Weeks before the invasion of Iraq, President Bush told Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar that the attack would go forward with or without a U.N. resolution condemning the government of Saddam Hussein, according to a transcript of the private meeting obtained by a Spanish newspaper.
"This is like Chinese water torture," Bush is quoted as telling Aznar. "We have to put an end to it."
In the private conversation at the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas, Feb. 22, 2003, Bush does not contradict his public statements on Iraq, but he is much more direct and specific. Speaking to reporters at his ranch publicly later that same day, Bush left the impression that an invasion of Iraq was not inevitable.
"President Aznar and I agree that the future of peace depends on the disarmament of Iraq," Bush said in the news briefing. "We agree that Saddam Hussein continues to be in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441. We agree that the terms of that resolution must be fully respected. By Resolution 1441, the Security Council has taken a clear stand and it now faces a clear choice. With all the world watching, the council will now show whether it means what it says."
The transcript of Bush's private conversation with Aznar, taken down by the U.S. ambassador's office, was translated into Spanish by El Pais and posted by the newspaper. The excerpts used in this article have been translated back into English and might vary slightly in wording from the original English version.
The White House declined to challenge the accuracy of the El Pais transcript.
Aznar's support for Bush and the war cost him dearly in Spanish popular opinion. In 2003 the Spanish leader said he would stick to a pledge to not seek a third term and designated Mariano Rajoy as his successor for the 2004 election. Rajoy's Popular Party lost the election due in part to the aftermath of the Madrid train bombings.
Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero of the leftist Spanish Socialist Workers Party also won after running an anti-war campaign. Zapatero promised to withdraw troops from Iraq if elected and made good on the promise when he took office. Spain's support for the war was cited as a reason it was targeted in the deadly bombings.
Bush told Aznar that Egyptian officials who were in contact with Saddam had said the Iraqi leader was willing to go into exile if he could take $1 billion and any documents on weapons of mass destruction programs with him, according to the transcript — a suggestion Bush rejected out of hand.
"He's a thief, a terrorist and a war criminal," Bush said, according to the transcript. "Compared to Saddam, [Yugoslavia's Slobodan] Milosevic is Mother Teresa."
The American president is quoted as saying he planned to drag Saddam to the International Tribunal at the Hague, an option ultimately rejected by the Iraqi government. Saddam was convicted in an Iraqi court and hanged in December. Bush is quoted estimating the chances that Saddam would have fled before or during the invasion at 15 percent.
When Aznar said he would like to win the war without firing a single shot, Bush is quoted as agreeing, saying he understood the toll of war and had to call the widows and mothers of the dead.
"Also," the president is quoted as adding, "it would save us $50 billion."
That figure dramatically underestimated the cost of a war for which the administration has requested nearly $190 billion for the next year alone.
The president also appeared erroneously optimistic about how Iraq would adjust to a post-Saddam era.
"We're planning for a post-Saddam Iraq and believe there is a strong base to build a better future. Iraq has a good bureaucracy and relatively strong civil society," he is quoted as saying.
The transcripts also suggest Bush was privately strong-arming governments that could block a new resolution in the United Nations, saying, "Countries like Mexico, Chile, Angola and Cameroon should know that what's at stake is the security of the United States. … [Chilean President Ricardo] Lagos should know that the Free Trade Accord with Chile is awaiting Senate confirmation and a negative attitude about this could put ratification in danger. Angola is receiving Millennium Account [anti-poverty] funds and that could be jeopardized also if he's not supportive… "
Of France's Jacques Chirac, Bush is quoted as grousing, "Chirac knows perfectly well the reality. His intelligence services have explained. The Arab countries are sending Chirac a clear message: Saddam Hussein must go. The problem is that Chirac thinks he's Mister Arab and is making life impossible."