President Bush spoke to NPR's Juan Williams on Monday in a White House interview. Below is a transcript of part of their conversation, in which they discuss Iraq policy:
JUAN WILLIAMS: Mr. President, we can't say thank you enough for giving NPR this time, so thank you.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: You bet.
MR. WILLIAMS: All right, Mr. President, the reports that 300 militants were killed, an American helicopter shot down yesterday in Najaf – that's one of the deadliest battles of the war, what can you tell us?
PRESIDENT BUSH: You know, Juan, I haven't been briefed by the Pentagon yet. One of the things I've learned is not to react to first reports off the battlefield. I will tell you, though, that this fight is an indication of what is taking place, and that is the Iraqis are beginning to take the lead, whether it be this fight that you've just reported on where the Iraqis went in with American help to do in some extremists that were trying to stop the advance of their democracy, or the report that there's militant Shia had been captured or killed. In other words, one of the things that I expect to see is the Iraqis take the lead and show the American people that they're willing to the hard work necessary to secure their democracy, and our job is to help them.
So my first reaction on this report from the battlefield is that the Iraqis are beginning to show me something.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, now, one of the concerns might be that you have – the gunmen were trying to assassinate clerics and pilgrims – Shia pilgrims. So I'm wondering if that's an indication of a civil war – a term that, you know, you've been reluctant to use.
PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, I think it's an indication that there are murderers who will kill innocent people to stop the advance of a form of government that is the opposite of what they believe. You know, we can debate terms, but what can't be debated is the fact that Iraq is violent, and the violence is caused by Sunni Arabs like al-Qaida, who have made it clear that they want to create chaos and drive the United States out so they can have safe haven, and then they could launch attacks against America. No question the attack on the Golden Mosque of Samarra, which is a Shia holy site, caused Shia extremists to retaliate.
Now, there is some criminality going on, Juan, when there is no push-back in society; criminals are able to – you know, to have their way, and now the question is whether or not it's worth it in our interest – whether it's in the interests of the United States to help the Iraqi government do what's necessary to deal with these extremists. And I've obviously made the decision, I think it is.
I fully understand it's going to be up to the Iraqis to solve their problems. I was hoping to be in a different position. In other words, I had hoped I'd be able to interview with you and say, well, you know, we're not needed as much anymore, but I fully recognize that unless the violence in Baghdad, the capital city of Iraq, the sectarian violence and the criminality is dealt with, then the political reconciliation necessary to unite the country isn't going to happen. And so I made a tough decision, and that is to reinforce our troops there and put a new commander there in the hopes of breaking the sectarian violence – or helping the Iraqis break it.
MR. WILLIAMS: Now, you've got a vote tomorrow in the Senate to consider a resolution opposing the troop buildup. Vice President Cheney said last week that vote would validate the insurgents' strategy. And so, do you agree?
PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, there's a lot of strong opinions about it. My attitude is – my feeling to the Senate echoes what Joe Lieberman said the other day – Senator Joe Lieberman – and that is it is ironic that the Senate would vote 81 to nothing to send a general into Iraq who believes he needs more troops to do the job and then send a contradictory message. The legislatures will – legislators will do what they feel like they've got to do, and, you know, 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.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, another question about Vice President Cheney – he said last week that – here I'm quoting – "we've encountered enormous successes and we continue to have enormous successes in Iraq." Two weeks ago you said, quote, "there hadn't been enough success in Iraq." So it sounds like there's a conflicting message there.
PRESIDENT BUSH: Oh, I don't think so. I think that the vice president is a person reflecting a half-glass-full mentality, and that is he's been able to look at – as have I, and I hope other Americans have – the fact that the tyrant was removed, 12 million people voted, there is an Iraqi constitution in place that is a model for – and unique for the Middle East.
I will tell you, 2005 was a great year for freedom, and then the enemy took a good look and said, what do we need to do to stop the advance of freedom, and 2006 was a tough year. And I have said that the progress is not good enough. In other words, people have asked me about whether or not I approve of the situation in Iraq and my answer is no. We can do better, but it's going to require an Iraqi government that does several things. One is provide security for its people, and therefore it's in our interest to train with them, to embed with them, and to fight alongside them for a period of time until Baghdad is secure. Two, they've got to reconcile.
In other words, they've got to make it clear to the 12 million people that made a conscious decision to vote and say, we want a unity government, to reach out to disparate elements. They've got to make sure that oil revenue, for example, is available to all of the people and not just a faction that may happen to be in power. They've got to make sure that those who were involved with the Saddam government in the past, so long as they weren't killers or terrorists, have a chance, for example, to be reinstated as school teachers.
In other words, there's a lot of things politically that can happen, Juan, and – you know, I made a decision that – and, listen, I listen to a lot of folks here in Washington. I listen to the military people, I listen to people who are critical of the policy, I listen to Republicans, I listen to Democrats, and I listen carefully for which strategy would yield – would most likely yield success, and the one I picked is the one I believe will.
And I understand it's controversial and I understand people are skeptical, and I understand there's pessimism here. I also want your listeners to know that a lot of people here in Washington also understand that failure in Iraq would be a disaster for the Iraqi people and for the American people.