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President Bush Defends Decision to Send Additional Troops to Iraq

January 16, 2007 at 6:05 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Mr. President, welcome.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Thank you, sir.

MR. LEHRER: How do you feel about the way the Iraqi government handled the hangings of Saddam Hussein, and now more recently, two of his top aides?

PRESIDENT BUSH: You know, I was pleased with the trials they got; I was disappointed and felt like they fumbled the – particularly the Saddam Hussein – execution. It reinforced doubts in people’s minds that the Maliki government and the unity government of Iraq is a serious government, and – which makes it harder for me to make the case to the American people that this is a government that does want to unify the country and move forward. The Saddam execution, however, was an important moment in some ways because it closed a terrible chapter and gives the unity government a chance to move forward. In other words, there’s people that were around Iraq saying, well, I think he may come back. And that obviously is not going to happen. But I expressed my disappointment to Prime Minister Maliki when I talked to him the other day.

MR. LEHRER: Message not a good one about the government?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, the message is that it’s a confusing message. It basically says to people, look, you conducted a trial and gave Saddam justice that he didn’t give to others. But then, when it came to execute him, it looked like it was kind of a revenge killing. And it sent a mixed signal to the American people and the people around the world. And it just goes to show that this is a government that has still got some maturation to do.

MR. LEHRER: Today, the United Nations issued a report that said 34,000 Iraqi civilians have died in sectarian violence in the last year. What’s the message of that, Mr. President?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Message is we better help this government stop the sectarian violence. I hear all kinds of different numbers, but the fact is that too many have died as the result of Shias killing Sunnis, Sunnis killing Shias and that I have made the decision that it is best to try to help this government stop this sectarian violence. Because otherwise, the violence – in my judgment, and I think in the judgment of others – if we don’t help them stop it, it’s going to get a lot worse, believe it or not. In other words, that if the United States does not step up to help the Iraqis secure Baghdad in particular, in other words, if we don’t crack this now, that there is – the violence will spiral out of control. And if that were to happen, it will embolden Iran; it will provide safe haven for Sunni killers; I mean, it would just really create a very dangerous situation for the American people in the longer run.

MR. LEHRER: Just today, another 35 people were killed in bombings; 80 over the weekend.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Yeah, there is a difference between – look, death is terrible – but remember, some of these bombings are done by al-Qaida and their affiliates, all trying to create doubt and concern and create these death squads or encourage these death squads to roam neighborhoods. And it’s going to be hard to make Baghdad zero – to make it bomb-proof. We do believe it’s possible to help the Iraqis, working side by side with the Iraqis to secure some of these neighborhoods, which this government must do. It must provide for the security of its people.

Failure vs. success in Iraq

President George W. Bush
People have got to understand that if we fail in Iraq, it is likely there will be safe haven from which people will be able to launch attacks from America.

MR. LEHRER: Mr. President, do you have a feeling of personal failure about Iraq right now?

PRESIDENT BUSH: I'm frustrated at times about Iraq because I understand the consequences of failure. I want the Iraqis to succeed for our own sake. This is a war; part of a broader war, and that if we fail in Iraq, there is a better likelihood that the enemy comes and hurts us here. And so, I am frustrated with the progress. If you were to take it and put me in an opinion poll and said do I approve of Iraq, I'd be one of those that said, no, I don't approve of what's taking place in Iraq. On the other hand, I do believe we can succeed. Look, I had a choice to make, Jim, and that is - one - do what we're doing. And one could define that maybe a slow failure. Secondly, withdraw out of Baghdad and hope for the best. I would think that would be expedited failure. And thirdly is to help this Iraqi government with additional forces - help them do what they need to do, which is to provide security in Baghdad.

I chose the latter because I think it's going to more likely be successful. Failure - and this is what is hard, I think, for the American people to understand and one of the reasons why I appreciate talking to you is that people have got to understand that if we fail in Iraq, it is likely there will be safe haven from which people will be able to launch attacks from America. It is likely there would be enormous clashes between radical Shia and radical Sunnis. It is likely that moderate governments could be toppled, in which case, people could get a hold of oil resources. You mix all that with an Iran with a nuclear weapon and we're looking at a generation of Americans threatened. And so therefore, we've got to get it - we've got to succeed. And that is why I put out the plan I put, because I think it's one that has got a better chance of any one I've seen around here that will succeed.

MR. LEHRER: But to be very direct about it, Mr. President, you had a few years here and you've been in charge. And you've made a lot of decisions; you've made a lot of judgments about things and they haven't worked. And so now you've made a new one. So why should anybody expect the new ones to work when the prior ones did not?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, actually - I will sound defensive - but some of my decisions actually have worked, like getting rid of Saddam Hussein and helping the Iraqi government form a unity government that is based on a novel constitution for the Middle East. As a matter of fact, in 2005, I thought - I mean, in 2006, I thought I'd be in a position to remove troops from Iraq, in other words, hand over more of the authorities to the Iraqis so they could take the fight, and then this sectarian violence that you described broke out. And the question is, do we try to stop it? Do we help the Iraqis stop it? And a year ago, I felt pretty good about the situation; I felt like we were achieving our objective, which is a country that can govern, sustain, and defend itself. No question, 2006 was a lousy year for Iraq. And so the question I'm now faced with is do I react to that or do we just begin to leave, which is - some people - decent people on Capitol Hill think we ought to do. I made the decision, let's succeed; let's work for success not work for failure.

MR. LEHRER: What does success mean in these terms now, Mr. President?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Yeah, well, success, Jim, means a government that is providing security for its people. A success means for the American people to see Iraqi troops chasing down killers with American help initially. A success means a Baghdad that is, you know, relatively calm compared to last year so that people's lives can go forward and a political process can go forward along with it. Success means the government taking steps to share the oil wealth or to deal with a de-Baathification law, to encourage local elections. Success means reconstruction projects that employ Iraqis. Success also means making sure al-Qaida doesn't get a foothold in Iraq, which they're trying to do in Anbar province. So success is measurable; it's definable; and last year was a year in which there was a setback to success.

MR. LEHRER: I guess the real question that remains on top of all of this, how was this allowed to happen that there was a bad 2006? I mean, that's 365 days; it was reported on a daily basis. People kept talking about it. There were all kinds of comments about it. So how did this happen, Mr. President?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, first of all, let's start with the Samarra bombing. And there was actually a fair amount of constraint by the Shias after the Samarra bombing, which took place I think in February or March last year. And the sectarian violence really didn't start spiraling out of control until the summer. Part of the failure for our reaction was ourselves. I mean, we should have found troops and moved them. But part of it was that the Iraqis didn't move troops. And I take responsibility for us not moving our own troops into Baghdad -

MR. LEHRER: Why didn't we move the troops, Mr. President?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, because I think the commanders there felt like it was important to make sure the Iraqis did first, or that the Iraqis made a focused, concerted effort. And they just didn't. There were supposedly six brigades committed and they sent two. And what's going to change this time is that they've now - we will watch them move brigades in that Baghdad - brigades that they promised they would. But we want the Iraqis in the lead in this fight. This is their government; this is their country. They were elected by 12 million people. And the American role is to help them. And help them this time means embedding with them, which we have done before, continuing to train an Iraqi force, expand the Iraqi force, help them get better equipment - but also in this case, serve side by side with the Iraqi forces as they secure these neighborhoods in Baghdad.

Deciding on the number of troops

President George W. Bush
Failure is - shouldn't be an option. As a matter of fact, most people in Washington agree with that. My point then is that if failure is not an option, what is your idea for success? And I've listened to all kinds of ideas on this.

MR. LEHRER: Is there a little bit of a broken egg problem here, Mr. President, that there is instability and there is violence in Iraq - sectarian violence, Iraqis killing other Iraqis, and now the United States helped create the broken egg and now says, okay, Iraqis, it's your problem. You put the egg back together, and if you don't do it quickly and you don't do it well, then we'll get the hell out.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Yeah, you know, that's an interesting question. I don't quite view it as the broken egg; I view it as the cracked egg --

MR. LEHRER: Cracked egg?

PRESIDENT BUSH: -- that - where we still have a chance to move beyond the broken egg. And I thought long and hard about the decision, Jim. Obviously it's a big decision for this theater in the war on terror, and you know, if I didn't believe we could keep the egg from fully cracking, I wouldn't ask 21,000 kids - additional kids to go into Iraq to reinforce those troops that are there.

What's different is an Iraqi attitude, and it is - look, failure last time was not enough troops in Baghdad, and the rules of engagement were such that our troops couldn't move when given an order. Their order was countermanded by Iraqi politicians - in other words, you need to go get this guy in a particular neighborhood, and they would be moving in toward him, and then the Iraqis would pull - say, well, we'd better not make that move right now, we'd better - it may be too much politics. And Prime Minister Maliki has assured his commander and our commander that the rules of engagement will be different this time. And so things have changed. In other words, I'm not putting troops into a situation where there hadn't been enough changes to assure me that we can make progress.

MR. LEHRER: General Casey said yesterday that the commander said that it may be spring or even summer before we have any signs of success from the new program -

PRESIDENT BUSH: Yes.

MR. LEHRER: -- from the new strategy, and even then I can't guarantee you that it's going to work. That's the general; that's the guy who is the commander.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, I - look, I mean, I think that's a -

MR. LEHRER: That's -

PRESIDENT BUSH: -- that's a sober assessment. Well, it's a sober assessment. I think he's not going to stand up and make guarantees that may or may not happen, but he is also the general who felt like we needed more troops, and he's also the general that believes this is the best chance of working. I think he's giving a realistic assessment for people.

I also said in my speech you can expect more killing. In other words, it's still going to be a dangerous environment because the enemy is likely to step up attacks to try to discourage the Iraqi government and to discourage the American people.

MR. LEHRER: Well, Mr. President, how can there then be a strategy based on trying to attain success if even more people are going to die - Americans as well as Iraqis?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, the - the purpose of the strategy, Jim, is to settle Baghdad down, is to secure neighborhoods, is to give the Iraqi people a chance to live in peace, which is what they want. And the way to do that is to send troops into neighborhoods to clean the neighborhoods of insurgents and terrorists, and it's to hold the neighborhoods. And the problem in the past, there weren't enough troops to hold the neighborhoods after neighborhoods had been cleared. And then to build is to have a political process behind it that will work.

We think this is the most comprehensive way of succeeding. The question is: is it worth it? And my point to you earlier was - and the point I made to Congress is - is that failure is - shouldn't be an option. As a matter of fact, most people in Washington agree with that. My point then is that if failure is not an option, what is your idea for success? And I've listened to all kinds of ideas on this. One idea was just keep doing what you're doing; another idea was to pull out of Baghdad, make it a slow-withdrawal concept. A lot of people believe - me included - that that would exacerbate the situation. It would make it impossible to succeed in Iraq. And then the final option is secure the capital and at the same time chase al-Qaida into Anbar. And what's different is that there would be more troops this time and better rules of engagement so that the Iraqi troops and our troops, working side by side, will be able to go after the enemy.

MR. LEHRER: Mr. President, is 21,500 troops really that many more troops to 130-some thousand? Is that really enough to do all the things that you intend and hope will do?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, that's certainly a question I had to consider. It's a - at some point in time, you know, the president - you listen to all the different points of view. I've heard somebody say none, and people say 40,000, but it's really going to be up to the military to make the final numbers that they think are necessary to achieve the mission, and that's what I have done in this case. I've listened to the commanders, five brigades - six brigades are committed to Iraq, five into Baghdad, so it's not 21,000 into Baghdad; it is -

MR. LEHRER: Seventeen-five (17,500).

PRESIDENT BUSH: Seventeen-five (17,500) into Baghdad; four (thousand) into Anbar. But this is the number that they felt comfortable with in achieving the mission, particularly with the additional Iraqi brigades that will be going into Baghdad.

MR. LEHRER: And yet, as we just discussed, the commanders say, hey, we need this - we think we can get this done, but we're not sure that this will even work. That's what the commanders -

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, I think - you know, I - I didn't listen to General Casey's comments. The only thing I can tell you is what he told me. He said this has got the best chance of working. And we thought about what is the best way to succeed, and this is the best way to succeed in his mind and in my mind.

Weighing the public's reaction

President George W. Bush
[Iraq] must be viewed in the context of democracies like Lebanon and the Palestinian territories - all being - these young democracies, by the way, being attacked by the same type of extremists that are attacking the democracy in Iraq.

MR. LEHRER: Putting the whole thing together, Mr. President, there were two major factors that everybody said that played in your mind and in your decision making. One was the results of the mid-term elections. Another was the - were the findings and the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Commission. And the end result - some of the folks are saying - was that you decided a bipartisan approach, that - come up with something that everybody could accept and try to work together on as a result of the elections, as a result of Baker-Hamilton. You rejected that as an idea. Am I right about that?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Not really. I - the elections - you know, what made my determination that we needed to change policy was what was happening in Iraq; not what was happening in American elections. I want to succeed in Iraq.

And I fully understand, Jim, by the way, that the American people are going to say, okay, show us whether this works. When it's all said and done, what really matters is not my speech or my interview with you, but what happens on the ground. And that's my primary concern in coming up with something different, was that it wasn't working in Baghdad, so therefore we've got to do something different. One option was to leave, one option was to step up - but let me talk about Baker-Hamilton.

I welcomed James Baker and Lee Hamilton's work. First of all, I respect them as good, solid citizens who care a lot about this country. Second, they had some really good ideas in there, some of which I embraced. The notion of kind of embedding and removing combat troops makes a lot of sense to me, but not now - until we crack the - help the Iraqis crack the sectarian violence in Baghdad. They have a good strategy inherent in their report toward the role of U.S. troops inside Iraq. It's just that there needs to be an interim stage in order to achieve that objective. As a matter of fact, their report itself at one point suggested more troops might be needed in the interim before we implement their recommendations on - particularly for the military in their report.

MR. LEHRER: But the bottom line, Mr. President, was that when you put the plan together -- you spent, you know, five or six weeks developing the plan -

PRESIDENT BUSH: Yes.

MR. LEHRER: -- that it was not driven primarily by, hey, we want something that the American people - Republicans and Democrats -- and members of Congress - Republicans and Democrats - that the experts - these and those and whatevers - can support. That was not what drove you?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well - listen, I fully understand the president has got to convince the American people it's worth it and that we can succeed, and no doubt - and I've spent a lot of time during my presidency talking to the American people and educating the American people about the stakes and what we're trying to get done.

But my first consideration - and listen, I hope Republicans and Democrats support this, but no question there's a headwind. There's a lot of skepticism in Washington, D.C. There's skepticism about whether or not there's enough troops, whether we should be putting any troops, and there's skepticism whether the Maliki government will make the tough decisions necessary to succeed.

The common ground is - that I'm finding is most people say we can't fail, and no question I'd love to have bipartisan support. I mean, I'd love for Democrats and Republicans to stand behind me in the Rose Garden as I outline the plan, but the primary objective has got to be to succeed in Iraq. And so I'm not surprised that people are saying, okay, you may think this is necessary for success, but we're skeptical. And so we're in a period of - there's some pessimism and some skepticism here in Washington that I'm going to have to continue to work through. And - but ultimately, Jim, what's going to matter is whether or not there is success on the ground.

MR. LEHRER: But when - but when, Mr. President, does the skepticism and the criticism become so heavy and so prevalent that it becomes a factor? In other words, simply put, how in the world does any president of the United States run a war without the support of a majority of the American people and a majority of the Congress of the United States, no matter what the ins and outs are?

PRESIDENT BUSH: No, and no question about that. And that's why I'm having this interview with you. I'm trying to do my very best to explain to people why success is vital. In other words, people have got to understand that if we decide and we grow weary of - and there's a lot of war weariness in this country, and I fully understand that -- and we say, okay, well, let's just leave; we can leave in stages, but let's just leave, or let's just pull back and hope that the Iraqis are able to settle their business, the consequences of that decision will be disastrous for the future of this country. And therefore, we got to keep working on ways to succeed, as far as I'm concerned.

And again I want to repeat this, if you don't mind.

MR. LEHRER: Sure.

PRESIDENT BUSH: The world will see - 20 years from now, it's conceivable the world will see a Middle East that's got Shia - radical Shia and radical Sunnis competing against each other for power, which will cause people to have to choose up sides in the Middle East, supporting ideologies that are the exact opposite of what we believe.

Secondly, it is likely, if that scenario were to develop, that Middle Eastern oil would fall in the hand of radicals, which they could then use to blackmail Western governments.

Thirdly, when you throw a nuclear weapon race in the midst of this, you've got a - you know, a kind of - a chance for radicals to use weapons of mass destruction in a form that would cause huge devastation. In other words, there would be a cauldron of radicalism and extremism that a future generation would have to deal with.

Now is the time to succeed in Iraq. That's why in my State of the Union address, and why in other speeches I have and will spend time talking about the need to defeat this ideology with an ideology that is hopeful - the ideology of hate with an ideology of hope, and that would be democracy.

And so the - Iraq is - Jim, is - must be viewed in a context just larger than that single battlefield. It must be viewed in context of how Iran reacts. It must be viewed in the context of democracies like Lebanon and the Palestinian territories - all being - these young democracies, by the way, being attacked by the same type of extremists that are attacking the democracy in Iraq.

Public contributions?

President George W. Bush
I'm not for it because raising taxes will hurt this growing economy. And one thing we want during this war on terror is for people to feel like their life's moving on, that they're able to make a living.

MR. LEHRER: Let me ask you a bottom-line question, Mr. President. If it is as important as you've just said - and you've said it many times - as all of this is, particularly the struggle in Iraq, if it's that important to all of us and to the future of our country, if not the world, why have you not, as president of the United States, asked more Americans and more American interests to sacrifice something? The people who are now sacrificing are, you know, the volunteer military - the Army and the U.S. Marines and their families. They're the only people who are actually sacrificing anything at this point.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night. I mean, we've got a fantastic economy here in the United States, but yet, when you think about the psychology of the country, it is somewhat down because of this war.

Now, here in Washington when I say, "What do you mean by that?," they say, "Well, why don't you raise their taxes; that'll cause there to be a sacrifice." I strongly oppose that. If that's the kind of sacrifice people are talking about, I'm not for it because raising taxes will hurt this growing economy. And one thing we want during this war on terror is for people to feel like their life's moving on, that they're able to make a living and send their kids to college and put more money on the table. And you know, I am interested and open-minded to the suggestion, but this is going to be -

MR. LEHRER: Well -

PRESIDENT BUSH: -- this is like saying why don't you make sacrifices in the Cold War? I mean, Iraq is only a part of a larger ideological struggle. But it's a totally different kind of war, than ones we're used to.

MR. LEHRER: Well, for instance, Mr. President, some people have asked why -- and I would ask you about -- have you considered some kind of national service program, that would be civilian as well as military, that would involve more people in the effort to - not just militarily, but you talk about ideology, all this sort of stuff - in other words, to kind of muster the support of young Americans, and other Americans, in this struggle that you say is so monumental and so important.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Yeah, I have considered whether it ought to be compulsory, non-military service, I guess is the best way to put it. I'm not for compulsory military service, by the way. I think the volunteer army is working and we got to keep it strong.

I made the decision early on to set up what's - something called the USA Freedom Corps, which could encourage volunteerism; call people to take time out of their lives to serve our country with compassionate acts. And by the way, volunteerism is high in America.

But no, you know, I thought through compulsory national service and thought that the route that we picked was the best route.

MR. LEHRER: The best route. How would you define, finally, where the best route is going to end? If you - in other words, you have a plan now -

PRESIDENT BUSH: Right.

MR. LEHRER: -- and eventually, the plan is going to have to result in something. You said yourself it's going to have to result in something on the ground.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Right. Right. Right.

MR. LEHRER: What is that result going to be?

PRESIDENT BUSH: A Baghdad which is less violent, neighborhoods that are not being cleansed of sectarian violence, and a government that has got a security force - army and national police force - that is chasing down killers, whether they be Sunni killers or Shia killers. In other words, a country that is beginning to function, first and foremost - a government functioning as - to provide security for people. Most people want to live in peace, and yet, the violence is such that they're not able to do so.

Secondly, I want to see a political process that tends to unify the country as opposed to divide the country. And that would be an oil law; that would be reforming the de-Ba'athification law; that will be local elections. The Iraqi government said they're going to spend $10 billion. We want to see the $10 billion spent equitably. We'd like to see this country continue its small business growth and continue to flourish. We want the country to be territorially intact. We want it to be an ally in this war on terror, not a safe haven for terrorists. And this is doable.

I would like very much at some point in time, of course, to have fewer U.S. troops. But there is no timetable to do this on. All timetables do is embolden the enemy. Look, I want the Iraqi government to work. And it's in our interests that we help it work, it seems like to me, and that's why I made the decision I made.

MR. LEHRER: And you're an optimist - you're optimistic about it all at this point?

PRESIDENT BUSH: I am. No question there's a - look, a year ago if we'd been having this discussion prior to the Samarra bombing, I'd have been - look what happened. And then the enemy responded. And by the way, it was al-Qaida that bombed the Samarra mosque. It was al-Qaida that said, we're losing; democracy is something we can't stand, so let us kill innocent lives and bomb a holy site in order to try to provoke sectarian violence. And they were successful. This guy, Zarqawi, did a good job.

It's important for the American people to understand it is al-Qaida that is doing a lot of these spectacular bombings. Why? Because they want a safe haven. They still have ambitions about hurting America. The very same guys - type of guys that flew those airplanes on September 11th are still the ones that are battling against a young democracy in Iraq. And we've got to defeat them, we got to defeat them there. And what changed in 2005 was this level of - and 2006, was this level of sectarian violence that you have accurately described. And the decision I had to make was, does it make sense to help the Iraqis with additional U.S. forces go in and secure those neighborhoods and not only drive them out, drive the insurgents out, but to have enough troops to hold them, and so that the politics and the reconstruction could go forward. And I spent a lot of time thinking about it, Jim, obviously. You mentioned five weeks. This is what presidents do; they take time, they listen. I listened to a lot of folks, a lot of good, decent folks, and came up with this answer as the best way to succeed. And my only call to Congress is that if you've got a better way to succeed, step up and explain it. I fully understand your skepticism, I say to them, but if you share with me the concern that failure's not an option, then what is - what's your - what's your prescription for success? And I think they owe that explanation to the American people.

MR. LEHRER: Mr. President, thank you very much.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Yes, sir. Thank you.