Wednesday, November 22, 2006

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Former President George Bush, an angry father, took on Arab critics of son President George W. Bush during a testy exchange at a leadership conference.

A woman in the audience told the former president: “We do not respect your son. We do not respect what he’s doing all over the world.”

Mr. Bush, 82, appeared stunned at first as the audience whooped and whistled in approval, then replied sharply: “My son is an honest man.”

When a college student told Mr. Bush that U.S. wars were aimed at opening markets for American companies and that globalization was contrived for America’s benefit at the expense of the rest of the world, Mr. Bush shot back: “I think that’s weird, and it’s nuts. 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 question-and-answer session after Mr. Bush finished a folksy address on leadership, telling how deeply hurt he feels when his presidential son is criticized.

“This son is not going to back away,” Mr. 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.”

The oil-rich Persian Gulf was once congenial territory for the 41st president, who brought Arab leaders together in a coalition that drove Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s troops from Kuwait in 1991.

But gratitude was scarce at the conference held Tuesday. Hostility toward his son, whose 2003 invasion of Iraq and support for Israel are deeply unpopular in the region, bubbled quickly.

Mr. Bush told the audience that its hoots and jeers were mild compared with those he got in Germany in the 1980s after he persuaded the country to deploy U.S. nuclear missiles aimed at the old Soviet Union.

He’s proud of his sons, he said. He described as the happiest day of his life Election Day in 1998, when the younger Mr. Bush and Jeb Bush were elected governors of Texas and Florida. He described as acute the pain he feels when his sons are attacked.

“I can’t begin to tell you the pride I feel in my two sons,” Mr. 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.

Mr. Bush said the presence of reporters in the audience prevented his revealing the advice. Nor would he comment on his expectations for the findings of the Iraq Study Group, an advisory commission led by James A. Baker III, a close Bush family friend and his former secretary of state, and former Rep. Lee H. 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.”

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