Juan Williams on Bush Interview
NEAL CONAN, host:
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.