WASHINGTON – The day after he ordered a cease-fire and brought the Persian Gulf War to a close, President George H.W. Bush ruminated about the status quo he had left behind in Iraq. “Still no feeling of euphoria,” he dictated to his diary on Feb. 28, 1991. Saddam Hussein, he recognized, remained a threat. “He’s got to go,” Bush concluded.
It took nearly 16 years, but he’s finally gone. And with Saddam’s execution in Baghdad, so is the chief nemesis of the Bush family, a man who bedeviled father-and-son presidents and in different ways dominated both of their administrations. The long, tortured arc of the Bush-Saddam relationship that shaped recent U.S. history finally came to a close with the snap of a noose.
If there is a feeling of euphoria, or satisfaction, or perhaps just relief, neither Bush is expressing it publicly this weekend. President Bush went to bed Friday night without waiting for the execution and left it to an aide to release a statement praising the Iraqi people for “bringing Saddam Hussein to justice.” His father remained silent. But Hussein’s death removed only the man. The forces unleashed by the epic struggle remain as powerful and crippling as ever for two countries.
The timing of the execution, coming as the president searches for a new strategy to turn around a war he says the United States is not winning, could serve as a reminder of its origins. Bush has frequently cited Saddam’s tyranny to justify his decision. Within days, though, the death toll of U.S. troops will pass 3,000, a grim milestone that will trigger further national introspection. The cost of overthrowing Hussein and ending his reign of terror continues to mount, and few in Washington hold out faith that will change anytime soon.
“The sacrifice has been worth it,” Bush said at a year-end news conference nine days before the execution. A few moments later, he added: “I haven’t questioned whether or not it was right to take Saddam Hussein out.” He stopped himself. “I mean, I’ve questioned it – I’ve come to the conclusion that it was the right decision.”
Bush and other architects of the war have long maintained it was nothing personal. “I personally never thought of it that way nor did I think the president sees it that way,” said Douglas Feith, the former undersecretary of defense, who was a key player in going to war. “When Saddam was talked about, he was talked about as a threat to the United States, not as a personal problem of the Bush family.”
Ron Kaufman, a White House aide to the first President Bush, said his ex-boss does not dwell on Saddam. “I’m sure like most Americans he’ll be glad the guy’s gone,” he said. “The world’ll be a better place now, a safer place. But I don’t think he’ll spend any more time thinking about it than you or I.”
Yet the history of animosity between the Bushes and Saddam is hard to ignore. The relationship actually began as one of pragmatic friendship in the 1980s, when Saddam was at war with the main U.S. enemy in the region, Iran, and George H.W. Bush was vice president in an administration that offered him help. A 1992 New Yorker article suggested that Bush, through Arab intermediaries, advised Saddam to intensify the bombing of Iran.
Saddam soon became too much to handle. “People came to understand him as someone who was much less stable and someone who could not be trusted,” said Craig Fuller, chief of staff to the elder Bush when he was vice president. Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 proved a strategic miscalculation that put him and the Bushes forever on opposite sides.
The elder Bush wrongly assumed that Iraqis would overthrow Saddam, and his decision not to march to Baghdad after freeing Kuwait would haunt him and his son. An unbowed Saddam defied the international community, and in April 1993, when Bush went to Kuwait for a hero’s welcome, a group of Iraqis crossed the border in what was called a thwarted attempt to blow him up. Bill Clinton launched 23 Tomahawk missiles against Iraqi targets in retaliation.
Among those on that trip who could have been killed were Barbara Bush and Laura Bush. George W. Bush had stayed in Texas, where he was running the Texas Rangers baseball team and preparing to run for governor. Some later questioned the seriousness of the assassination attempt or its connections to Baghdad. But the incident clearly was a searing moment for the Bush family.
By the time the younger Bush ran for president, he appeared determined not to repeat the mistake he believed his father made with Saddam. “No one envisioned him still standing,” the candidate told BBC in November 1999. “It’s time to finish the task.”
At a debate a couple weeks later, Bush was more explicit. “If I found that in any way, shape, or form that he was developing weapons of mass destruction, I’d take him out,” he said.
At Bush’s first National Security Council meeting after taking office, he seemed to some aides ready to go. “From the very beginning, there was a conviction that Saddam Saddam was a bad person and that he needed to go,” Paul O’Neill, Bush’s first treasury secretary, later told CBS News. In Ron Suskind’s book, “The Price of Loyalty,” O’Neill said Bush told aides to prepare to remove Saddam: “That was the tone of it, the president saying … ‘Go find me a way to do this.’ “
Others on the inside came to a similar conclusion. In a memo in March 2002, Peter Ricketts, a top British official, sounded skeptical of U.S. motivations: “For Iraq, ‘regime change’ does not stack up. It sounds like a grudge between Bush and Saddam.”
That impression was fueled by both father and son that fall. “I hate Saddam Saddam, and I don’t hate a lot of people,” George H.W. Bush told CNN. “I don’t hate easily, but I think he is – as I say, his word is no good, and he is a brute. He has used poison gas on his own people. So, there’s nothing redeeming about this man, and I have nothing but hatred in my heart for him.”
Six days after that aired, his son mused about Saddam at a Texas fundraiser. “There’s no doubt his hatred is mainly directed at us,” he said. “There’s no doubt he can’t stand us. After all, this is the guy that tried to kill my dad at one time.”
Bush later talked with Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., aboard Air Force One about assassinating Saddam, saying he would repeal the executive order banning assassination of foreign leaders if intelligence gave him a clear shot. “The fact that he tried to kill my father and my wife shows the nature of the man,” Bush told interviewers in March 2003. “And he not only tried to kill my father and wife, he’s killed thousands of his own citizens.” But he denied a vendetta. “Nah, no,” he said. “I’m doing my job as the president, based upon the threats that face this country.”
When Bush launched the invasion weeks later, he ordered it to start earlier than planned with a missile strike targeting Saddam. The Iraqi leader survived, but U.S. troops quickly toppled his government. Soldiers went to the Al Rashid Hotel and destroyed the mosaic of the elder Bush’s face over the slogan, “Bush is Criminal,” that Saddam had laid in the lobby entrance so every guest would step on it.
Eight months later, other soldiers found Saddam in a “spider hole.” “President Bush sends his regards,” one soldier told the disheveled Iraqi leader.
Then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld delivered the news in Washington. “Mr. President, the first reports are not always accurate,” he started cautiously.
“This sounds like it’s going to be good news,” Bush interrupted.
Rumsfeld said reports indicate “that we got Saddam Hussein.”
“Well, that is good news.”
Aides said the president made a point of not personalizing it. “I never heard him take any particular relish in Saddam’s capture or the fate that obviously awaited him,” said Matthew Scully, a former White House speechwriter who helped prepare Bush’s remarks about Saddam’s capture. “I remember vividly that the president’s reaction that day was kind of business-like. He always saw Saddam as part of the larger picture.”
Still, in his White House study, the president keeps a memento – the pistol taken from Saddam when he was captured. If there ever was a duel, it is now over.