George H.W. Bush was of a generation of America’s traditional elite who not only fought World War II, but also collectively oversaw the transition from Jim Crow racial segregation and discrimination through the Civil Rights era while managing the American response to decolonization in Africa and forming relations with the newly independent African states during the Cold War.
Most notably it was during the G.H.W. Bush presidency that Secretary of State James Baker gave permission to Assistant Secretary of State Herman Cohen to begin supporting democratization in Africa as a distinct element of U.S. policy. (See Cohen’s Intervening in Africa: Superpower Peacemaking in a Troubled Continent, a memoir published in 2000). Part of the initial impetus was to help Soviet leader Gorbachev buy latitude by de-escalating tensions at a time of transition for the Russians.
Although U.S. democratization policy did not fare so well in Russia itself, I do think that we were helpful during the Bush Administration and beyond in bringing some African conflicts to a close and in Kenya, an established U.S. regional security partner, in pushing for a political liberalization through legalization of non-KANU parties and forcing President Moi to actually run for re-election in 1992.
President Bush’s politically-appointed Ambassador Smith Hempstone was fondly remembered during my time in Kenya with the International Republican Institute (2007-08) for having challenged Moi and his circle on political liberty issues. He was seen as having provided aid and comfort to actors in “the Second Liberation” within the context of the basic Kenyan-American security relationship. Hempstone was a journalist and newspaperman, not a diplomat, so needless to say he was not quite a cultural/professional favorite in the State Department itself but he knew his way around both East Africa and Washington with enough background and pedigree in both places to successfully test what he could get away with.
It is worth remembering today that Bush appointed Hempstone (who died in 2006) and stuck with him when it might have been easier to assuage Moi by replacing him with someone who would not “rock the boat” or speak too plainly. My late friend Joel Barkan and others I got to know in the democracy community were admirers of Hempstone’s fortitude at a crucial moment of inflection for Kenya. See “My Joel Barkan Tribute“.
Caring about democracy in Kenya can be discouraging, but there is no doubt that most Kenyans are in fact freer now than they were prior to the Bush/Baker/Hempstone period. While Kenyans fought their own fight, I think that we made the correct choice to be supportive under Bush’s presidency.