The following is a full transcript of NPR's interview with President George W. Bush, conducted by Juan Williams on Monday, Jan. 29, 2007.
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.
MR. WILLIAMS: But there's no distance between you and Vice President Cheney in terms of the strength 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 understands that needed to happen and supported it.
MR. WILLIAMS: All right. 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 the 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 – 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 were 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 would be chaos. If we did not work to secure Baghdad and help the Iraqis to secure Baghdad, the country could evolve into a chaotic situation, and out of that chaos would emerge an emboldened enemy.
See, the difference, Juan, between 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 tried in my State of the Union speech, why I reminded people that September the – the lessons of September the 11th need to be remembered. It is a – and look, 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 a 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, and 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.
MR. 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 what they're showing?
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 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, to help bring this violence down and to deal with these radicals, whether they be Sunni radicals or Shia radicals.
And, you know, I'm reluctant to put timetables on the 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 this were to happen, people would look back at this year and say, what happened to those people in 2006? How come they couldn't see the impending threat?
MR. WILLIAMS: All right. You know, you mentioned timetables. NPR has a reporter embedded with the Minnesota National Guard in Iraq, and one of the soldiers there asked the question – says, my name is Specialist Ryan Schmidt (sp) from Forest Lake, Minnesota, and my question for you, Mr. President, is what if your plan for a troop surge to Baghdad does not work?" What do you think?
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 think 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.
MR. WILLIAMS: Let's talk about Iran for a second, Mr. President.
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 volunteer to go. And one of the things I look for is whether or not we're 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 do I appreciate him, but a lot of Americans appreciate him.
MR. WILLIAMS: We'll get it to him, Mr. President.
Iran's ambassador to Iraq says Iran is planning to greatly expand its economic and military ties with Iran – 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 that 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 is happening in Iraq. Another is their ambitions to have a nuclear weapon. And we're dealing with this issue diplomatically, and 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 that your government is going to cause you deprivation. In other words, you've got a chance to really flourish again as a great tradition. However, if your government continues to insist upon a nuclear weapon, there will be lost opportunity for the Iranian people. They won't be able to realize their full potential.
The Iranian people have got to know that this government and 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 regards, for example, the Holocaust. 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.
MR. WILLIAMS: By the way, just quickly, 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: I have no intent upon incur—going into Iran. I mean, this is 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 don't 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 interests 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 American troops, we'll deal with it.
MR. WILLIAMS: Let's talk for a second about the State of the Union speech. You didn't mention Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, or the Gulf Coast. A lot of people from Louisiana, including David Vitter, the Republican senator, say they regret that. Do you?
PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, I gave a speech that I thought was necessary to give. On the other hand, I had been talking a lot about Katrina and about the fact that I worked with the Congress to get about $110 billion sent down to both Mississippi and Louisiana to help them on their reconstruction efforts. Obviously, there is more work to be done. But to take the housing issue, for example, we have sent money down to the Louisiana folks, Louisiana Recovery Authority, to fund their plan. And the money is there and the money is available. And now it's up to the folks down there to get this plan implemented so people can start rebuilding their houses.
If there's bureaucratic slowdowns in Washington, we've got a man named Don Powell who is working to address them. But no, our response to the Katrina recovery has been very robust. And I appreciate the taxpayers of the United States helping the folks down there in Mississippi and Louisiana.
MR. WILLIAMS: Now, also in the State of the Union, you talked about the – quote here – "the serious challenge of global climate change." Were you talking about global warming there?
PRESIDENT BUSH: Absolutely, and it's a serious challenge. And one of the things that I am proud of is this administration has done a lot on advancing new technologies that will enable us to do two things – strengthen our economy, and at the same time, be better stewards of the environment. In 2002, I talked about an energy efficiency standard, which says new technologies will enable us to grow our economy, and at the same time, improve the environment, and we're meeting certain standards that I set for the country.
And what kind of technologies? Well, if you're really interested in global warming and climate change, then it seems like to me that we ought to promote technologies to advance the development of safe nuclear power. It's a renewable source of energy, and at the same time has no emissions to it. But also, we're advancing clean-coal technologies. The goal is to have a zero-emission coal-fired plant. And then, in the State of the Union, I talked about another aspect of economic security and environmental quality, and that is changing the habits – or changing how we power our cars. And I want more people driving automobiles with, you know, ethanol, for example, or biodiesel. And I believe the goal I set, which is a very bold goal, of reducing gasoline usage by 20 percent in 10 years is an attainable goal, but it's going to require the Congress funding the research and development initiatives that I have put in my budgets. And I expect them to do so.
MR. WILLIAMS: By the way, in the speech, you spoke about the Democrats. You said, you congratulated the Democrat majority. And I notice your prepared text said Democratic majority. I surely think that you know that for the Democrats, they think when you say Democrat, it's like fingernails on the blackboard. They don't like it. They like you to say Democratic.
PRESIDENT BUSH: Yeah. Well, that was an oversight then. I mean, I'm not trying to needle. 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.
MR. WILLIAMS: OK.
PRESIDENT BUSH: And that I did, I didn't mean to be putting fingernails on the board, I meant to be saying why don't we show the American people we can actually work together? There is a lot of politics in Washington – in my judgment, needless politics. And it's almost like, if George Bush is for it, we're against it, and I – and if he's against it, we're for it. And the American people don't like that.
And I'm going to tell you some big issues we need to work on. One is entitlements. Your grandchildren are going to grow up with a Social Security system that is broke unless we do something about it. Now, I understand how hard that is. I mean, it's—But the solution can be done. But it requires a lot of political, you know, capital to be spent. And there is distrust in Washington. I am surprised, frankly, at the amount of distrust that exists in this town. And I'm sorry it's the case, and I'll work hard to try to elevate it. So the idea that somehow I was trying to needle the Democrats, it's just – gosh, it's probably Texas. Who knows what it is. But I'm not that good at pronouncing words anyway, Juan.
MR. WILLIAMS: Mr. President, you're bringing out a new budget next week, and I presume you're going to have healthcare, health insurance plan in it. To pay for some of the plan, some people who don't pay taxes on their health insurance plan now will have to pay taxes. Isn't that a tax increase for them?
PRESIDENT BUSH: No, really what it is, it's a rewriting of the tax code. We've got a tax code today that says if you get your insurance from a large employer, for example, it's part of your – it's a non-taxable event. And yet if you're an individual, like Juan Williams out there as an independent contractor, and you buy your own health insurance, you're at a tax disadvantage. And so I'm asking the Congress to reform the tax code to treat everybody fairly. And in my judgment, such a plan will encourage and enable more individuals to be able to buy health insurance, which will help us deal with the uninsured.
MR. WILLIAMS: Will the budget be balanced through spending restraint or taxes?
PRESIDENT BUSH: The budget is going to be balanced by keeping taxes low. In other words, we're not going to raise taxes. And as a result of keeping taxes low, the economy is doing just fine, and when the economy is doing well, it yields a certain level of tax revenues that we can live with. And then making sure that we constrain federal spending, and you do that by setting priorities. And our priority has got to be this global war on terror and supporting our troops, and protecting the homeland, and that is what our budget will say, and we can balance the budget within five years. And that is going to be – that is good for the country. And in so doing, we are dealing with the short-term deficits, but we have also got to deal with the long-term deficits inherent in, for example, programs like Social Security and Medicare.
MR. WILLIAMS: So, some people would say, well, if you believe in spending restraint, why haven't you vetoed one bill, you know, one appropriations bill?
PRESIDENT BUSH: Because the United States Congress that was controlled by Republicans exercised spending restraint. Now, I didn't particularly like – the size of the pie was what I requested. It's some of the pieces of the pie that I didn't particularly care for, but that is why the president needs a line-item veto, and that is why Congress has got to reform the earmark process. What the American people need to understand is that sometimes special projects get put into bills without ever having seen the light of the day. In other words, they don't get voted on; they just show up, and we need transparency in the earmark process, and expose the process to hearings and votes so that the American people will know that any project was fully heard on the floor of the House and the Senate.
MR. WILLIAMS: Mr. President, you have talked about Harry Truman and the challenges that President Truman faced during his time here. He wasn't popular toward the end of his presidency, but history ended up judging him very well. Is that your hope now?
PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, you know, Juan, my hope is that we see improvement in Baghdad. My vision is dealing with the problems at hand. I have got a lot on my agenda and believe we are going to get a lot done. At home, we want the economy to remain strong, and we want our children educated. That is why I'm pushing for a reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. And abroad, I'm not only working with a great team to deal with Iraq, but we're dealing with Iran, Middle Eastern peace, North Korea. I mean, there is a lot of issues we are dealing with.
My own view is that history will take care of itself. History has a long reach to it. I told people that last year I read three analyses of Washington's administration, and my attitude is if they are still writing about the first president, the 43rd doesn't need to worry about it. And so, the other thing is, is that, I think it's very important for people – for a president to make decisions based upon principles. You know, you can be popular, but you may be wrong. And 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 are etched into my soul in order to be a popular guy. What I want to do is solve problems for the American people and yield the peace that we all want.
MR. WILLIAMS: One last thing, Mr. President. When you look at the quality of intelligence that you're getting about the nuclear program in Iran right now, do you think it's better than the quality of intelligence you were getting about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?
PRESIDENT BUSH: No question that there is a certain skepticism about intelligence. We all thought that that – that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and "we all" being not only the administration, but members from both political parties in the Congress. The previous administration felt that the intelligence indicated there was weapons of mass destruction. The international community – in other words, I just want you to know that there was a universal belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction including critics of Iraq, like the French, who voted for 1441 in the Security Council.
And therefore when it turned out not to be true, there is a certain skepticism about intel. And however, the skepticism about intel, while it needs to be tempered by, you know, the – by an analysis of statements or other fragments of intelligence – what I am trying to say that I take the Iranian nuclear threat very seriously even though the intel on Iraq was not what it was thought to be, and we have to.
Now – so how do you solve the problem on intel? Well, you get more human intelligence. You constantly reevaluate the system itself and make sure that these really fine souls that work for the different intelligence agencies are given the tools they need. And so – look, I'm like a lot of Americans that say, well, if it wasn't right in Iraq, how do you know it's right in Iran? And so we are constantly evaluating, and answering this legitimate question by always working to get as good intelligence as we can.
MR. WILLIAMS: And Negroponte's departure, did it concern you – do you feel like the CIA, all of these intelligence agencies are doing a better job now?
PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, I think they understand the lessons of Iraq. And you know, we put the Silverman Robb Commission together, and wanted to make – look, the president needs the best intelligence. This is a war against a group of killers that still want to come and kill us, that is going to require accurate intelligence to give us the data necessary to act to protect Americans before the attack. And therefore we are all pulling for good intelligence.
And Negroponte is much needed at the State Department. He is one of these public servants who brings a lot of skills, and a lot of really – and a lot of good judgment. And I asked him to go to the State Department to help Condi, and found a very suitable replacement, a guy named Mike McConnell. And the change of personnel really is not a reflection upon whether or not the intel is getting better or worse; the change of personnel is putting our best players in the best positions as we head into the final two years of the administration.
MR. WILLIAMS: One last thing, Mr. President, with the Democrats. You asked the Democrats on a bipartisan basis to form an advisory council and monitor the war, work with you. They haven't responded at all. What do you take from that?
PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, I'm going to have to keep working with them and explain that my notion is to – is to put in place a consulting-type group that will be able to talk about the war on terror in general. In other words, I don't want – I think that a lot of these folks aren't happy we're in Iraq to begin with, and I understand that, and then they are – they don't believe we are going to succeed in Iraq, and I understand that too. I think what some may be afraid of is I'm trying to get them into an Iraq-type situation where they are forced to say something they don't want to say. I don't know.
MR. WILLIAMS: Oh, that they would be co-opted by cooperating or working with you?
PRESIDENT BUSH: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, and that may be part of the issue. My purpose really is to – listen, we want to consult in Iraq, and we will continue to do so, and we will be very much involved with members of Congress, don't get me wrong. But the greater purpose is to help this country succeed in the ideological struggle that we're going to be in today and tomorrow and the next day.
This is – what I'm describing to the American people is this war on terror is going to take a while, and Iraq is just a part of it. And I guess – you know, I'm going to work – I think it's important for me to continue to reach out to the Democrats, and will – and Republicans, for that matter – and explain the strategies and the way forward, but also to explain to them that presidents and Congresses will be dealing with this ideological struggle for quite a while, and therefore it makes sense to work together now to help not only us succeed, but help them succeed.
MR. WILLIAMS: Mr. President, I want say thank you from National Public Radio.
PRESIDENT BUSH: Juan, thank you, buddy. Glad you're here.
MR. WILLIAMS: I appreciate it, sir.
PRESIDENT BUSH: Yes sir.
MR. WILLIAMS: Thank you again.
PRESIDENT BUSH: Camera's off? (Chuckles.)