sentiment you don't often hear from Washington:
One way of measuring influence and importance is to determine who's departure would cause the most damage to an administration's strength and credibility. The two people who Obama can't lose are Hillary Clinton and Bob Gates. Clinton, at least in part, because of the media rumpus that would follow (Will she challenge Obama!?), Gates because he a) gives some degree of partisan cover and b) more importantly is evidently the best man for the job. By far. It's Gates, then, that's this administration's Indispensable Man.“
"Everything we do must be suffused with strong doses of modesty and realism," he said, "When all is said and done, there are limits to what even the United States can do to influence the direction of countries and cultures radically different than our own. And even the most enlightened and modernized interagency apparatus is still a bureaucracy, prone to the same parochial and self-serving tendencies as the system it replaced."
For more on Gates, I recommend my friend Mike Crowley's profile, published in the New Republic.