Listen to the words of a man who has come to know George Bush well during these most trying moments.
"Those eyes are scary. Very calm. Very cool. You look at his eyes--there is an angry man there, and every week I think he gets more angry. We say: 'Don't make a quiet man angry, because he's really hard to handle.' "
Now, another look at the President of the United States: It is 5:30 on a morning in late August. He is adrift in a dinghy on the marshes of the Kennebunk River, out behind the Old Grist Mill restaurant in his beloved Kennebunkport, Me. Casting lure after lure in an unsuccessful campaign to snare a bass, he seems impervious to frustration--be it elusive fish, hungry mosquito, or Saddam Hussein.
And one more look at the President, now neither angry nor contemplative. It is October in the heartland. Midterm elections are imminent; time for presidential hoopla: Dwarfed by the requisite backdrop of an oversized stars and stripes, George Bush bounds across the field house stage at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill., and thanks country singer Eddie Rabbitt, who has just stirred up the kids on the floor with a new anthem: "My older brother was GI Joe. Red, white and blue from my head to my toe. I'm an American boy."
Minutes later, Bush is brought back to Earth when a heckler butts into his speech. The United States, the heckler cries, is trading blood for oil!
On that mild, sunny day in January, 1989, when George Bush swore the simple oath of office that each of his 40 predecessors had repeated, he was, it seemed, one of the most familiar of characters ever to assume the presidency. He was something akin to the old tweed jacket of American politics: comfort against the winds of the world. A known quantity. Practical. Good old George Bush.
He had been a public figure for more than two decades: congressman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, ambassador to the United Nations, envoy to the People's Republic of China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, vice president of the United States and, finally, a successful presidential candidate.
Yet, despite all the breakfasts in New Hampshire coffee shops and the quiet, earnest conversations in Iowa farmhouses, despite all the rallies and speeches and biographies, George Bush remains as unfamiliar as he is familiar. He is comforting in the ease with which he seems to undertake his awesome tasks, but disconcerting because he has left few footprints where he has been and offers a still fainter road map of where he would go.
Now, however, his footprints are growing in number. The lines on the map--"the vision thing," he calls it, are growing clearer. The Persian Gulf crisis presents a new picture: George Bush putting his foot down, unwilling to retreat an inch.
He is bitter. Frustrated. At times, angry. But more than anything else, this man, who believes in order among nations, is offended.
"I think he's genuinely offended by what happened--there's a sense of principle, his own sense of international order and his sense of morality and his sense of how things are supposed to play out in the world," says an aide who has watched him closely during the many tense days and nights since Iraq invaded Kuwait Aug. 2.
"Yes, he's interested in energy and the rest," the aide says. "But that's more cerebral. The more gut-type thing is that what these guys did was wrong--and what they're doing inside Kuwait is wrong--and it just can't stand. It's just principle. It's wrong what they've done. There's a strong sense of that."
For good or ill, that's the way it is with George Bush.
In his determination to act, to show immediate resolve, to leave no doubts in the minds of his allies or enemies, he would move swiftly. His troops--hundreds of thousands of young men and women--would be dispatched to the Saudi Arabian desert and seas of the Middle East. But what would they do there? What was their purpose? And how would he bring them home? Where would it all end? The questions began to well up. The answers would wait.
During the months leading up to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Bush's attentions were elsewhere.
In May there had been a summit with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. There was the budget--and the President's politically embarrassing decision to step away from his 1988 campaign pledge of "no new taxes." There was a NATO summit in London in early July and, just days later, an international economic summit in Houston. There were negotiations to reduce conventional weapons in Europe and to slash U.S. and Soviet arsenals of long-range nuclear weapons. And just days before the invasion, Bush was faced with the resignation of Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, and the search for his replacement.
The problems of the Middle East had always been there and always would be. The President's advisers thought Saddam Hussein was just rattling his saber and would eventually pull his troops back. Each day, more pressing matters crossed Bush's Chippendale-style walnut desk in the Oval Office.
All that changed when Saddam Hussein's army crossed into Kuwait.
It was early on the morning of Aug. 2 in the Persian Gulf, about sundown on Aug. 1 in Washington.
The President had left his office for the day. He walked along the flagstone path that borders the Rose Garden to return to the family quarters on the second and third floors of the White House. But even as he was settling in for the evening, the Situation Room--a 24 hour-a-day crisis monitoring post one floor below the Oval Office--was coming alive. Fresh and disturbing intelligence reports were coming in. They were fragmentary and unconfirmed. Gunfire had erupted on the streets of Kuwait city.
Brent Scowcroft, the President's national security adviser, hurried back to the White House from his home in suburban Bethesda, Md., about 20 minutes away. Calling from the Situation Room, he delivered to George Bush the first reports. At that point, there was still little realization that the gunfire, and even the initial troop movements across the border into Kuwait, signaled the onslaught of a juggernaut--a military machine running at full speed into the heart of the small, Persian Gulf emirate.
Instead, Bush was told that government experts still expected Iraq's military operation to be limited. He demanded more information.
What do we hear from the State Department? What does the CIA have to say? What are we hearing from the Defense Intelligence Agency? Throughout the evening, the task of those feeding information to the President was to answer each question--and verify the disturbing, and then ever-more alarming, details.
Scowcroft and the National Security Council's senior Middle East expert, Richard N. Haass, talked to Bush by telephone, feeding him new reports until about 11:30 p.m.
Shortly after 5 a.m., Scowcroft was at the President's bedroom door and presented for his signature two executive orders freezing Iraqi and Kuwaiti assets in the United States.
By 8:05 a.m., the top guns of Administration foreign policy had gathered around the polished oblong table in the Cabinet Room: the President, the vice president, the secretary of defense, the national security adviser, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, sitting in for the traveling secretary of state, the undersecretary for political affairs. The White House chief of staff, the secretary of energy and the budget director were there, too.
Reporters and camera crews, rarely notified that a National Security Council meeting has been called, were invited in this morning to help tell the nation--and Saddam Hussein--that the President of the United States was upset.
Twice Bush was asked by reporters the key question of the moment: "Do you contemplate intervention as one of your options?"
His reply, outdated almost as soon as he uttered it, came in halting tones: "We're, we're not discussing intervention. . . . I'm not contemplating such action."
Then the reporters and camera crews were ushered out of the room.
The mood grew calm, matter-of-fact. One by one, the people around the table briefed the President on the military action in the Persian Gulf, diplomatic maneuvers around the world and the overnight developments at the United Nations, where an emergency meeting of the Security Council had condemned the invasion. This was George Bush conducting business--hair neatly in place, folded handkerchief tucked correctly in the breast pocket of his olive green suit jacket, his maroon tie knotted just a fraction of an inch below the top of his collar. He spoke in an even, measured voice. The anger was still to come.
The initial concern was that the Iraqi invasion represented an attack on vital U.S. interests--Kuwait, along with Saudi Arabia just to the southwest, was a dependable supplier of petroleum to the United States, which relies on foreign sources for approximately 40% of the oil it consumes so voraciously.
Going around the table, Bush "got a report from all of us on what we were doing, and we started to talk about what to do next," one Administration official says.
"On the political side, we needed to start making contact with everyone from the Arab League, to make sure that we put together that strong, political cohesive unit that we eventually were able to pull together. Second, we knew we wanted to get full-scale economic sanctions out of the U.N., so that was our next mission up there."
But beyond that, there was a growing realization on the part of the President and his advisers that the world was facing its first major military crisis since World War II that did not immediately break down into an East-West confrontation.
Thus, even as the tensions grew, the crisis was quickly seen as presenting an opportunity to usher in a new stage of international politics. Bush decided that Secretary of State James A. Baker III, traveling in the far reaches of the Soviet Union, should issue a joint U.S.-Soviet statement condemning the invasion.
But what about the possibility of military intervention?
"The military gave a briefing on what options were available to the President, assuming a request from the Saudis," the Administration official says. Details were slim--they would come two days later at a briefing at Camp David, Md. But, the official says, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "did review . . . how quickly we could get forces there, once we made a decision on how to proceed."
And with that, the seed was planted.
"There was no doubt, almost from the start, certainly by the early morning on the second, Washington time, that we wanted to get U.S. forces out to Saudi Arabia. The only question was how many, how quickly and how would we get the invitation. I think that Bush and all of us had crossed that line very quickly, simply because there was no debate on whether it was in our vital national security interest to defend Saudi Arabia from further Iraqi aggression," the official says.
"So to say that that decision was made on Aug. 2, I think, is absolutely correct. The decision to send out six-figure troop configurations, I don't think, was probably made until the weekend. But to get something out there was accepted right from the start."
It was not the first time Bush had been a party to such a decision. He was vice president when Ronald Reagan dispatched troops to Grenada in 1983. He visited Beirut after a terrorist bomb killed 241 U.S. servicemen in a barracks there. Last December, he launched an invasion of Panama that brought about the overthrow and capture of strongman Manuel A. Noriega. And even as he was wrestling with the problems posed by the gulf crisis, he approved the use of U.S. Marines to rescue Americans trapped in the midst of a civil war in Liberia.
"George Bush," the official says, "is not someone who is hesitant to use force when necessary."
But this was different.
"You've got to realize, this is the NFL," Powell told Bush and the assembled presidential advisers at one of the earliest meetings as he presented the military options. This was the big leagues, and any misstep could bring dire consequences.
If war broke out, this would not be a limited engagement, like Panama or Grenada--operations that were costly in terms of American lives, but which did not send thousands upon thousands of U.S. troops up against an enemy's sophisticated missiles and poison gas.
"You're firing real bullets, and if anything goes wrong, it's called U.S. lives," says a former White House official.
Looking back at his own experience as a participant or observer at crisis meetings under every President since Gerald R. Ford, one Administration official said Bush "was far more active" than Ford, Jimmy Carter or Reagan.
"So many times during the course of all of this, including at that (first NSC) meeting, he would ask some of the questions and then he would say, either: 'Well, (British Prime Minister Margaret) Thatcher's got a little bit of a different view on that,' or 'We'd better touch base with (French President Francois) Mitterrand,' or, 'Perhaps if that's the problem, I should give (Saudi King) Fahd a call.' "
Bush hurried out of the National Security Council meeting that morning to keep an appointment in Aspen, Colo., where he would speak to a think-tank audience on the stunning shifts that had occurred over the past year in the East-West alignment and the opportunities they presented for future cooperation among the nations of the world. There, in a setting of rustic charm and wildflower color, he would meet with Thatcher.
What about the French? Bush asked. Would they support an allied front against Iraq, a dependable customer for French weapons?
"Don't worry about France. When it gets tough, she'll be with you," Thatcher replied.
But the most important message was this: Saddam Hussein, she said, must be stopped.
By the time he left Washington on Friday, Aug. 3, for Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland's Catoctin Mountain area about 60 miles north of Washington, Bush had met again with his National Security Council.
But by the end of that meeting, the United States' stakes, beyond its own crucial interest in Persian Gulf oil, had become clear to the President: Hussein was threatening the balance of power throughout the region, his effort to obtain nuclear weapons could pose a threat to the entire world, and his influence over world oil supplies would have global ramifications.
The President, said a foreign visitor, "was very anxious and very angry. He could not believe that Saddam Hussein really did what he had done. He was very nervous that Saudi Arabia would ask for help and he would not be able to help. But he also was sort of reassuring that if you want help, I'm going to give it, and I'm going to give it in such a massive way that it will send the right signal to Saddam."
There could be no doubt about Bush's thinking, even as the diplomatic effort quickly became one of applying economic pressure and then an international embargo on Iraq: As the President would say publicly a few days later, a line had to be drawn in the sand. That could only be done with U.S. troops.
At Camp David the next day, Bush met again with his national security team, this time joined by Secretary of State Baker, just back that morning from the Soviet Union, and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the four-star Army officer responsible for U.S. military operations in the Middle East. In Aspen Lodge, the rustic presidential conference room, Schwarzkopf and his subordinate commanders reviewed the Iraqi military threat and presented Bush with his options for countering it. Then the briefers left the room, and the senior advisers reviewed for an hour what they had just heard.
A sober mood prevailed. The array of forces was impressive: Ground troops. Air units. Carrier battle groups. Marines. The numbers were staggering: 100,000 and more. The mission, everyone agreed, was doable, but it was not going to be cheap or quick.
Now was the time for decisions. This was George Bush's job. It was for just such instances that he signed up as commander-in-chief. This was the time to run down the checklist and decide whether the mission could be accomplished; to make sure all bases had been touched; to take charge. This was the time to wade into presidential decision-making with the same energy that he devotes to his spirited golf game. But unlike his athletic endeavors, it didn't excite him. If anything, it left him drained.
As the hours and days wore on, Bush's thoughts on the crisis--on what it meant for the United States and the rest of the world--began to gel, and his mood hardened.
When the President returned to the White House from Camp David at the end of the weekend, a reporter reminded him that Jordan's King Hussein had embraced Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.
With anger in his voice, he challenged the reporter: "What's your question? I can read."
Then the President added, icily: "This will not stand. This will not stand--this aggression against Kuwait."
He would say that almost daily from then on.
It was a message he repeated in public and in private, in speeches to audiences of thousands and on the telephone to audiences of one. On this, Bush said, there will be no compromise, and Saddam Hussein must know it. Others may talk about the importance of diplomacy, and that's fine, but just tell Hussein this: Get out of Kuwait.
The crisis became a preoccupation. In meetings and conversations, the President kept probing for all the ramifications. What about the trapped Americans, he would ask his assistants? How many have gotten out? What about other foreigners held in Kuwait and Iraq?
And always, the complexities of the Middle East.
He met one day in early September with a group of government experts on Iraq and the Persian Gulf. The meeting in the Oval Office was a seminar, of sorts, on attitudes in the region. It left Bush, if possible, even more aware of the difficulty of his task.
"What a damn complicated thing," he muttered, shaking his head, as his in-house experts departed.
The good-natured banter that often opened and closed private meetings in the White House--teasing the secretary of state about a particularly bright tie, for example, or ribbing a member of the team who had taken a hit in the press--fell off.
An unnatural quiet set in.
One day he met with the mother of a GI deployed in Saudi Arabia. It moved him close to tears. Otherwise, he kept his emotions generally in check.
"I don't know quite how to explain that," says one close observer. "He is a fairly emotional guy. When you see him in private, he's teasing individuals, you know, and back-slapping. He has a very emotional exterior. But in these kinds of situations, he's very careful about his responses. Even in staff meetings and even around private gatherings of the staff, you very seldom hear him offer emotional opinions in response to public kinds of events. That's just the way he thinks it ought to be conducted.
"He knows everybody watches for those kinds of things. When the U.N. passed the resolutions, he wouldn't let out a cheer or throw his fist in the air or something like that. He would just say:
' "Well, that's good. That's good. That's what we needed.' "
With the first troops arriving in Saudi Arabia and U.N. Security Council sanctions against trade with Iraq firmly in place, Bush went on vacation.
Every year of his life, save for 1944 when World War II duty as a Navy pilot kept him in the South Pacific, Bush had spent his summer vacation at the family compound in Kennebunkport. The summer of 1990, Persian Gulf crisis or not, was to be no different.
But this time it would not be relaxing.
Each week, he returned to Washington for a day or two. And in Kennebunkport, unsettling intelligence cables arrived almost hourly, reporting military developments just moments after the action occurred--U.S. ships firing across the bow of a suspect tanker, for example, or new threats to the hostages.
There was a feeling that at any hour, the United States and Iraq could be at war. Outside, beyond the windows of the friendly, sprawling house at Walkers Point, the sun was dancing off the water. And in the President's hands was a piece of paper telling him what had happened 10 minutes before on the hostile waters of the Persian Gulf.
Visitors offered little cause for optimism.
King Hussein of Jordan, whom the President considered a friend, strode off a green and white presidential helicopter. In his exquisitely polite but formal manner, he told Bush that Jordan, sandwiched between Iraq and Israel, would have to follow a middle course between the hard edges of U.S. policy and Iraq.
A private meeting that was scheduled for 30 minutes stretched beyond an hour. There was no animosity between the President and the potentate. Nor, that day in Kennebunkport, was there any warmth. Just disappointment for the perplexed President and a lunch of cold lobster for the king.
Hussein left and Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal arrived, his gold-trimmed black robes such an oddity in preppy Kennebunkport that they could not help but signal that something was amiss in the world.
Nancy Ellis, the President's sister, watched her brother move from meetings with visiting advisers to the tennis court; from tennis court to speedboat; from boat to golf course; from golf course back to the cables coming in every hour from the gulf. The rushing about left some wondering if he wasn't just trying to drive the tensions, like demons, from his mind.
How sad, Ellis told a presidential adviser. Her brother couldn't relax at all.
But then, with the policy in place, international support lined up and the military traffic flowing unimpeded into Saudi Arabia, a calm settled over the President. His pace did not change. But his mood did.
With Scowcroft, his national security adviser, he spent hour after hour bobbing up and down in his twin V-8 cigarette boat, Fidelity, going over and over and over the details of Operation Desert Shield--and the impact it was having on the world.
As the cold, dark-green waves of the Gulf of Maine lapped at the gunwales of the boat, he conducted an exhaustive review--the pluses and minuses of every step, the options and contingencies and what-ifs.
After launching the most stunning mobilization of U.S. troops since World War II, the President had time to reflect on what he had done. It was then that he shifted from commander-in-chief to philosopher and historian, if ever-so-briefly assuming two roles not often associated with George Bush.
It came to this: We have taken big steps. We have to succeed. There is too much at stake to fail.
The days of waiting turned to weeks, then months. Summer in Kennebunkport became autumn in Washington.
Each weekday morning at 8 o'clock, Bush received an intelligence update. Fifteen minutes later, he went over the state of the world--and the minute-by-minute developments of the past day--with Scowcroft.
He sat down from time to time with his national security adviser, just the two of them, and looked at the big picture. On Oct. 17, the President canceled a trip to the second game of the World Series, passing up a chance to watch Cincinnati whip Oakland. His staff said the unresolved budget debate was keeping him in Washington. In fact, he spent little time that night on the budget. Instead, he and Scowcroft ate a quiet dinner of veal and pasta in the Bush family quarters on the second floor of the executive mansion, reviewing their game plans in what an aide called a "general philosophical discussion" about the gulf. They decided to hang in there.
Publicly, the business of the presidency continued.
Bush hit the campaign trail on behalf of Republican candidates. Aboard Air Force One, he crossed the nation: As November arrived, he became a series of freeze-frames, halted momentarily in Massachusetts and Florida, Ohio, Minnesota and Iowa, California, New Mexico and Texas--a blur of rallies and flags and yet another battle cry: Saddam Hussein was dismembering Kuwait with the same barbarism shown by Hitler in the rape of Poland at the start of World War II.
After each political rally, he returned to his Boeing 747. In quiet moments between telephone calls and meetings, he picked up an 846-page book that a long-time friend had delivered to him--Martin Gilbert's "The Second World War: A Complete History." He kept it aboard the aircraft to read between stops. Chapter One: The German Invasion of Poland.
With the congressional campaign over, he came home to the White House and yet one more crucial decision: Whether to dispatch as many as 200,000 more troops to the Persian Gulf.
Twice in those weeks Bush visited the secretive confines of the Situation Room with his senior national security advisers--Scowcroft, Scowcroft's deputy Robert M. Gates, Gen. Powell, Baker, Secretary of Defense Cheney and White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu. None of the officials even listed these meetings on his private schedule.
The initial troop deployment had been completed by mid-October. Powell and Gen. Schwarzkopf, now the senior U.S. commander in the gulf, recommended more. Bush, in principle, subscribed to Powell's military philosophy that "maximum force saves lives."
On Nov. 8 at 4:05 p.m., the President left the Oval Office and headed for the press briefing room around the corner. A mix-up over the precise moment at which the news conference would begin sent him back toward his office, when an aide realized the President was scheduled to be on the air in 15 seconds.
Unflustered, Bush reversed course and strode down a carpeted hallway to the podium precisely on schedule.
To reporters and a nationwide television audience, he declared: "I have today directed the secretary of defense to increase the size of U.S. forces committed to Desert Shield to insure that the coalition has an adequate offensive military option should that be necessary. . . ."
To his aides, Bush appeared relaxed and calm throughout the day.
But always there was the anger.
The budget debate came and went. Bills were signed. Final preparations were made for a trip to Europe and, on Thanksgiving Day, to visit the troops in Saudi Arabia.
Foreign visitors arrived for their half-hour with the President. Giulio Andreotti, prime minister of Italy and current occupant of the revolving presidency of the European Community, stopped by the Oval Office on Nov. 13. Bush told him, as he did nearly all such guests, about the horrors inflicted on the people of Kuwait by the Iraqi troops--specifically a story he had heard weeks earlier from the emir of Kuwait, Sheik Jabbar al Ahmad al Sabah, about 22 premature babies pulled from their incubators and left to die when the machines were sent to Iraq.
And there was frustration--not only with Saddam Hussein, but at home. With the Congress. With the American people. For the first time, the President's approval rating fell below 50%. The support that Congress offered before the election showed signs of fraying immediately afterward.
"If you said have you been tested by fire," Bush told TV interviewers, "I'd say it's been pretty hot out there."
As Bush and his most senior advisers tried to shore up flagging popular support for his gulf policy, they sent out multiple messages: The troops were there to protect the oil supplies--and that meant American jobs. They were there to counter a Hitler-like threat. They were there to protect the American flag flying over the beleaguered U.S. Embassy in Kuwait city.
To Hussein he was sending a message of unyielding resolve. With the American public, he was raising new fears of war. And in the White House, there was a new concern: that the confusion would weaken the new alliance of which Bush was so proud--the Arab and non-Arab states lined up against Iraq.
In the President's mind, things had not changed one bit: What Saddam Hussein had done was wrong. It was a threat to world order and stability. This aggression would not stand.
And over the weeks and months, as he thought about these things more and more--the stakes, the risks, the people and the price--the President of the United States, offended as never before, grew ever-more determined.
"His mood, when I saw him, was very calm. Didn't talk too much. Listened. I would say something, Baker, Scowcroft, everybody--he was just listening. And every now and then he would zap a question. I really found him, from Maine onward--the best way I can describe him is calm, cool about the situation," says the man who has come to know George Bush during these most trying moments.
"But every time I've seen him since Maine, those eyes are scary."
The Consequences What Next From the President Look for: A campaign to win congressional support for the deployment of troops. A higher-visibility drive to maintain popular support and to rebut increasingly negative polls. A decision on whom to heed: the small group of voices who support him totally or those who suggest more alternatives are needed in his policy-making.
Justifying the Use of Military Force
A Gallup Poll asked people in six countries whether they would support the use of force in the Persian Gulf for the following three purposes. Percentages indicate "yes."
The use of military force to free Kuwait Germany: 63% Spain: 66% France: 75% Italy: 59% Britain: 86% U.S.: 79%
The use of military force to free the hostages Germany: 70% Spain: 63% France: 82% Italy: 72% Britain: 86% U.S.: 84%
The use of military force to protect the West's oil supplies Germany: 64% Spain: 64% France: 72% Italy: 60% Britain: 78% U.S.: 71%
The poll also asked: "If military action is taken against Iraq by forces in the gulf, would you support your country taking the following course of action?"
Sending military equipment and supplies to the forces fighting Iraq Germany: 60% Spain: 41% France: 70% Italy: 43% Britain: 85% U.S.: 82%
Sending ground troops from your country's armed forces to join those already fighting against Iraq Germany: 28% Spain: 33% France: 62% Italy: 33% Britain: 77% U.S.: 71%