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Friday, February 7

Bush father, son linked in history, but defined by their differences

By Chuck Raasch

WASHINGTON - In the spring of 2000, when then-candidate George W. Bush confronted questions about whether he had the mettle and knowledge to be president, his answers were telling on two fronts.

After labeling doubters as elitist insiders who could not envision that common-sense Americans would elect a plain-talking Texan, Bush very quickly referred back to his father, the 41st president.

"Listen, they called my dad a wimp - World War II hero, you know," Bush told Gannett News Service, incredulous at the memory. "I know exactly what I believe. Some ... will like it, and some of them are not (going to)."

Bush had invoked comparisons to his father even as he asserted that he was his own man.

As another war with Iraq looms likely, the comparisons between the two Bushes are ubiquitous, from their language and syntax to their willingness to project U.S. military forces into the cauldron of the Middle East. The senior Bush's presidency was heavily boosted, but not ultimately sustained, when U.S.-led forces pushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991. A potential war with Iraq could mark this Bush presidency just as deeply.

But in the end, while there are many similar traits and circumstances, the current president is most defined by how different he is from his father.

Yes, both men surrounded themselves with highly regarded advisers, including many who served in both White Houses. Colin Powell, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice are again sitting at a Bush's right hand.

But the senior Bush, who had been vice president and CIA director, prided himself on personal relationships with world leaders. George W. Bush, who couldn't name the president of Pakistan during the 2000 campaign, has had to build those relationships one by one. He is viewed among foreign leaders, especially in Europe, with far more suspicion than his father was.

Key differences

The current president went to Northeastern prep schools and to the Ivy League for college. But in style and ideology, he is more identified with the cowboy conservatism of West Texas than the establishment Republicanism of his father and late grandfather, Prescott, a senator from Connecticut.

The senior Bush never quite got comfortable with the religious right that so heavily influenced Republican politics in the 1980s. It was part of his undoing against Bill Clinton in the 1992 election. The current Bush frequently quotes Scripture and invokes prayer. He quoted the biblical prophet Isaiah in his State of the Union speech last month.

"The father had a little more old-fashioned noblesse oblige in him," said Paul Boller, a presidential historian and emeritus professor at Texas Christian University. "The son is more traditional hard right, and is also religious right."

Jon Wolfsthal, director of the nonproliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the elder Bush "was firmly grounded" in the internationalist tradition.

"He knew all the leaders personally. He had a whole career based on building international relationships," Wolfsthal said. "This Bush doesn't have that kind of experience, that kind of rapport. ... He comes from the more conservative, isolationist wing of the party."

Because of these differences, the roles of the two Bushes are fundamentally different in the buildup to war. In 1990 and 1991, the senior Bush did a lot of diplomatic work forging an international coalition, while then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell planned for war.

Now, George W. Bush prepares the United States for war while Secretary of State Powell handles the diplomacy.

Perceiving threats

Perhaps most telling is the difference between the perceived threats. The 1991 war flowed directly from nation-state politics. Saddam Hussein had conquered Kuwait, threatening Middle East peace and oil. Days after the war, the senior Bush vowed, "This will not stand."

Today, the threat has no borders; it is more vague and ominous. The current Bush asserts that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States changed everything and argues for a pre-emptive doctrine that confronts problems before they hit U.S. soil.

Some have warned that this will take the United States on a dangerously provocative path. Others say Bush has no choice but to protect the homeland.

"Before 9-11, we all thought - even the smart guys in the press - about countries: You do this, we do that," said Ron Kaufman, a political adviser to the first President Bush who still remains active in Republican politics. "That was a lot easier than today."

But the 9-11 attacks, Kaufman said, "came from a nebulous enemy, if you will. So that has changed the stakes, makes it harder for people to understand. Part of what this is about now is not about Iraq attacking a neighbor, but Iraq being a source of weapons of mass destruction that end up in the subway during the (2004 political) convention in New York, or in Boston."

A new tape released this week purported to be of al-Qaida terrorist Osama bin Laden exhorted Muslims in Iraq to "fight for the sake of God, not for national regimes." The tape illustrates the point that peril confronting the Bush administration does not confine itself to borders.

Still, Kaufman sometimes has a strong sense of deja vu.

"A lot of players are obviously the same, wearing different hats and sitting in different seats," he said. "There is this same sense of a kind of quiet confidence, that they understand the problem, that they have come to grips with it, they know what they have to do. They have no illusions about the problem."

He also said that in the lead-up to the 1991 war, as now, "you had a skeptical public ... a skeptical Congress, a skeptical press corps."