An NPR Interview with President Bush

President Bush, photographed during a Jan. 24 visit to the DuPont Experimental Station in Delaware. i i

hide captionPresident Bush speaks with Juan Williams during an interview in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Jan. 29, 2007.

White House Photo by Eric Draper
President Bush, photographed during a Jan. 24 visit to the DuPont Experimental Station in Delaware.

President Bush speaks with Juan Williams during an interview in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Jan. 29, 2007.

White House Photo by Eric Draper
Ron Elving

Watching Washington

NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving sees in President Bush's statements on Iraq a prelude to disengagement. Read his latest column.

President Bush said Monday that he does not intend to invade Iran, but he's willing to do "whatever it takes" to defend U.S. troops in Iraq whom he says have been attacked by Iranians.

"If Iran escalates its military action in Iraq to the detriment of our troops and/or innocent Iraqi people, we will respond firmly," the president said in a half-hour interview with NPR Senior Correspondent Juan Williams, the first broadcast interview the president has given since his State of the Union address.

Asked whether he would seek the approval of Congress for a move against Iran, the president said he had "no intent upon going into Iran," adding, "Of course, we'll protect our troops.

"I don't know how anybody can then say, 'Well, protecting the troops means that we're going to invade Iran," the president said.

Asked whether Americans could be confident in U.S. intelligence reports about Iran's weapons programs, given previous misinformation about Iraq's programs, the president said this:

"Look, I'm like a lot of Americans who say, 'Well, if it wasn't right in Iraq, how do you know it's right in Iran?' So we're constantly evaluating and answering this legitimate question, by always working to get as good intelligence as we can."

On Signs of Progress in Iraq

Mr. Bush also said he sees evidence of progress in Iraq and against terrorism, but warned that "presidents and Congresses will be dealing with this ideological struggle for quite a while." He responded to a question about the highly confident picture of Iraq painted by Vice President Dick Cheney by saying Cheney had "a half-glass full mentality."

He was careful about responding to reports of a battle against a shadowy insurgent group over the weekend, one in which Iraqis appeared to have taken the lead and experienced some success.

"The Iraqis are beginning to take the lead," he said. "One of the things that I expect to see is the Iraqis take the lead, and show the American people they're willing to do the hard work necessary to secure their democracy. Our job is to help them." He added: "The Iraqis are beginning to show me something."

Regarding a looming Senate vote on a nonbinding resolution resisting his plans to send 21,500 additional troops to Iraq, the president said:

"The legislators will do what they feel like they've got to do. We want to work with them as best we can, to make it clear what the stakes of failure will be, and also make it clear to them that I think they have a responsibility to make sure our troops have what they need to do the missions."

On the Stakes for the Middle East

Asked by Williams how long he can sustain such a policy with people "so vehement in their doubt," the president essentially said he hopes for the best:

"I'm hopeful the decision I've made is going to yield enough results so that the Iraqi government is going to take more of the responsibility," he said. "Listen, they want the responsibility. You've heard their prime minister say, 'We're ready to go,' and in my judgment and more importantly, the judgment of the military folks, they're not quite ready to go. And therefore, it is in our interest to help them, with an additional 21,000 troops, particularly in Baghdad."

He said the stakes in the region are high. "A Middle East could evolve in which rival forms of extremists compete with each other, nuclear weapons become developed, safe havens [for terrorists] are in place, oil would be used as an economic weapon against the West."

He continued, "I'm confident that if this were to happen, people would look back at this era and say, 'What happened with those people in 2006? Why couldn't they see the impending threat?'"

Williams relayed to the president a question from Spec. Ryan Schmidt of Forest Lake, Minn., who is serving in Iraq. According to Williams, Schmidt wanted to know what if the plan for a troop "surge" doesn't work.

"I would say to Ryan, I put it in place on the advice of a lot of smart people — particularly the military people — who think it will work. I will also assure Ryan we're constantly adjusting to conditions on the ground," he said.

"Let me also say to Ryan, 'Thanks for serving,'" Mr. Bush added. "One of the amazing things about our country is that we have people who volunteered to go. One of the things I look for is whether we're able to recruit and retain. And we are."

On the State of the Union

Williams noted that in the State of the Union address, President Bush did not mention the ongoing efforts to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina — one of the most costly natural disasters in U.S. history. That omission has incensed people in hard-hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region, and was criticized over the weekend by Louisiana's Republican Sen. David Vitter.

Asked if he regretted this, Mr. Bush replied: "I gave a speech I thought was necessary to give." But he noted he had talked about Katrina elsewhere and sent billions of dollars to the area. "And the money is there and the money is available."

"Our response to the Katrina recovery has been very robust," he said.

The president did mention "climate change" in a one-line reference during the State of the Union. He said Monday that he "absolutely" was referring to global warming, and reiterated his goals to advance "safe" nuclear power and change "how we power our cars," adding that he believes cutting gasoline use by 20 percent over 10 years "is an attainable goal."

Williams asked the president if he purposely referred to the "Democrat majority" — instead of Democratic majority — in his address, given that for Democrats, the term is "like fingernails on the black board. They don't like it."

That was an oversight, Mr. Bush responded. "Look, I went into the hall saying we can work together, and I was very sincere about it. I didn't even know I did it. And if I did, I didn't mean to put fingernails on the board. I meant to be saying, 'Why don't we show the American people we can actually work together.'"

On History's Judgment

Williams noted that, like President Harry Truman, Mr. Bush's popularity has flagged late in his presidency.

"My own view is that history will take care of itself," the president responded.

He said that last year he'd read "three analyses of Washington's administration." Mr. Bush added: "If they're still writing about the first president, the 43rd doesn't need to worry about it. You can be popular, but you may be wrong. I would rather, when it's all said and done, get back home and look in the mirror and say, 'I didn't compromise the principles that were etched into my soul in order to be a popular guy.'"

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