WASHINGTON -- George Herbert Walker Bush generally keeps out of substantive policy debates, limiting public remarks to praise of and support for his son. However, it was too much for him when he read what William Kristol wrote in the Sept. 25 Washington Post. The former president, on the telephone to friends in the capital, was described as "incredulous" and "upset."
What so disturbed the elder Bush was conservative activist Kristol's assertion that Secretary of State Colin Powell, as Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman in 1991, "did his best to persuade President Bush not to wage that war against Saddam (Hussein)." A confidant told me that the 41st president says "that is totally wrong. Powell never tried to talk him out of attacking Iraq." Bush is depicted as furious with Kristol, who during the Gulf War served as Vice President Dan Quayle's chief-of-staff.
This furor over events of a decade ago goes to the heart of how the U.S. conducts today's war against terrorism. The point of Kristol's essay was that George W. Bush should shrug off Powell's advice for a limited war with a global coalition just as he claims the president's father "overrode Powell's resistance to fighting Saddam." The question of whether the U.S. should extend the search for Osama bin Laden to a broader assault on unfriendly Arab states, starting with Iraq, has become personalized around Colin Powell.
The secretary of state's detractors at the Pentagon paint him as the wrong man in the wrong job at the wrong time. They concede that he is a commanding figure who would be an asset for the Bush administration in any Cabinet post -- providing it had nothing to do with national security.
This personalization of the debate proved too much for Jack Kemp, who for a quarter of a century has been a dependable hawk in foreign policy disputes. But the 1996 Republican vice-presidential nominee could not bring himself to join 40 others, comprising a who's who of conservatives and neo-conservatives in America, in signing Kristol's open letter to the president urging a wider war policy than hunting down bin Laden.
The signatories included longtime Reaganite allies of Kemp such as Richard V. Allen, former national security adviser, and Jeane Kirkpatrick, former ambassador to the United Nations. Kemp's colleagues at the Empower America organization, William Bennett and Vin Weber, also were on board. Nevertheless, Kemp told me he perceived the letter as an attack on Powell, and he would not go that route.
Nor was Kemp ready for an anti-Arab crusade. The Kristol letter not only advocates seizing the opportunity to forcibly oust Saddam's Iraqi regime once and for all. It also issues a virtual ultimatum to Syria and Iran to cut their ties with terrorist organizations -- or risk the consequences. It concludes by linking Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to this enemies list. All of Israel's foes automatically become America's, according to the Kristol strategy.
Kemp, staunchly pro-Israel throughout his public life, is neither a friend nor an apologist for Arafat. Still, he echoed Powell's position when he told me: "We're not at war with the Arab world. We're at war with terrorism."
That is also the position of George W. Bush. Powell versus Kristol for the mind of the president would seem an unequal contest. Weekly Standard editor Kristol did not abandon Bush-bashing after supporting Sen. John McCain for the 2000 presidential nomination and could scarcely get beyond the front gates of the White House today.
According to close associates, however, the president did not share his father's rage over Kristol's Sept. 25 essay. They describe Bush as just a shade to the right of Powell and just a shade to the left of the Pentagon, still unconvinced whether Saddam Hussein was complicit in the outrage of Sept. 11.
In reality, that brings the president and his secretary of state together. Neither wants to go it alone with Israel against all of Islam to complete the unfinished business of 1991, unrelated to what happened in 2001. Personal attacks on Colin Powell are not likely to favorably influence George W. Bush.