Bush 41 Defends Son To Arab Critics

Former US President George H. Bush speaks at the World Leadership Summit in Abu Dhabi, 21 November 2006. The day-long leadership and knowledge sharing forum brings together a diverse group of business and political leaders from various backgrounds to share their views on leadership and the Middle East. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
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Former President George H.W. Bush took on Arab critics of his son Tuesday during a testy exchange at a leadership conference in the capital of this U.S. ally.

"My son is an honest man," Mr. Bush told members of the audience which harshly criticized the current U.S. leader's foreign policy.

The oil rich Persian Gulf used to be safe territory for former President Bush, who brought Arab leaders together in a coalition that drove Saddam Hussein's troops from Kuwait in 1991.

But gratitude for the elder Bush, who served as president from 1989-93, was overshadowed at the conference by hostility toward his son, whose invasion of Iraq and support for Israel are deeply unpopular in the region.

"We do not respect your son. We do not respect what he's doing all over the world," a woman in the audience bluntly told the former president after his speech.

Mr. Bush, 82, appeared stunned as others in the audience whooped and whistled in approval.

A college student told Mr. Bush his belief that U.S. wars were aimed at opening markets for American companies and said globalization was contrived for America's benefit at the expense of the rest of the world. Mr. Bush was having none of it.

"I think that's weird and it's nuts," Mr. Bush said. "To suggest that everything we do is because we're hungry for money, I think that's crazy. I think you need to go back to school."

The hostile comments came during a question-and-answer session after the former president finished a folksy address on leadership by telling the audience how deeply hurt he feels when his presidential son is criticized.

"This son is not going to back away," Mr. Bush said, his voice quivering. "He's not going to change his view because some poll says this or some poll says that, or some heartfelt comments from the lady who feels deeply in her heart about something. You can't be president of the United States and conduct yourself if you're going to cut and run. This is going to work out in Iraq. I understand the anxiety. It's not easy."

Mr. Bush also told the audience its derisive hoots were mild compared to the reaction he got in Germany in the 1980s, after persuading the country to deploy U.S. nuclear missiles.

He told the audience — including dozens of women in black robes and head scarves — he is extremely proud of President George W. Bush and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the oldest of his five surviving children.

He said the happiest day of his life was election day in 1998, when George and Jeb were elected to the governorships of Texas and Florida.

Their elections marked the carrying into a fourth generation a tradition of political involvement that began with Samuel Prescott Bush, an Ohio businessman who became an advisor to President Herbert Hoover.

While being careful not to make any statements of opinion on issues that might affect his politician sons, George H.W. Bush was open in describing the pain he feels when his children are attacked.

"I can't begin to tell you the pride I feel in my two sons," Mr. Bush said. "When your son's under attack, it hurts. You're determined to be at his side and help him any way you possibly can."

One audience member asked the former president what advice he gives his son on Iraq.

Mr. Bush said the presence of reporters in the audience prevented him from revealing his advice. He also declined to comment on his expectations for the findings of the Iraq Study Group, an advisory commission led by Bush family friend and his former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton. The group is expected to issue its report soon.

"I have strong opinions on a lot of these things. But the reason I can't voice them is, if I did what you ask me to do — tell you what advice I give my son — that would then be flashed all over the world," he said.

"If it happened to deviate one iota, one little inch, from what the president's doing or thinks he ought to be doing, it would be terrible. It'd bring great anxiety not only to him but to his supporters," he added.

Mr. Bush said he'd spoken with Baker recently — the two are neighbors in Houston — but preferred to reminisce about old times rather than discuss what America ought to do about Iraq.

"In the early 1960s, Jim Baker and I were the men's doubles champions in tennis in the city of Houston," he said with a grin. "If I were to suggest what they ought to do, it just would not be constructive and certainly would not be helpful to the president. It would cause grief to him."

Mr. Bush said he was surprised by the audience's criticism of his son.

"He is working hard for peace. It takes a lot of guts to get up and tell a father about his son in those terms when I just told you the thing that matters in my heart is my family," he said. "How come everybody wants to come to the United States if the United States is so bad?"