George H. W. Bush liked war, snubbed law
Following his role in Reagan’s
Iran-Contra scheme and other shady acts,
the one-term president set off two lawless wars, neither ‘kind
A WALL history & commentary
“The Congress shall have power … To declare war….” (The
Constitution, Article I, Section 8.)<22pt/>
“He [the President] … shall take care that the laws be faithfully
executed.” (The Constitution, Article II, Section 3.)
featured unstinting praise of the 41st U.S. president when
George Herbert Walker Bush departed at age 94 on November 30 at
his home in Houston. Five days later, when his memorial service
took place in Washington, DC, U.S. offices closed for a
“national day of mourning;” and for 30 days, official flags flew
George Bush Sr.
occupied the White House from 1989 to 1993, after serving as a
U.S. representative, U.N. ambassador, CIA director, and
Few individuals are
all good or all bad. The credit side of the Bush ledger could
include successful arms negotiations with two Russian leaders,
work on environmental measures, and approval of legislation
affecting civil rights (though rights legislation earlier drew
his opposition). He took pride in his support for disabled
persons and was concerned about education. Maybe add his
words, “I want a kinder, gentler nation” (perhaps drowned
out by his meaner, rougher actions).
The debit side takes
in his pro-Vietnam War stand in Congress and his 1988
presidential election campaign against Michael Dukakis,
notably the infamous Willie Horton ads and the empty vow,
“Read my lips: No new taxes!” It might also include his messy
performance at dinner with the Japanese prime minister. But those are
mere bagatelles compared with the actions described below.
Onto the list goes
his active support for Central American groups that Ronald
Reagan called “freedom fighters” but opponents considered
terrorists or murder squads. Then too, in attacking Panama in
December 1989, he violated both the Constitution’s war-powers
clause and treaties prohibiting aggression and foreign
intervention. (It’s no excuse that all presidents since
Truman—possibly excepting Carter—have done likewise.) The
Constitution, Article VI, considers U.S. treaties to be
August, without any enabling law, treaty, or agreement, Bush
sent 200,000 troops to “defend Saudi Arabia” after Saddam
Hussein’s takeover of Kuwait. A lawsuit by 54 congressmen
charged that the president was hellbent for an illegal war
with Iraq. The suit and widespread unease in Congress about
his bypassing of the legislative branch prompted him to throw
the war question into the hands of Congress, where it belonged
under the Constitution.
protested Iraq’s aggression—he called the Iraqi dictator,
Saddam Hussein, “Hitler revisited”—oblivious to his own
aggression, in Panama, not eight months earlier.
approving the Persian Gulf War, Congress came closer to
exercising its authority to declare war than on any other
occasion since World War II. However, Bush et al. pressured
Congress to vote aye and fed it deceitful, anti-Iraq
propaganda. Moreover the massing in Saudi Arabia of
battle-ready troops plus materiel (a doubling to 400,000
troops was announced right after election day) presented
almost a fait accompli. There was to be limited use of
force to expel Iraq from Kuwait. But like all modern wars, it
produced atrocities and punished innocents.
in Iran-Contra scandal
under President Ronald Reagan during the Iran-Contra scandal,
Bush attended most key briefings and meetings on Nicaragua
that Reagan did, and must have known much of what Reagan knew.
So says a 2011 report, “Iran-Contra at 25,” from
the National Security Archive of George Washington University.
Its source, obtained in a Freedom of Information request, was
the 1991 “Memoranda on Criminal Liability of Former President
Reagan and of President Bush” by the office of Lawrence Walsh,
independent counsel who investigated the scandal from 1987 to
administration had secretly and illegally sold arms to Iran to
finance the illegal support of the Contras, CIA-trained groups
seeking to overthrow the leftist, Sandinista government
of Nicaragua. The U.S. actions violated several statutes
specifically banning Contra aid, limiting arms exports to
defensive uses, requiring congressional approval, and so on.
vice-president, Bush presided over the Special Situation
Group, a high-level crisis-management committee, which in 1983
recommended specific covert operations in Nicaragua, including
the mining of harbors and rivers. That year, as Bush presided,
it also proposed an invasion of Grenada, Caribbean
island nation with a population then a 2000th that of the U.S.
Days later, without the OK of Congress, Reagan signed a paper
approving the invasion.
attended at least a dozen meetings at which illegal aid to the
Contras was discussed between 1984 and 1986.
At a secret meeting
of the National Security Planning Group, Bush and others
discussed ways to maintain the Contras’ war despite increasing
congressional opposition. They talked of asking third
countries to fund and sustain the effort. Secretary of State
George P. Shultz warned it would be an impeachable offense.
Bush countered, “How
can anyone object to the U.S. encouraging third parties to
provide help to the anti-Sandinistas? … If the United States
were to promise to give these third parties something in
return … some people could interpret this as some kind of
exchange.” Yet Bush later arranged a quid pro quo deal with
two Honduran presidents to allow the Contras to use Honduras
as a base of operations against the Nicaraguan government. He
also met with a high Israeli official to get help in selling
arms to Iran.
The sale was meant
to serve another purpose aside from finance: getting Iran’s
help in securing the release of seven U.S. hostages being held
in Lebanon. A 1986 entry in Bush’s diary said, about
trading arms for hostages, “I’m one of the few people that
know fully the details….” The existence of the diary
came to light in 1992. The independent counsel’s office
considered bringing charges against Bush for withholding the
Neither Reagan nor
Bush was prosecuted for Iran-Contra. Eleven Reagan officials
were convicted in the scandal. But when Bush became president,
he pardoned all eleven.
President Bush to send “humanitarian” aid to the Contras,
rebels who displayed no humanitarian impulses when, critics
charged, they shot, tortured, and mutilated civilians and
burned homes, hospitals, and schools.
the invasion of Panama?
On Dec. 20, 1989,
while western nations prepared to observe a holiday associated
with peace and good will, Bush launched a little war on a
nation with one-hundredth the U.S. population—apparently
practicing for the big one to come thirteen months later.
A cold war with
Panama had raged for a couple of years. The U.S. condemned
General Manuel Noriega’s illicit rule. Panama protested
alleged violations of the 1977 canal treaty. The U.S. imposed
economic sanctions, increased its strength at Panama bases,
and conducted military exercises there. Noriega bolstered
Panama’s defenses, vowed to stay in charge, nullified a
presidential election, and thwarted a coup attempt. In a
resolution December 15, the National Assembly declared
“a state of war” from U.S. “aggression against the people of
Panama,” appointing Noriega “chief of government” to deal with
sentiment boiled over. When a U.S. Marine was fatally shot and
a U.S. Navy officer beaten, Bush attacked.
He never consulted
with Congress, much less let it exercise its constitutional
prerogative to decide whether to wage war. In an address, he
said he had contacted congressional leaders and “informed
them” of his decision. He gave these purposes: to restore
democracy, save American lives, protect the Panama Canal, and
prosecute Noriega in the U.S. for drug trafficking. None
justified an invasion under international law. Anyway, were they
Bush’s real motivations? No one knows for sure. Two
contemporary New York Times stories and a later online
Newsweek piece suggest personal motives:
White House advisers
told Maureen Dowd that Bush had felt Noriega “was thumbing his
nose at him” while press and Congress unfairly depicted him
and team as lethargic and indecisive. The huge military action
was based largely on Bush’s “visceral feelings about the
Panamanian leader and a conviction that diplomatic means had
The late R. W. Apple
Jr., Times chief Washington correspondent, called
shedding blood an initiation rite for modern presidents,
to display power. Bush’s action had particular significance,
Apple wrote, because as recently as a month back, Bush was
widely criticized for supposed timidity. In Panama, he
possessed “very few alternatives,” because “other methods had
all failed to remove or isolate General Noriega.” Dowd and
Apple did not question Bush’s supposed right to change a
Peter Eisner, then Newsweek
Latin-America correspondent, wrote of Noriega, upon his death, that
he had earned the trust of the CIA and Bush, its director,
1976-77. On the CIA payroll while Panama’s leader, Noriega
helped the U.S., e.g. avert war with Cuba by acting as a
go-between with Fidel Castro. Noriega’s U.S. ties ended when
he would not aid the Reagan-Bush fight against leftists in El
Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, Eisner wrote. Failure to
control Noriega sank Bush’s approval ratings and “made him
look weak….” William Loeb, New Hampshire Union Leader
publisher, called Bush “an incompetent wimp.” The word “wimp”
was getting more popular when Bush attacked.
U.S. civilian and
military officials saw “no justification for the invasion.” A
top Drug Enforcement Administration official told Eisner
“Noriega had helped prosecute the drug war and safeguard the
lives of U.S. officials.” Before the invasion, an ex-CIA
station chief in Panama said he could probably convince
Noriega to give up power but was not allowed to try. As for
the U.S. drug trafficking trial, Eisner doubted Noriega’s
guilt. Prosecution witnesses were 26 convicted drug
traffickers, offered soft plea bargains.
Later a Guardian
article presented a different slant on Noriega, “the man who knew too much.” Simon
Tisdall said the military action and the show trial that
followed in Miami both aimed at silencing Noriega to conceal
“nefarious U.S. behavior in Central America.” Bush was into
“often illegal covert intervention in the civil wars in El
Salvador and Nicaragua…. Noriega acted as an intermediary with
the U.S.-backed contra rebels … and with the Salvadorian
government and rebels.” So his detailed knowledge of CIA
operations in the region was “highly compromising,” and he had
got out of control.
‘democracy’ at gunpoint
largely acclaimed the successful military action against the
“brutal, drug-dealing bully” (Ted Koppel, ABC) “at the top of
the world’s drug thieves and scums” (Dan Rather, CBS).
ABC reporters said they were cheered while riding in a
military convoy. A CBS poll of Panamanians found four-fifths
saying sí to the attack on their homeland. An NBC
correspondent called OAS diplomats who condemned the invasion
a “lynch mob.”
But New York’s Newsday
told of residents cursing under their breaths, afraid to speak
out, as U.S. soldiers searched a home. A few press
reporters contacted hospitals, ambulance services, funeral
homes, and human rights groups to tell of thousands of
casualties and a legion of homeless people. The New York
Times pictured a morgue filled with bodies of civilians
killed in the attack. The Miami Herald reported
anguish over hundreds of dead civilians buried in a mass
grave: “Neighbors saw six U.S. truckloads bringing dozens of
bodies,” and a mother cried, “Damn the Americans,” as her
soldier son was buried. Some alleged that invaders targeted
civilians and torched buildings.
died; 324 were wounded.
A CBS correspondent
pronounced the invasion legal, “according to all the experts I
talked to.” But whom did she talk to? Surely no one in the
Organization of American States. Two excerpts from its charter
“No State or group
of States has the right to intervene directly or indirectly,
for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs
of any other State [Article 19]….
“The territory of a
State is inviolable; it may not be the object, even
temporarily, of military occupation or of other measures of
force taken by another State, directly or indirectly, on any
grounds whatever [Article 21].”
The U.S. was a party
to the OAS Charter (since 1948); to the United Nations Charter
(1945) and the Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact (1928), both
prohibiting aggressive war; and to The Hague Convention on War
on Land, banning bombardment of undefended communities or
in two weeks. He served 17 years in prison in the U.S., then
was imprisoned in France and finally in Panama, where he died
at 83 in May 2017 following brain surgery.
Cause, euphemism for the aggression, ended on January 31,
1990, after “neutralizing” (destroying) the Panama Defense
Forces. By that operation, said Secretary of State James
Baker, “the United States had demonstrated that it would stand
up for democracy.”
War I: limited slaughter
Reagan et al. helped
Iraq when it attacked Iran. But when Iraq took over Kuwait and
its oil fields in August 1990, the U.S. under Bush got the
United Nations to condemn Iraq. Bush set about assembling a
coalition to fight. He sent air and ground forces to Saudi
Arabia, in response to a request from King Fahd, he said.
Bush consulted with
twelve foreign leaders, like British Prime Minister Margaret
Thatcher and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, but with no one
in Congress (then in recess). Congressional leaders were
simply notified of his decision, hours before the deployment
to Arabia began. Resolutions supported his actions, but Senate
Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-ME) said they were no blank
check for war.
Secretary of State
Baker claimed in Senate testimony that Bush could use the
armed forces without congressional approval. Legislators of
both parties expressed concern and wanted Bush to promise no
war without congressional approval. Bush refused. He did not
even inform Congress before publicly announcing the doubling
of troops in Arabia. He lied to the press that he had
consulted extensively with Congress. At a news
conference, he claimed that it was the president’s
responsibility, and his alone, to decide whether and when to
In Dellums v. Bush,
53 representatives and a senator sought to enjoin Bush from
attacking Iraq without congressional authorization. The late
U.S. Judge Harold H. Greene accepted the plaintiffs’ view that
the Constitution’s Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 granted “to
the Congress, and to it alone, the authority to declare war”
(quoting Greene), witness the framers’ comments that it was
“unwise to entrust the momentous power to involve the nation
in a war to the President alone.” But he found the case not
yet “ripe” because plaintiffs lacked a majority of Congress
and war was uncertain.
the constitutional principle, Bush decided a
congressional resolution backing the UN’s stand could be
politically helpful. He asked Congress to approve force unless
Iraq left Kuwait in one week An opposing resolution would try
“witnesses” lied about Iraqi “atrocities.” Hill &
Knowlton, a public relations company hired to promote war, had
coached them. A Kuwaiti girl named Nayirah—later exposed as a
member of the royal family and daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador
to the U.S.—tearfully but falsely said she saw Iraqi soldiers
fatally pull babies from incubators.
In the House, 268
members spoke; in the Senate, 93 spoke. The vote, on Jan. 12,
1991, was 250 to 183 for each resolution in the House, while
the Senate voted 52 to 47 for force. The president first had to
affirm efforts at diplomatic or other peaceful settlement.
of urban areas for six weeks and the massacre of tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers withdrawing from Kuwait
on what has been called the “Highway of Death” went far beyond
both the bounds of international law and the mandate of
Congress: to get the Iraqis to withdraw from Kuwait.
At least Bush did
not accommodate the neocons who urged total conquest and
regime change. (Some say he held back at the behest of his
Saudi friends, who favored rule by anti-Iranian Saddam.) That
would be the handiwork of son George W., whom he strived to
put in the White House following Bill Clinton’s terms. Yet the
limited war left Iraq in ruins and probably cost the lives of
more than 100,000 Iraqi soldiers and civilians. About 700,000
coalition troops participated, 540,000 of them American. U.S.
deaths totaled 299.
Tens of thousands of
Iraqi civilians may have succumbed, mostly from disease and
lack of medical care, adequate food, and clean water, wrote
Rick Atkinson, a Washington Post reporter, in the 1993
book Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War.
(Some place the toll above a half-million.) Atkinson said the
allies dropped 227,000 bombs, 93 percent “dumb” (unguided) and
missing three out of four targets,
Among examples of
inaccuracy: In Najav, bombs damaged 50 houses; in one,
reporters said, 13 of 14 family members died. In Al Dour, 23
houses were flattened, and a woman sobbed that her three
brothers, their wives, and eight children were killed. An
“errant” attack on a bridge in Nasiriyah, killed 50. In
Basrah, the Ma’quil neighborhood was bombed three times with a
death toll of 125; and 70 died in two other neighborhoods.
Bombs striking a hospital “inadvertently” killed four near
Bush described the
bombings as “fantastically accurate” in a war fought with
commented: “The sanitary conflict depicted by Bush and his
commanders, though of a piece with similar exaggerations in
previous wars, was a lie. It further dehumanized the suffering
of innocents and planted in the American psyche the
unfortunate notion that war could be waged without blood,
gore, screaming children, and sobbing mothers.”
These were no
accidents: air raids on food warehouses in several cities; on
a large factory in Baghdad that allies said made biological
weapons but Iraqis said made infant formula; and on the
telephone exchange in Diwaniyah, killing 15 in a hotel and
apartments that were adjacent.
“Smart bombs” proved
no more humane than “dumb” ones. At least 408 civilians died
in a Baghdad air raid shelter from two guided bombs.
The U.S. military knew the shelter from the Iran-Iraq war but
claimed it had a military function. Add that war crime to the
big list of hits on homes, hospitals, and vital facilities.
tricks, coverups, shady deals?
historian and author, made some little-known accusations on
Thom Hartmann’s syndicated radio talk show of December 7.
Waldron charged that Bush:
— Handled dirty
tricks for President Nixon in Watergate days.
— As CIA director,
covered up the crime of assets who blew up a Jamaica-bound
Cabana airliner in 1976, killing 73 people.
— Also covered up
the guilt of a CIA asset in the Florida murder of Johnny
Roselli, who had been hired to assassinate Castro.
— Lived off the
proceeds of Nazi slave labor, inherited from his father,
Prescott Bush, using the money to go into business with the
family of Osama bin Laden.
— Assisted his son
George W’s presidential campaign through racially charged
dirty tricks against John McCain in South Carolina.
— Helped Reagan cut
a deal with Iran to delay the freeing of hostages until Reagan
took over the presidency from President Carter.
— Evidently was in
charge of deals with the Contras, a k a Nicaraguan death
independent journalist and author, writes of Bush’s connection
with a Canadian-American gold mining company and a fatal incident
that occurred in the 1990s, following his term as president.
The company took over a huge gold field in Tanzania upon the
bulldozing of thousands of small mines. Some 50 miners were
thereupon buried alive.
Defamation of a
vegetable (Bush publicly avowed his dislike of broccoli) is
scarcely in the category of those other alleged offenses, but
let’s end on a lighter note.
Bush, an oil
man, gave as one rationale for war with Iraq: preventing
Saddam from controlling the world’s oil supply. Kuwait was
rich in petroleum, and during the crisis some cynic circulated
a bumper sticker asking, “What if Kuwait’s main product
were broccoli?” The late columnist Herb Caen ran my
answer in the San Francisco Chronicle: “It wouldn’t
make any difference. Bush hates broccoli and loves war.”
By Paul W. Lovinger
Dec. 31, 2018