President Bush, Part 1: The Job in Iraq

President Bush sits down with NPR's Juan Williams for his first broadcast interview since the State of the Union.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

In his interview with NPR today, President Bush defended his decision to send more troops to Iraq. And he issued a stern warning to Iran about meddling in Iraq's affairs.

On Iraq, the president said he understands the skepticism toward the planned troop increase, but he believes he has chosen the strategy most likely to succeed. On Iran, Mr. Bush said that if Iran escalates its military action in Iraq, the U.S. will respond firmly.

On domestic issues, the president defended his decision not to mention Hurricane Katrina in his State of the Union Address. And he made a pitch for the Health Insurance Plan he outlined in his annual address to Congress.

NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams conducted that interview. He talked with President Bush this morning in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.

And Juan, let's talk about the timing of this interview. It comes at a moment when the president's troop plan is under attack on Capitol Hill, the Senate's going to consider a non-binding resolution tomorrow that opposes the troop buildup. And it comes at a time when the president's poll numbers also show that most of the country is not behind him on this issue.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Melissa, it's a very difficult moment. And it's not just the Democrats. Remember that even if the earlier resolution sponsored by Senator Joe Biden, the head of the Foreign Relations Committee, was to fail, there's another resolution coming from Senator John Warner, a Republican from Virginia, former secretary of the Navy, and it also would call for sort of a condemnation of the president's policy of increasing by 21,000 the number of troops in Iraq.

So this is a very difficult moment for the president. You mentioned the polls. There are also polls of Iraqis that say they do not favor having more Americans on the ground. And as you know, over the weekend, a tremendous rate of violence.

So I started by asking the president what he could tell us about reports of a major fight near the Iraqi city of Najaf yesterday. This was a fight between Iraqi forces and members of a religious group called Soldier of Heaven. The group was reportedly planning attacks on Shiite pilgrims. And Iraq's government says 200 members of the group were killed during the fighting.

President GEORGE W. 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 it - 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 was - 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. And our job is to help them. So my first reaction from the - on this report from the battlefield is that the Iraqis are beginning to show me something.

WILLIAMS: One of the concerns might be that you have - 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.

I, you know, we, 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've made it clear that they want to create chaos and drive the United States so they can have safe haven. And then they could launch attacks against America. No question the attack on the Golden Mosque of Samara, which is a Shia holy site, caused Shia extremists to retaliate. There's some criminality going on, Juan. When there's no pushback 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 interest 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 would hope I will be able to interview with you and say, well, you know, we're not needed as much anymore. But, 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 gonna happen. 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.

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?

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 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.

WILLIAMS: Well, another question about Vice President Cheney. He said last week that - here I'm quoting - "We even count our 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 is a conflicting message there.

President BUSH: Oh, I don't think so. I think 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's an Iraqi constitution in place, there's 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.

People have asked me whether or not I approve of this 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. And they got to make sure that all our revenue, for example, is available to all the people and not just to a faction that may happen to be in power. They got to make sure that those who, you know, 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 schoolteachers.

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 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 what 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.

WILLIAMS: But there's no distance between you and Vice President Cheney in terms of a scrimp of his resolve that things are going, as he put it, you know, successfully?

President BUSH: Well, we both agree that something needed to change. In other words, when I made the decision to change the strategy in Iraq with a focus on Baghdad, in other words, reinforcing our troops, he fully understand that needed to happen and supported it.

WILLIAMS: You know, people are praying for you. People, the American people want to be with you, Mr. President. But you just spoke about the polls, and they indicate the public, and you know about what's going up on Capitol Hill with the Congress. Some in the military, even many Iraqis - according to polls - don't like the idea of sending more troops into Iraq. So I wonder if you could give us something to go on, give us something, let's say, you know, this is a reason to get behind the president right now.

President BUSH: Well, one way to, and one of the things I have found here in Washington amongst those who are skeptical about whether the Iraqis will do what it takes to secure their own freedom, is to remind them of what would happen if there's failure. In other words, there will be chaos. If we do not work to secure Baghdad, and help the Iraqis to secure Baghdad, the country could evolve into chaotic situation. And out of that chaos will emerge an emboldened enemy. See, the difference, Juan, between, you know, other conflicts in the past and this one is that failure would endanger the homeland.

In other words, the enemy isn't going to be just contained in the Middle East if they succeed in driving us out or succeed in wrecking the Iraqi democracy. The enemy would be likely to follow us here. And that's why I tied in my State of the Union speech, why I reminded people that September the 11th - the lives of the September 11th need to be remembered. It is an - September the 11th changed my attitude about a lot of things. It really did. And I recognize that the world we live in is one where America cannot be isolated from the ills in other parts of the world.

As the matter of fact, those ills can come home to haunt us. And so as I said in my speech, we'll do everything we can to protect the American people. We'll continue to stay on the offense. But we've also got to defeat the ideology of hate with an ideology of liberty, because in the long run, it's going to secure peace for your children and grandchildren.

WILLIAMS: How long can you sustain the policy, though, with people so vehement in their doubt, the Congress voting, as the Congress is voting, the polls showing the -

President BUSH: Yeah. Well, I'm, you know, I'm hopeful that the decision I have made is going to yield enough results so that the Iraqi government is able to take more of the responsibility. 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 military folks - they're not quite ready to go. And therefore, it is our interest to help them with an additional 21,000 troops, particularly in Baghdad, to help bring this violence down and to deal with these radicals, whether they'd be Sunni radicals or Shia radicals.

And, you know, I'm reluctant to put timetables on this situation because there are people who listen to what I say and others in America say and are willing to adjust their timetables to our timetable. It is a - I'm optimistic, I'm realistic, I understand how tough the fight is but I also understand the stakes.

And it's very important for our citizens to understand that a Middle East could evolve in which rival forms of extremists compete with each other, you know, nuclear weapons become developed, safe havens are in place, oil would be used as an economic weapon against the West. And I'm confident that if these were to happen, people would look back at this era and say what happened to those people in 2006? How come they couldn't see the impending threat?

WILLIAMS: You know what, you mentioned timetables. NPR has a reporter embedded with the Minnesota National Guard in Iraq. And one of the soldiers there asked a question.

Specialist RYAN SCHMIDT (Minnesota National Guard): My name is Specialist Ryan Schmidt from Forrest Lake, Minnesota. My question for you, Mr. President, is what is your plan if your troop surge to Baghdad does not work?

President BUSH: Well, I would say to Ryan I put it in place on the advice of a lot of smart people, particularly the military people, who thinks it will work. And let us go into this aspect of the Iraqi strategy, feeling it will work. But I will also assure Ryan that we're constantly adjusting to conditions on the ground.

WILLIAMS: Let's talk about Iran for a second.

President BUSH: And let me also say to Ryan thanks for serving. I mean, one of the amazing things about our country is that we have people who have volunteered to go. And one of the things I look for is whether or not we are able to recruit and retain. And we are. And it's a remarkable country, Juan, where people are saying I want to serve. And I appreciate that soldier, and I hope this message gets to him, that not only I appreciate him, but a lot of Americans appreciate him.

WILLIAMS: We'll give it to him, Mr. President.

Iran's ambassador to Iraq says Iran is planning to greatly expand its economic and military ties with Iraq. You said you have proof of Iran's role in attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq. I know you want to take care of this diplomatically -I've heard you say that. But if Iran escalates its military action in Iraq, how will the U.S. respond?

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. We - 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. One of the things is very important in discussing Iran is not to mix issues.

Our relationship with Iran is based upon a lot of different issues. One is what's happening in Iraq. Another is their ambitions to have a nuclear weapon. And we're dealing with this issue diplomatically. And so I think this can be solved diplomatically. And the message that we are working to send to the Iranian regime and the Iranian people is that you will become increasingly isolated if you continue to pursue a nuclear weapon. The message to the Iranian people is, is that your government is going to cause you deprivation.

In other words, you got a chance to really flourish again. There's a great tradition. However, if your government continues to insist upon on nuclear weapon, there will be lost opportunity for the Iranian people. They won't be able to realize their full potential. And the Iranian people have got to know that this government in the United States bears no hostility to them. We're just deeply concerned about a government that is insisting upon having a nuclear weapon, and at the same time rewriting history, the history of the past.

And, you know, in regards, for example, the Holocaust, and it's a - it troubles a lot of people in this world. And I'll continue to work with, you know, friends and allies to send a clear message.

WILLIAMS: Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, says that if you have an incursion into Iran, he expects that you would come to the Senate for approval.

President BUSH: Yeah. I have no intent upon going into Iran. And here's the kind of thing that happens in Washington - people ascribe, you know, motives to me, beyond a simple statement. Of course, we'll protect our troops. I know how anybody can then say, well, protecting the troops means that we're going to invade Iran. If that's what he's talking about, there's - I mean, we will protect our interest in Iraq.

That's what the American people expect us to do. That's definitely what our troops want to do. And that's what the families of our troops want us to do. And if we find the Iranians are moving weapons that will end up harming the American troops, we'll deal with it.

BLOCK: President Bush, talking this morning with NPR's Juan Williams.

In a wide-ranging conversation, the president also talked about the health care and climate change plans he outlined in his State of the Union address. And he also defended one of the most controversial aspects of that speech - his failure to mention the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast who are recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

You can hear the rest of our interview elsewhere in this program and at NPR.org.

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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

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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