Juan Williams on Bush Interview

NPR correspondent Juan Williams talks about his conversation with President Bush, the president's first broadcast interview since last Tuesday's State of the Union Address.

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Earlier today, NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams sat down with President George Bush in the Roosevelt Room at the White House for a wide-ranging interview. Juan Williams joins us now here in Studio 3A. Juan, always good to have you on the program.

JUAN WILLIAMS: My pleasure.

CONAN: And I know you talked about a lot of things with the president, but I guess topic A was, of course, Iraq.

WILLIAMS: Without a doubt. I mean that's the topic that obviously occupied us from this weekend with all the fighting going on in Najaf, and it's on the president's mind, Neal.

CONAN: You asked him about the fighting in Najaf. Reports of some 300 militants killed. This is what the president has to say:

President GEORGE W. BUSH: You know, Juan, I haven't 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 is 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 do the hard work necessary to secure their democracy. 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.

CONAN: Iraqis beginning to show me something. And that's indeed been the news out of Baghdad the past week or so - or more - as various legislative actions and indeed situations on the ground go ahead. Nevertheless, the situation remains dire in Baghdad, and the president - it was an interesting, you asked him about his State of the Union speech, followed the next day by a very different message up by Vice President Dick Cheney.

WILLIAMS: Indeed. Because Dick Cheney had said that he thinks that we are having tremendous success in Iraq and was putting down an interviewer - Wolf Blitzer from CNN - for not acknowledging the successes that have taken place. So I said to the president, is there a difference between your view of what's taking place in Iraq?

Because the president has said he's responsible, he'll take the responsibility for the failures. Is there a difference between your view in Iraq and what we're hearing from the vice president?

CONAN: And what he had to say was, well, the vice president's sort of a glass full kind of a guy.

WILLIAMS: Half full, half full.

CONAN: Never thought of Vice President Cheney in exactly those terms. But there was also a fascinating question that you put to him, put to you by a reporter embedded with the National Guard.

WILLIAMS: Well, the question was about what you have is one of the members of the National Guard from Minnesota asking what was Plan B? What would the president do if the surge didn't turn out to work. And the president, responding to this young man, said that they're looking at all sorts of alternatives but that he is hopeful.

So he is optimistic that the surge is going to have the impact over time and that there won't be a need for a plan B.

CONAN: And if there is, he didn't explain what it was either, did he?

WILLIAMS: No, he didn't get into it. Obviously there's lots of talk around town about what it might be, but no, he didn't detail it.

CONAN: The Senate obviously will be voting this week on a resolution opposing the surge, the buildup of troops in Iraq, what some call an escalation. Juan Williams asked President Bush for his thoughts on the proposal, and this is what he had to say.

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 insurgent strategy. And so, do you agree?

CONAN: 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 - the 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.

CONAN: George Bush in an interview earlier today with NPR's Juan Williams. And as he went through the politics of Iraq - the president's in an awfully weak position here. He's got a lot of people in his own party, in the United States Senate in particular, who are ready to support, if not the strongest resolution, then one slightly weaker.

WILLIAMS: The slightly weaker one being proposed by John Warner, the senator from Virginia, former secretary of the Navy, and of course a strong Republican. So the idea that you would have Republicans questioning the president's strategy really undermines his position, and that's why you say it's a weak position, Neal. But I think the larger point here is that from the president's perspective, he believes that any resolution that speaks to this surge not being in the national interest is contradictory to his view, and that's what he tried to convey in the interview with me this morning.

You know, he said that it's in the national interest to try to contain what he views as the war on terror - his language - in that place because he thinks it will have consequence if the al-Qaida is allowed to really, you know, secure roots there and build to the point where they could then launch operations that would impact the United States right back here at home.

So that's his vision of the way he sees - and why he sees a need for the continuing operations in Iraq.

CONAN: And one more excerpt that we're going to listen to, and this is, Juan, when you spoke to him about Iran. And you said the administration has said we have evidence of Iran smuggling in weapons and being involved militarily in Iraq, and there were reports today in the newspaper of Iran seeking to widen its influence in Iraq. And this is what the president had to say when you asked how he would react to any escalation of Tehran's military involvement.

President BUSH: If Iran escalates its military action in Iraq to the detriment of our troops and/or innocent Iraqi people, we will respond firmly. It makes common sense for the commander in chief to say to our troops and the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government that we will help you defend yourself from people that want to sow discord and harm, and so we will do what it takes to protect our troops.

CONAN: Do what it takes to protect our troops. At another point in the interview you asked him about, you know, basically, did he plan to launch an incursion into Iran. And he said I don't know where people get that idea. He seemed to be talking about, I guess, conceivably military action against Iran strictly in terms of Iraq.

WILLIAMS: Correct, and - but here's the thing, Neal. I mean, obviously if the Iranians follow through on what you just said - their ambassador's, you know, promised to in fact increase their involvement - it sounds as if the president's saying, well, then they will force my hand; I will have to go into Iran.

I asked him, I said, well, what about the Congress? Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, the Democrat in the Senate, has said that he would expect President Bush would have to come to him for approval. President Bush did not indicate that he shares Senator Reid's views. To the contrary, he said he believes the American public, he believes the American military, he believes the families of the young men and women who are in harm's way would want him to do whatever he could to stop the flow of armaments or any kind of involvement of Iran in Iraqi affairs.

CONAN: There's obviously much more in the interview. We're just talking Iraq and Iran thus far in these excerpts. Juan Williams. You can hear much more of it later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Including some domestic issues, as well. Juan, thank you so much for being with us.

WILLIAMS: My pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams, who interviewed President Bush earlier today. And when we come back, it'll be the Opinion Page.

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An NPR Interview with President Bush

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

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 hide caption

itoggle caption 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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