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The Bush Decision Point

Surely a few foreign policy realists have flipped through George W. Bush’s portrait [1] of his father for hint at what a third Bush presidency would be like. It’s a move born largely of desperation: Hillary for the moment seems unstoppable, and as Glenn Greenwald  [2]and others have documented, all signs are that she would usher in a new neocon presidency, albeit under the guise of “historicfirstwoman, etc.” Rand Paul might beat her, but the odds don’t favor him having the opportunity. Pro-Hillary quotes from the likes of Max Boot and Robert Kagan speak volumes, as does Hillary’s record as secretary of state (backing the war on Libya, the elevation of Cheney aide Victoria Nuland to a critical position, violent threats against Iran, likening Vladmir Putin to “Hitler”, etc.) Those of us whose whose early public impressions of Hillary, for better and worse, were colored by images of bell-bottoms and the 1972 Democratic Convention had best get over it.

I’ve flipped through Bush 43’s new book, hopeful that his portrait of George H.W. Bush could yield a window of sorts into the current family mindset. The issue has a kind of dialectical shape. George H.W. Bush was the last Republican realist and extraordinarily successful in foreign policy; his son George W’s name is indelibly linked with Cheney, Rumsfeld, Perle, and Wolfowitz, trillions of dollars expended and thousands of lives pointlessly destroyed. Where lies Jeb on this family continuum? Might this book by his candidacy’s most prominent public supporter hold some clues?

To the critical period of 1991-1992, when President Bush went from stunningly favorable approval ratings after the Iraq war (70 percent in September 1991, six months after its end) to losing the presidency, Bush the son devotes a coy chapter with one very revealing gap. He writes that in the “early fall of 1991” he told his father that he was worried about the re-election effort. He urged a shakeup of the White House staff. He then goes on to portray the difficult political landscape Bush 41 faced that fall: resentment from the GOP base over the breaking of the “no new taxes pledge”; the economy in recession; a somewhat dysfunctional White House political operation; the “unexpected” defeat of Dick Thornburgh in Pennsylvania’s special Senate election. And then, as the election year commenced, Pat Buchanan’s primary challenge, the relative success of which encouraged Ross Perot to undertake his own independent candidacy.

Buchanan never posed an electoral threat, though it is plausible that his run prevented Bush from “consolidating the base” before the convention. Perot was another matter; he ended up taking 19 percent of the vote in November—probably 2/3 of them Republican voters. Bush the author quotes his Dad: “I think he cost me the election.”


But Bush’s account skips over one major additional controversy. In the spring of 1991, the administration got into a major conflict with Israel and its American lobby over loan guarantees and expanding West Bank settlements. Israel asked for, and fully expected, the United States to guarantee $10 billion in loans to help Israel with absorbing new immigrants from the Soviet Union. Under the right-wing Likud government of Yitzhak Shamir, Israel had commenced building West Bank settlements at breakneck speed: Shamir was a fierce partisan of “Greater Israel” and hoped, he later acknowledged, not only to claim the occupied territories for Israel but to foreclose permanently the emergence of any self-governing Palestinian entity. President Bush and his secretary of state James Baker were optimistic about an eventual final peace agreement between Israel and all Arabs, including the Palestinians, and certainly did not want the United States to be seen as subsidizing Israel’s West Bank annexation project.

In May 1991, both Bush and Baker publicly called the settlements an obstacle to peace. In response, under AIPAC’s prodding, Congress began pushing Bush to release the loan guarantees on Israel’s terms, meaning Israel could use the money to build wherever it wished. On September 6th, Bush asked Congress for a 120-day delay before considering the Israeli loan request. AIPAC pushed back, flooding Capitol Hill with lobbyists. On September 12th, Bush called a press conference and denounced both Israeli West Bank settlements and the Israel lobby. He told reporters he was “up against some powerful political forces” designed to thwart him., adding that “a thousand lobbyists” were working the Hill, while he was “one lonely guy” on the opposite side. This pushback was initially very effective: rapid polls showed a large national majority in favor of the President and against the Israeli request, and Congress agreed to a delay.

But the fact of the public pushback stirred up what would be a very effective reaction. J.J. Goldberg introduces his book Jewish Power, a down the middle portrait of the Jewish political establishment, with a chapter on the September 12th press conference and its aftermath. He depicts Jewish leaders as shocked at the President’s words. By the next evening the Presidents Conference, a umbrella body representing major Jewish organizations, had agreed upon and drafted a public reply to the president. The letter called Bush’s remarks “disturbing and subject to misinterpretation”—a euphemistic phrasing. Privately, some Jewish leaders were claiming that Bush had attacked Jews and threatened their political rights. It’s seldom clear in such cases to what degree the outrage was felt genuinely versus feigned as a political tactic; surely there was some of each. But a battle with organized Jewry was the last thing Bush wanted and the White House was alarmed by some phone line support which whiffed of anti-Semitism. Displays of contrition quickly followed. Within less than a week, Bush had written a “Dear Shoshana” note (to Shoshana Cardin, the President’s Conference Director) stating that he was “concerned that some of my comments … caused apprehension within the Jewish community” and claiming further that his references to lobbying and powerful political forces “were never meant to be pejorative in any sense.”

But the damage was done. AIPAC leader Tom Dine called September 12th a “day of infamy.” A major American Jewish Congress figure said “September 12 will go down in Jewish history as the day of the great betrayal. [Bush’s] statement was a disgusting display of, if not anti-Semitism, then something very close to it.” One activist said, “it set off a lightbulb. People everywhere began to mobilize.” The administration sought to make amends, but to no avail. Bush traveled to New York to meet with the Conference of Presidents. But he stuck to his guns on the loan guarantees.

As Goldberg notes, the important off-year election was the Pennsylvania Senate contest, where moderate Republican and close Bush ally Richard Thornburgh held a 44 point lead over Harris Wofford in mid-September. Within 10 days, money began pouring into Wofford’s inert campaign and the Democrat began to rise in the polls. In the final weeks Wofford was raising money at twice Thornburgh’s pace. After he lost by 10 points, Thornburgh told Bush he was the “canary in the coal mine.”

How much did this have to do with Bush’s defeat the next year? The president performed poorly in heavily Jewish precincts, but not enough to be decisive in any state. It would be too speculative to connect the settlement controversy to the transformation of Bush’s public image from the masterful diplomat who had put together an anti-Saddam coalition in 1991 to the out out of touch preppy of a year later. But clearly this face-off counted for something. George W. Bush may have signaled this without really acknowledging it when he states that he began to be worried about his father’s campaign in “early fall”—i.e. well before the Buchanan and Perot challenges had materialized.

And what does the father say? We know from Michael Desch, who formerly taught at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M, that Bush 41 himself blames the Israel lobby at least partially for his defeat. Desch cites [3] comments that Bush made to students when visiting the school in February 2005, when he decried the power of the Israel lobby. Thomas Friedman seems to agree: he recently alluded to the election  [4]when he said that after Bush’s defeat, Republicans vowed they would never get out-Israeled again.

And of course they have kept their word. George W. Bush made it clear, beginning with a 1998 helicopter tour around the West Bank with Ariel Sharon as his guide that he would shy from challenging Israel’s leaders. His first administration was stacked with prominent neoconservatives, with consequences lamentably familiar. One can see in Bush’s second term some indications that Bush eventually came to feel that he was too quick to jump into the neocon car: he reportedly began referring to Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer as “the bomber boys”; privately I have heard that the younger Bush asked his dad, in the summer of 2004, to explain what a neoconservative was. Dynasties are complicated, with dynamics difficult for an outsider to plumb. Where Jeb fits in, we don’t know—though his apparent readiness to jump through Sheldon Adelson’s hoops is hardly encouraging. If Bush 43 senses the answer, he doesn’t let on in this book.

The issue of this quarrel, the settlements, is now largely moot, resolved in favor of “Greater Israel.” James Baker and George H.W. Bush genuinely believed a peace agreement between Israel and the Arabs was possible, and in both Israel’s interest and America’s. With roughly six times as many settlers on the West Bank now as then, the prospect of two state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict has probably vanished forever. In the near term it is not clear how Israel will be anything but an apartheid state. A President Jeb Bush would face a different set of questions about “the special relationship”. Would he respond like his father or like his brother? From his recent book we learn mostly that George W. Bush doesn’t want to talk about the issue.

Scott McConnell is a TAC founding editor.

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "The Bush Decision Point"

#1 Comment By Clio On November 19, 2014 @ 8:36 am

The facts are stark and the lesson clear: if you want to be respected for character and probity, honored for accomplishment, and for sound reasons ranked highly by historians, then emulate Poppy.

If you want to be a failure, the dupe of special and foreign interests, forever tarred with the disgrace and dishonor of botches like Iraq (and ranked by historians as among the worst presidents), be like W.

#2 Comment By Derek Leaberry On November 19, 2014 @ 8:43 am

President Jeb will bring us war in the Middle East, probably against Iran, amnesty, more free trade agreements, an increase in federal spending above the current Obama rate, a surrender on social issues, a large tax cut for the rich, cuts in medicare, a Democratic president in 2020 with an accompanying Democratic Congress and largely Democratic drawing of the legislative lines. Jeb is the painted pig for the Democrats.

#3 Comment By Michael in NYC On November 19, 2014 @ 10:36 am

The Bush Family has long served both its Saudi masters and more recently, during the disaster of Bush II, the Zionist Lobby.

Jeb would continue to kiss the rings of both.

#4 Comment By Clint On November 19, 2014 @ 10:58 am

Real conservatives know that the vast majority of AIPAC members are Democrats.

#5 Comment By FatHappySouthernBoy On November 19, 2014 @ 11:21 am

“What’s the lesson for Jeb?”

Hopefully to stay the heck out of the White House.

#6 Comment By KXB On November 19, 2014 @ 11:55 am

I am beginning to think that the way to weaken the Israel Lobby is not through politics or campaign donations, but, oddly enough, by increasing the voice of corporate interests.

The hottest aviation market is in the Middle East. The airports in Dubai, Doha, and Istanbul are increasingly the preferred transfer point for flights from the US/Western Europe to Asia. Most of my Indian relatives used to have to connect through London or Frankfurt. Now, they prefer those 3 airports because they have better flight times, better amenities, and if they have to stay a day or more, better hotels.

This means more airplanes, more airport & hotel construction, more airlines – businesses that the U.S. still has a strong presence in. Such interests would probably have an influence on a White House (Dem or Rep) to not do so much for Israel that it puts that business at risk.

There was an example of this during Israel’s last bombardment of Gaza. Hamas’ rockets were able to reach the airport in Tel Aviv, which was enough for the U.S. to ban their airlines from flying there. Evem after the official ban was lifted, U.S. airlines were not rushing back in. In a NY Times article (noticed by Phil Weiss of Mondoweiss), Mitch McConnell was having breakfast with Delta Airlines CEO Richard Anderson. Delta had not resumed its flights to Israel – a reasonable move, IMO.

Across the cafeteria, Chuck Schumer started yelling at McConnell, “Tell him to fly to Israel!!” An American politician telling an American business men to put his multi-million aircraft at risk for the sake of making it look like all was hunky-dory.

This is just one example. But, if the market continues to grow in that region, will US business just sit by, while other nations unburdened with their own AIPAC’s move in?

#7 Comment By T. Sledge On November 19, 2014 @ 12:24 pm

Jack Kennedy met with members of the UNCF as early as 1959, and hosted their officers in the Oval Office in 1962; but George H. W. Bush was recruited by Bill Trent to be Yale’s campus coordinator for the UNCF in the 1940s when GHWB was just an undergraduate.

The UNCF of course is the United Negro College Fund. And what does that have to do with the subject of the blog?

GHWB showed principled leadership when he was just a young man.

Unfortunately, the GOP doesn’t reward principled leadership these days. It rewards bought and paid for opportunists, just as surely as does the Democratic Party.

Real leadership in the Middle East would require someone of the stature of Ike, who had the respect of allies and the majority of the American public; we need someone who, after the War in Gaza last summer, and the hacking to death of Rabbis in a synagogue yesterday (and the disgusting display of support for the murders afterward) would have the good sense to know that these two peoples are so damned determined to hate each other that they MUST be separated politically — each to their own country.

An Ike would have too much stature to be diminished by Aipac and its Amen Corner —and there is NOBODY in either the GOP or the Democratic Party who even comes close to being an Ike.

#8 Comment By Greg On November 19, 2014 @ 1:09 pm

You need look only so far as the Project for the New American Century. PNAC merely had an influence on W’s foreign policy, but Jeb was a signatory to the Statement of Principles itself.

#9 Comment By Myron Hudson On November 19, 2014 @ 2:55 pm

A couple of things…

Ross Perot was one of the USA’s biggest missed opportunities, IMO.

“Real conservatives know that the vast majority of AIPAC members are Democrats.” That may be the case, but it does not prevent them from exercising similar power over the Republicans. They are a virtual 5th column.

Agreed, we have no-one of Ike’s stature these days.

#10 Comment By Connecticut Farmer On November 19, 2014 @ 3:37 pm

Apropos of Mr. Sledge’s insert, if memory serves Ike stood up against Israel (and Britain and France as well) during the ’56 Suez Crisis. Pat Buchanan was right when he called the US Congress “Israeli occupied territory”

No indeed, there truly is nobody in either party today who measures up to Eisenhower.

#11 Comment By Scott McConnell On November 19, 2014 @ 4:33 pm

I am beginning to think that the way to weaken the Israel Lobby is not through politics or campaign donations, but, oddly enough, by increasing the voice of corporate interests.

I think there’s something to this, though the oil companies backed down in the 70’s from challenging AIPAC, which they were inclined to do. If there’s a rush of European firms to Iran, Americans won’t want to be left out.

#12 Comment By Max Skinner On November 19, 2014 @ 5:27 pm

I realize that AIPAC is seen as a great influence back in Bush the Elder’s day. However Jeb Bush and any presidential nominee will not see that type of AIPAC. Younger Jewish Americans are not supporting AIPAC to the extent that their parents and even grandparents did. There are other points of views among Jewish Americans these days. Some still agree with AIPAC; others do not. Looking at the Bush Elder and Younger administrations is instructive on the past but not predictive of the future.

#13 Comment By KXB On November 19, 2014 @ 6:43 pm

“I think there’s something to this, though the oil companies backed down in the 70′s from challenging AIPAC, which they were inclined to do. If there’s a rush of European firms to Iran, Americans won’t want to be left out.”

It’s not just European firms. Chinese firms have built infrastructure throughout sub-Saharan Africa, and are making inroads into the Middle East. Brazil’s Embraer is a player in aviation, Kenyan firms have pioneered cellphone banking for millions who were too poor to have an account. Indian telecom firms such as Reliance provide cheap international calls.

Is Gulfstream going to forgo providing private jets for the region because AIPAC wields clout on Capitol Hill? For how long could that last?

#14 Comment By Cromwell Valley On November 20, 2014 @ 9:20 am

“If there’s a rush of European firms to Iran, Americans won’t want to be left out.”

Israel won’t want to be left out either. The fat profits Israel makes on its weapons, spare parts and other contraband trade in and out of Iran under the sanctions regime will taper off, but it will demand access to Iranian trade once sanctions are lifted.

Count on it.


… one of the many reasons there are snickers from the world’s intelligence communities whenever Netanyahu whines about Iran the “existential threat”.

#15 Comment By LaurelhurstLiberal On November 20, 2014 @ 5:40 pm

Jeb has already stepped on a lot of conservative toes, he’s not going to pick a fight with some really big players.

#16 Comment By sivil On November 21, 2014 @ 9:12 am

If Jeb Bush is running for president, one motive may be to position himself to pardon his brother or to obstruct W’s prosecution.

#17 Comment By Rossbach On November 22, 2014 @ 9:07 pm

“George H.W. Bush was the last Republican realist and extraordinarily successful in foreign policy”.

Someone needs to explain to me how the permanent introduction of US military forces into the Middle East in 1991 was either realistic or an example of successful foreign policy in that region.

It almost seems as though we are to believe that the 1st Iraq War under Bush I had no relation to the 2nd Iraq War under Bush II or the 3rd Iraq War under the Obama imperium.
A little bit of imperialism is like a little bit of pregnancy.

We need leaders who can think ahead and anticipate the long-term consequences of their actions. Based on their performance to date, that would effectively exclude the entire Bush clan.

#18 Comment By David Giza On November 29, 2014 @ 4:40 pm

Bush I started the war ball rolling with Iraq I in 1991 and Bush II continued with Iraq II in 2003. Both were clueless when it came to domestic affairs. Jeb would be a disaster. He is a supporter of Common Core, open immigration and free trade agreements. I believe that he would be worse for the USA than either his father or brother.

#19 Comment By chet roman On December 4, 2014 @ 11:23 pm

“Younger Jewish Americans are not supporting AIPAC to the extent that their parents and even grandparents did.’

While I believe this is true, hwr, for the forseeable future the old rich billionaires (Mort Zukerman, Haim Saban, Sheldon Adelson, Sidney Marcus) and those in senior positions in the dozens of powerful zionist organizations will determine AIPAC policies not young Jews. The public has little influence on policies, the study by Princeton/Northwestern supports this claim.