ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Former President George H.W. Bush took on Arab critics of his son Tuesday during a testy exchange at a leadership conference in the capital of this U.S. ally.
"My son is an honest man," Bush told members of the audience harshly criticized the current U.S. leader's foreign policy.
The oil-rich Persian Gulf used to be safe territory for former President Bush, who brought Arab leaders together in a coalition that drove Saddam Hussein's troops from Kuwait in 1991. But gratitude for the elder Bush, who served as president from 1989-93, was overshadowed at the conference by hostility toward his son, whose invasion of Iraq and support for Israel are deeply unpopular in the region.
"We do not respect your son. We do not respect what he's doing all over the world," a woman in the audience bluntly told Bush after his speech.
Bush, 82, appeared stunned as others in the audience whooped and whistled in approval.
A college student told Bush his belief that U.S. wars were aimed at opening markets for American companies and said globalization was contrived for America's benefit at the expense of the rest of the world. Bush was having none of it.
"I think that's weird and it's nuts," Bush said. "To suggest that everything we do is because we're hungry for money, I think that's crazy. I think you need to go back to school."
The hostile comments came during a quesion-and-answer session after Bush finished a folksy address on leadership by telling the audience how deeply hurt he feels when his presidential son is criticized.
"This son is not going to back away," Bush said, his voice quivering. "He's not going to change his view because some poll says this or some poll says that, or some heartfelt comments from the lady who feels deeply in her heart about something. You can't be president of the United States and conduct yourself if you're going to cut and run. This is going to work out in Iraq. I understand the anxiety. It's not easy."
Bush also told the audience its derisive hoots were mild compared to the reaction he got in Germany in the 1980s, after persuading the country to deploy U.S. nuclear missiles.
He told the audience — including dozens of women in black robes and head scarves — he was extremely proud of his sons, President George W. Bush and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
He said the happiest day of his life was election day in 1998 when George and Jeb were elected to the governorships of Texas and Florida, but he also described the pain he feels when his sons are attacked.
"I can't begin to tell you the pride I feel in my two sons," Bush said. "When your son's under attack, it hurts. You're determined to be at his side and help him any way you possibly can."
One audience member asked the former president what advice he gives his son on Iraq.
Bush said the presence of reporters in the audience prevented him from revealing his advice. He also declined to comment on his expectations for the findings of the Iraq Study Group, an advisory commission led by Bush family friend and his former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton. The group is expected to issue its report soon.
"I have strong opinions on a lot of these things. But the reason I can't voice them is, if I did what you ask me to do — tell you what advice I give my son — that would then be flashed all over the world," Bush said.
"If it happened to deviate one iota, one little inch, from what the president's doing or thinks he ought to be doing, it would be terrible. It'd bring great anxiety not only to him but to his supporters," he added.
Bush said he'd spoken with Baker recently — the two are neighbors in Houston — but preferred to reminisce about old times than discuss what America ought to do in Iraq.
"In the early 1960s, Jim Baker and I were the men's doubles champions in tennis in the city of Houston," Bush said with a grin. "If I were to suggest what they ought to do, it just would not be constructive and certainly would not be helpful to the president. It would cause grief to him."
Bush said he was surprised by the audience's criticism of his son.
"He is working hard for peace. It takes a lot of guts to get up and tell a father about his son in those terms when I just told you the thing that matters in my heart is my family," he said. "How come everybody wants to come to the United States if the United States is so bad?"