George H. W. Bush was deeply involved in foreign policy throughout his presidency. Unlike Ronald Reagan, he brought a depth of experience in international affairs to the oval office—ambassador to the UN, envoy to China, director of the CIA, and frequent travels abroad as vice president. Bush's hands-on approach meant that in his administration American foreign policy would emanate from the White House, not the Department of State.
President Bush appointed James Baker, a close personal friend and successful campaign manager, to be secretary of state. Baker had shrewd political judgment, but little experience with foreign affairs. For advice, the president leaned more on two others within his administration. Brent Scow croft, his national security adviser, was a retired air force general who had served in the same position under Ford as Kissinger's successor. Prudent and cautious, Scowcroft had been critical of Reagan's policy toward the Soviet Union, viewing the early denunciation as too confrontational and the later meetings with Gorbachev too accommodating. When the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989 and the Soviet regime gradually collapsed, Scowcroft reinforced Bush's careful policy of letting events take their course without active American participation. The other man Bush relied on heavily was Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney. Experienced both as a member of Congress and as Ford's White House chief of staff, Cheney would play a key role in defining the dominant foreign policy event of the Bush administration—the Persian Gulf War.
When Saddam Hussein caught the United States by surprise with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990, Bush reacted strongly, sending American troops to Saudi Arabia to protect the vital flow of oil from the Persian Gulf region. Once Saudi Arabia was secure, the critical issue was whether the United States should use force to liberate Kuwait or rely instead on economic pressure. Secretary of State Baker, along with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, warned against getting involved in a ground war with Iraq. Scowcroft and Cheney, however, argued that sanctions would take too long to work, and the president sided with them. Cheney played an especially important role, criticizing the initial army plan to liberate Kuwait with a frontal assault and suggesting a flanking maneuver instead.
Bush's advisers also had considerable influence on the controversial decision to end the fighting short of full success. After five weeks of intense aerial bombardment, General Norman Schwarzkopf launched the ground offensive on 24 February 1991. When American armored units swept into southern Iraq in a daring flanking movement and coalition forces liberated Kuwait in just three days, Bush heeded the advice of Scowcroft and Powell to halt the attack after only a hundred hours of fighting. Powell was concerned that the United States not be seen as a heartless bully, commenting, "You don't do unnecessary killing if you can avoid it." Scowcroft had strategic concerns, primarily a fear that a prolonged invasion of Iraq would alienate Arab allies and shatter the international coalition. He also saw the need for a postwar Iraq strong enough to balance off the power of Iran in the vital Persian Gulf region. After insisting on securing Schwarzkopf's consent, Bush followed the advice of Powell and Scowcroft, thus ending the war with Saddam, still in power in Baghdad. Later, when Schwarzkopf suggested he could have destroyed the Republican Guard on which Saddam relied so heavily with just a day or two more of fighting, Powell intervened to remind the theater commander that he had agreed to the early cease-fire.
Despite the regrets over the failure to depose Saddam, the Bush foreign policy team proved effective in action. The cautious policy toward the downfall of the Soviet Union prevented the United States from providing an excuse for a final effort by hard-liners in Russia to revive the Cold War. In the Middle East, the Bush administration had succeeded in forging a remarkably broad international coalition to liberate Kuwait and thus uphold the principle of collective security. Bush's foreign policy advisers had accomplished these goals by displaying a high degree of teamwork. In contrast to the infighting that had characterized the Carter and Reagan presidencies, Bush, in the words of Baker, had "made the national security apparatus work the way it was supposed to work."