A Father's Words On Going To War

Watching the latest conflict with Iraq on TV was making former president George Bush so restless last Friday that he and his old secretary of State, James Baker, played a round of golf. "41" was in telephone touch with his son as the war opened, but was, as always, circumspect about the specifics. "I talk to him a lot--and so does his mother. It's very personal," the elder Bush told NEWSWEEK's Jon Meacham in an exclusive interview. Excerpts:

MEACHAM: Do you regret that the president was unable to build the kind of international coalition you had in 1990-91?

BUSH: It's a very different problem he faces, and my coalition-building was far easier because you could see the troops from Iraq in Kuwait. Even then, though, there was a lot of opposition. I was reminded by one of my top people the other day that the French were very difficult to get onboard.

What burns me up now are these statements that are critical of the president and of Colin Powell--"failed diplomacy." The problem they face is so different and so much bigger that I think any comparison is just night and day. It seems to be au courant, if you'll excuse my knowledge of French, having studied it for 11 years, but I don't agree with it. I think when history is written people are going to find some very interesting things about the French position. And I'm annoyed at the German position. I don't talk about it publicly, but I know a lot of German people not in the coalition government with Schroder who are very, very upset about the position of their government.

What do you think is going on with France?

[Pause] They're French.

Any elaboration?

Nope. There's always been some friction. I was once talking to a group of French intellectuals, and I said, "You think we're arrogant, and we think you're French." And they looked at each other and thought maybe I'd said something very intelligent. But that may well be it. It's too bad, but life goes on, and we've got to do what we've got to do.

What do you say to critics who say the president doesn't care what the rest of the world thinks?

Don't agree with it at all. It's wrong, flat wrong. One thing about being an old guy is that things go around and come around, so I don't worry too much about these things. You'd like everybody to love you, you'd like everything to be smooth with your longtime friends and allies. But in the final analysis, you've got to do what's right, and that's why I have great respect, not just love and affection, but great respect, for the president because he can make those tough decisions, and for Colin Powell, too, I might add. I hate criticism of Colin Powell from any quarter.

Is the president taking care of something that should have been taken care of on your watch?

Of course, that's the question that irritates me the most, because the mission was not to kill Saddam Hussein; the mission wasn't to occupy Baghdad back then.

Did you think that pressure from inside would make Saddam fall in the first gulf war?

Absolutely. I thought he'd be dead, and so did every single Arab leader, every leader in the Gulf felt he'd be gone. And Mubarak felt he'd be gone, the Brits, the French, everyone. So I miscalculated there, yes, but getting rid of him still wasn't the objective.

How does it feel to be a president sending soldiers into harm's way?

It's the toughest decision by far that any president has to make. The first time I had to do it was in Panama, and literally I was physically in a vise because it just seemed so overwhelming. I went down to the hospital in San Antonio afterward and saw a soldier who had been wounded in the Panama strike, and he saluted and said, "The one thing I want to do, sir, is go back and serve my country," at which I dissolved, of course.

Do you talk to your son about how to handle the pressures of war?

No, but I talk to him all the time. Historians will be very interested in what we talk about, but they've got to wait. When you look at the burdens on the president, you start with Al Qaeda and 9-11, then you get the Taliban, then you get Iraq, then you have Korea, then you have our own economy. These are enormous burdens for a president, but I've never, ever heard him whine about "the loneliest job in the world," or how heavy the burden is.