November 30, 2018

President George H.W. Bush (1924-2018) - my one interaction

The author at an air base in Kuwait - 1991

I was saddened to hear of the passing of President George H.W. Bush tonight. I have always regarded him as a key leader in a time of questionable leadership from both parties in Washington. His conduct of the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991 was one of the better chapters of post-World War II American history. A clear mission, a well-resourced military to execute it, and the confidence in his generals to get the job done. I was proud to be a part of it.

I only met President Bush one time. In the fall of 1990, he requested from U.S. Central Command's General Norman Schwarzkopf a briefing on a plan to liberate Kuwait. Prior to this, the mission of the American force deployed to the Persian Gulf was the defense of key ally Saudi Arabia. Now the goal posts had been shifted to eject Iraqi forces from what they regarded as part of Iraq.

I was part of the briefing team sent to Washington to brief the senior military leaders on the plan. As we prepared to leave Riyadh for Washington, General Schwarzkopf admonished the four team members that we were going to Washington to present his proposal and his analysis, and that none of us were to offer our own opinions. Actually, his tone was a bit more strident, but I will just let it go at that.

This is an except from Chapter 5 of my book, Ally to Adversary-An Eyewitness Account of Iraq's Fall from Grace (Naval Institute Press, 1991). You can pick up a used copy on Amazon for $2.00.

5. Washington

We waited in the briefing room while Secretary of State James Baker, National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, his deputy Bob Gates, White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, and Vice President Dan Quayle gathered and traded good-natured jibes.

After a few minutes, President Bush strode in purposely and asked Cheney, “What have you got for me?”

Cheney explained that General Powell had brought a briefing team from CENTCOM headquarters in Riyadh representing General Schwarzkopf. Bush nodded at Powell and walked over to the team standing in the rear of the crowded room.

Powell introduced us to the president and told him that I would begin the briefing with the intelligence picture. My portion of the briefing was to set the stage for the presentation of the air campaign and ground-battle plans. It was the least controversial presentation and thus should draw the fewest questions.

Easy, I thought. After all, I had successfully briefed a much tougher audience in the tank the day before—the country’s five senior general officers (including the chief of my parent service) made for a much more nerve-wracking experience.

No sooner had I started than an aide came in and whispered something to the president, after which he excused himself for a few minutes. When he returned, he appeared to be a bit distracted and apologized, explaining that he had been on the telephone to French president Mitterand.

As he turned his attention back to the briefing, I described in detail the construction of the Iraqi defensive lines. When I moved on to the next topic, which was Iraqi command and control of forces in the region, Bush stopped me and asked me to repeat the description of the Iraqi defenses.

In the ensuing questions and answers with the president (his questions, my answers), I mentioned that I had been in Iraqi trenches and defensive positions around al-Basrah during the Iran-Iraq War.

Bush looked inquiringly at Cheney and Powell. Cheney shook his head as if to say, “Don’t pursue this, Mr. President.” It appeared that the military cooperation with Iraq that had seemed such a good idea in 1987 and 1988 might come back to haunt us politically.

At the completion of my portion of the briefing, I asked the president if there were any additional questions. He asked about morale of the Iraqi troops in Kuwait. I said that all our indications were that morale was low, but this was based on interrogations of the very few deserters available at that time.

He asked if, based on my experience with the Iraqis, it was my opinion that they would fight. Remembering the admonishment from General Schwarzkopf about voicing personal opinions, and the fact that our plans were based on the CENTCOM assumption that the Iraqis would fight if attacked, I hesitated.

General Powell, aware of Schwarzkopf’s proscription on giving our personal opinions, sensed my predicament. In a gesture that I will always appreciate, Powell leaned forward into my line of sight and nodded.

I told the president that based on what I had seen in the defense of Al-Basrah in 1987, the Iraqis would probably not fight hard to defend Kuwait from a coalition attack. However, once we had pressed the attack into Iraq, we should plan for stiff resistance, especially if we approached the major population center of Al-Basrah.

President Bush nodded and thanked me, and I sat down.


It was a pretty heady moment for an Air Force major. The President was gracious and appeared to actually listen to what I had to say.

I will always remember him fondly.