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President's Critical Choices in Foreign Policy Have the Imprint of Some Fatherly Advice

October 07, 2002|JAMES GERSTENZANG and SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — 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.

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