Former president George H.W. Bush appears to have used a recent speech to send a subtle message to his son about the importance of maintaining multilateral relationships at a time when the United States looks more and more as if it is preparing to go to war in Iraq over the objections of most of its important traditional allies except Britain.
In a rare public speech at Tufts University on Feb. 26, the older Bush said, "We have differences with European countries, and they've got differences with us." But, he emphasized, looking back on his time in the White House, "I worked on those relationships, and I feel confident when all this calms down, when Iraq lives within the international law, you will see the United States back together as allies and friends with both Germany and France."
He said there was a lesson to be learned from how he dealt with the late King Hussein of Jordan, who was one of three leaders who stuck by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during his invasion of Kuwait.
In 1991, the senior Bush was angered by King Hussein's condemnation of U.S. military threats and the buildup against Saddam Hussein. He criticized the Jordanian leader publicly and froze $41 million of U.S. aid to Jordan. But, behind the scenes, the word was passed to Amman that the then-president understood the domestic pressures the king was facing.
"The minute the war ended -- and this is what I'm hopeful about in the future -- I was determined, and I think King Hussein was determined, that we would get the relationship between Jordan and the United States back on track," the elder Bush said last month. He credited Hussein, who "went more than his fair share of the way, and we did get it back on track."
Looking back, he said, "I think there's a message in that for those who today say, 'How can we ever put things together? How can we ever get talking when you have such acrimony and such bad feeling?' " The answer, he said, is: "You've got to reach out to the other person. You've got to convince them that long-term friendship should trump short-term adversity."
The former president also acknowledged that the situation he faced in drawing major allies together in a United Nations coalition against Saddam Hussein, who in 1990 had invaded and occupied Kuwait, was much easier. "Today," he said, "it's less clear." The objective is to disarm Saddam Hussein at a time when "the question is: How much does he have in the way of weapons of mass destruction?" The answer "could be debated," he said, and so the objective for the United Nations is "a little fuzzier today."
In the face of President Bush's apparent belief that the road to peace in the Middle East runs through Baghdad, the senior Bush also drew a historic lesson from the Gulf War. From the Madrid conference of 1991 to the historic handshake between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to the ambitious Oslo accords, he said, nothing would have happened without international unity.
"The Madrid conference would never have happened if the international coalition that fought together in Desert Storm had exceeded the U.N. mandate and gone on its own . . . into Baghdad after Saddam and his forces had surrendered and agreed to disarm," Bush said. "The coalition would have instantly shattered, and the political capital that we had gained as a result of our principled restraint to jump-start the peace process would have been lost."
Since the former president's speech, his son has held two news conferences, and both imply that his father's message got through -- at least to a degree. On March 3, speaking to a group of local reporters, he was asked about relations with countries that disagreed with him on Iraq. He said he would be "disappointed" to lose support from Mexico, a U.N. Security Council member. But he added, "I don't expect for there to be significant retribution from the government" if that happens.
As for the French, he said that "there is a backlash" in the United States, but that "relations with France are going to be very important in the future, just like the relations with Germany," language very similar to his father's.
In his televised news conference Thursday night, Bush mentioned disagreements with France and Germany over how best to handle Saddam Hussein. But he added, in another reflection of his father's words a week earlier, "Having said that, they're still our friends, and we will deal with them as friends. We've got a lot of common interests. Our transatlantic relationships are very important."