The Hidden Hard-line Side of George H.W. Bush

tags: George H W Bush

Jon Meacham is an executive editor at Random House and the author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House and, most recently, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush.

In late 1990, after the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution in November giving a hard deadline for Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait by mid-January, President George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, mulled over different last-minute diplomatic possibilities. It had been four months since Iraqi tanks had rolled into its resource-rich neighbor, angling to seize control of oil facilities after a series of disputes over drilling and price changes. One of the possibilities Baker and Bush considered was a face-to-face session between Bush and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The argument, as Bush put it, was that “we need to have, for domestic consumption in the United States, a high level meeting where Saddam Hussein is told exactly how strongly we feel about this.” The president needed to appeal to the American public as his administration teetered on the edge of an offensive that would become the Gulf War.

Around Christmas that year, Bush became deeply disturbed by an Amnesty International report on the brutalities of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. He cited it frequently, offering it as evidence in support of his moral case for war. The Right Reverend Edmond Browning, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, called at the White House to urge peace. An unusually passionate president handed Browning a copy of the Amnesty International report, then peppered the bishop with questions. In light of such systemic terror, “Now what do we do about peace?” Bush asked. “How do we handle it when these people are being raped?” His growing determination led him to one of his rare open avowals of the price he was willing to pay to remove Saddam from Kuwait. “If I don’t get the votes” in Congress for war, Bush remarked to then-Deputy National Security Adviser Robert Gates one day in the Oval Office, “I’m going to do it anyway. And if I get impeached, so be it.”

It’s conventional wisdom today that George W. Bush shoved aside doubt and debate in pursuit of war with Iraq in 2002 and 2003. In a commonly accepted narrative, observers have long held that George H.W. Bush would have been more measured, less driven by gut and gut alone.

But, after working through the first of Bush’s tapes and diaries from the time period for my book, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, it’s become clear to me that George H.W. Bush was emotionally and morally attached to the idea of the Gulf War in the way that his son was to be about Iraq a decade later—even to the point of risking impeachment absent the approval of Congress. 

To a degree he kept hidden from many of his closest advisers, before whom he largely maintained a mask of command, Bush 41, in private, fretted that Congress might impeach him a) if he launched full-scale military operations in the absence of congressional approval and b) if the ensuing war went badly. Bush alluded to this possibility in his presidential diary on five occasions, ranging from Wednesday, December 12, 1990, to Sunday, January 13, 1991. But even given this threat, he was confident of the rightness of his course. ...

Read entire article at Politico

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