President’s Critical Choices in Foreign Policy Have the Imprint of Some Fatherly Advice
President Bush spent a good part of the weekend relaxing at his family’s ocean-side summer home, working on a speech about Iraq and--if history is any guide--discussing foreign policy with one of his most important but least visible advisors: his father.
For although the White House refuses to confirm it, friends and associates of both men say former President Bush frequently has weighed in with his son on international issues. In early 2001, the elder Bush counseled his son to ease his initial hard line toward North Korea; the younger Bush took his advice. Later that year, the elder Bush assured the ruler of Saudi Arabia that the president would take a more active role in Arab-Israeli peacemaking; the younger Bush soon did.
And this summer, the elder Bush played an important but unseen role in his son’s decision to seek the approval of the U.N. Security Council before taking any military action against Iraq, according to an associate of the former president.
Before the president’s stay with his parents in Kennebunkport in early August, he appeared headed toward a confrontation with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein without a serious attempt to send U.N. arms inspectors back to Baghdad. Hard-liners in the administration, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, argued that another round of inspections merely would give Hussein more time to build weapons of mass destruction.
But after four days at Walker’s Point, his family’s imposing home atop a rocky bluff, the president told aides he had decided to go to the U.N. first. “The change in the president’s attitude took place not as a result of the debate [that Republicans waged in public that month], but after he spent time in Kennebunkport,” the Bush associate said. “There were conversations and very in-depth conversations.... It was interaction between the president and his father” that changed the policy.
White House officials refused to comment concerning that account. So did spokesmen for the former president, who has worked hard to remain invisible in the workings of the current administration.
But the two George Bushes did spend considerable time together during the August vacation--on the golf course, aboard the elder Bush’s 31-foot speedboat Fidelity II and around the dinner table. In the weeks after those Kennebunkport activities, three former aides to the elder Bush opened up a barrage of public comment supporting a slower, more diplomatic course on Iraq--instead of the quick march toward war that Cheney seemed to favor.
Former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft and former Secretaries of State James A. Baker III and Lawrence S. Eagleburger all urged the president to win the support of traditional U.S. allies before plunging ahead. Scowcroft and Eagleburger said the elder Bush did not ask them to make their statements, and said they did not know that the president apparently had decided to follow much of their advice already. Baker refused to comment.
But the three former aides’ statements had the effect of bolstering the president’s decision at a time when Cheney and other hard-line conservatives were warning him that the U.N. was a trap. “The president’s instincts are fine ... but the most important person in this [debate] is Cheney. He keeps digging at this wound,” Eagleburger told reporters last week. He said he did not know what advice the former president had given his son.
Other officials and former officials have said that the Bushes speak frequently, and that the president has his father’s telephone number on a speed dial button on the Oval Office phone. “Forty-three feels comfortable calling him, and he feels comfortable calling 43,” said a former aide to the elder Bush, using the family’s shorthand for the current president.
He said the 41st president often calls the 43rd “right after he’s spoken to a world leader” to offer a report. In recent months, the former president has met with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and King Mohammed VI of Morocco, the former aide said.
Other former presidents also have reported to the White House concerning their meetings with foreign leaders, he noted. Much of this has nothing to do with the younger Bush; it has to do with the nature of the job. “But [the elder] Bush is in a different position. He’s a foreign policy wonk. His role is heightened because his son is the president. He wants to make sure that whatever he does does not interfere with what 43 is doing,” the former aide said. “He wants the administration to know what he’s doing.”
The relationship between the Presidents Bush, according to associates of both men, is a mixture of love, pride, fierce loyalty, deep-seated political allegiance--and an occasional flash of friendly rivalry.
“There is that factor in their relationship. It’s not an easy one,” a former aide to the elder Bush said. “They have their competitive ways as well as their pride in each other.” The elder Bush has gone out of his way to avoid being seen as meddling ever since the 2000 New Hampshire primary campaign, when he stepped in to defend “this boy"-- a paternal phrase that backfired.
A photograph of the two men that speaks volumes about their relationship hangs on a wall in the White House’s West Wing. Taken several hours after George W. Bush’s inauguration in 2001, it shows the new president seated at his still-empty desk in a bare Oval Office, while his grinning father stands nearby, unable to conceal his pleasure at seeing his son in his old seat.
But differences between the two Bushes have surfaced repeatedly concerning issues of foreign policy. The older Bush--who served as an ambassador and as director of the Central Intelligence Agency before he became president--carefully cultivated traditional diplomatic relationships when he was in the White House. The younger Bush, a former Texas governor who spent little time on foreign policy until he ran for president in 2000, often has said he is impatient with traditional forms of diplomatic “nuance.” Friends and allies of the elder Bush were infuriated this summer when members of the current administration--even, at one point, the president himself--appeared to criticize the former president’s decision in 1991 to call a cease-fire in the Persian Gulf War without overthrowing Hussein.
“The implication seems to be that our decision in ’91 [to stop short of Baghdad] was some kind of oversight,” complained a former aide to the former president. “It wasn’t. It was carefully thought out at the time. There were good reasons for it.” The elder Bush remained silent concerning the issue, but former aides noted that he staunchly defended his decision in the years before his son was in the White House.
In at least two earlier cases, the elder Bush quietly nudged his son’s policies in a more moderate diplomatic direction. In spring 2001, the former president sent a note to his son’s national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, and to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, forwarding a proposal that the new administration support South Korea’s attempts to negotiate with the mercurial Communist regime of North Korea.
At the time, the administration was in the middle of a review of its policy toward the two Koreas. In one of his first forays into foreign policy, the new president abruptly had ruled out resuming talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, creating a major embarrassment for Powell, who had said the talks would resume. When the policy review was completed in June, it recommended that the talks resume--a complete reversal of the earlier policy.
Later in 2001, the former president telephoned the ruler of Saudi Arabia to assure him that his son valued the U.S.-Saudi relationship and would urge Israel to exercise restraint in its dealings with the Palestinians. At the time, U.S.-Saudi relations appeared to have tumbled into a crisis because Abdullah had concluded that the new president was insensitive to Arab concerns. After Arab officials disclosed the telephone call, the White House acknowledged that it had occurred.
Before the elder Bush’s call, Abdullah bluntly had refused an invitation to visit the White House--a deliberate snub of the new president. After the call, he agreed to reconsider, and in April he visited the younger Bush at the president’s ranch near Crawford, Texas.
Efron reported from Washington and Gerstenzang from Kennebunkport. Times staff writers Edwin Chen and Doyle McManus contributed to this report.