Dennis Ross remembers George H. W. Bush
President George H. W. Bush and Soviet Predident Mikhail Gorbachev at the Helsinki Summit, Finland on September 9, 1990. (George Bush Presidential Library)
Dennis Ross, who served as the Director of Policy Planning in the State Department under President George H. W. Bush, shared with Jewish Insider an internal debate he and former Secretary of State James Baker had with Bush over an international summit to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict following the first Gulf war.
In early September of 1990, Bush had a summit in Helsinki with former President Mikhail Gorbachev. This was a little more than a month after Saddam Hussein’s invasion and absorption of Kuwait and that was the subject of the summit.
Shortly after the invasion, James Baker and [former President of Georgia] Eduard Shevardnadze issued a joint statement against the invasion, a significant event because Iraq was a Soviet client state. The summit was designed to build our collective pressure on Saddam Hussein. Baker and I flew overnight from the Middle East to meet President Bush at the summit.
We had been traveling in the region, meeting, among others, King Fahd in Saudi Arabia and President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Saddam, seeing his isolation even in the Middle East, tried to argue that he had invaded Kuwait to help the Palestinians — obviously absurd, but it had led to Fahd and Mubarak telling us to keep the focus on getting Iraq out of Kuwait and don’t raise the peace issue, lest it make it appear that Saddam had forced us to deal with the conflict with Israel.
We got to Helsinki after President Bush and there was no time for a briefing before he saw Gorbachev — and while he was meeting the Soviet president, we met Shevardnadze and gave him a proposed joint statement for the two presidents, one I had drafted as we flew to Helsinki. He was fine with it but said that Gorbachev would want to include a call for holding an international conference on peace between Arabs and Israelis, precisely what the Arab leaders said would make it look like Saddam’s actions had produced this. Baker explained why it would be a mistake and Shevardnadze understood.
When we shortly saw Bush he said the meeting was good, we were in agreement, but Gorbachev would need the mention of an international conference to show we cared about Arab-Israeli peace — and he said it in a way that suggested that he had agreed with Gorbachev.
Perhaps because of lack of sleep, I interrupted the president and said, “You cannot do that. It creates linkage and will put our Arab partners in a position where it looks like Saddam Hussein is delivering for the Palestinians and they are not. You will undercut them and strengthen Saddam. This is the last thing we should be doing.” I had done this with little finesse and the president started to get mad at me saying, “Well, I can do this.”
At this point, Baker jumped in and said, “Dennis is right and you are wrong,” explaining that we had drafted a statement without any mention of the international conference or Arab-Israeli peace and Shevardnadze had accepted it. Bush said he doubted that Gorbachev could live without some reference to the conference, but Baker persisted and said, “Don’t worry about it.”
Bush then very poignantly responded, saying, “I have to worry about it. I put all those kids out there. Nobody else did it— I did it. And I’ve got to take every step to be sure I don’t put their lives at risk needlessly. If I can get them out of there without fighting, I will do it.”
No one said anything for a few minutes, and then John Sununu, the White House Chief of Staff, broke the silence and said maybe we could have just a reference to an international conference and Baker said get off of it. Bush then said, “Look Jimmy, if you can get a statement without it, fine.” And we were able to do so.
Bush left Helsinki before we did, but in an act typical of him, but not necessarily of most presidents, he called Baker from Air Force One to thank him — and asked him to thank me — for saving him from making a mistake. He apologized for getting angry and appreciated what we had done for him.