Bush: 'Presidents Don't Get Do-Overs'

Charles Gibson spent time with President Bush this morning onboard Air Force One. They flew from Washington to Atlanta, where the president gave the latest in a series of speeches about the war on terror. The following is an excerpt from their conversation:

Charles Gibson: Mr. President, five years ago after the attacks of 9/11, we had unprecedented passion for this country. We had support for this country from all over the world.

President Bush: Um-Hmm.

Gibson: On Capitol Hill we had Democrats hugging Republicans, we had Republicans hugging Democrats. How did we lose all that?

Bush: You know, when you have Republicans hugging Democrats, it really does inspire the nation. I think we have some campaigns to come between now and then. You know, we're a democracy … we got two political parties competing, uh, and unfortunately politics oftentimes enters into the equation, and my job is to hopefully raise the debate above politics and continue to rally the nation to protect ourselves, and at the same time to lay the foundation of peace … but overseas … sometimes people agree with the decisions I make and sometimes they don't.

One of the things that the American people have got to understand is that for people overseas, many people overseas, 9/11 was a terrible moment. For us, or for me, and my administration, and for many Americans, it was a change of life, it was a different way of looking at the world, and so in order to protect ourselves, in order to advance what I believe is going to be peace, I made some hard decisions that not everybody agreed with.

Gibson: But isn't the simple answer to that question really one word, what divided the world against us and what's divided us politically? That word being Iraq?

Bush: No question people are concerned about the war in Iraq. Nobody likes war, and I don't like war. But I have to make decisions that I think, are in the interests of this country, and one of the lessons of 9/11, you know, I was right here in this cabin, that I had time to reflect about that fateful day, I realized that we were at war. I also realized that it's really important for this nation to confront threats before they come to hurt us. Oceans couldn't protect us any more from an enemy that's willing to launch attacks and, uh, we saw a threat in the Taliban in Afghanistan, and removed them, and that was not necessarily a popular decision overseas.

I also saw a threat, just like many in the international community, in Saddam Hussein. No question the Iraq War has been a divisive, you know, war, but what the American people have got to understand is, is that failure in Iraq will exacerbate this war on terror, will come home to hurt us. John Abizaid was right when he said, if we believe [sic.] before the job is done, the enemy will follow us here. Success in Iraq will enable us to deal a major blow to an ideological enemy, and what I have called and firmly believe, is the … is an ideological war.

Gibson: I heard you say just yesterday, "The hardest thing I have to do is to get people to understand how Iraq is a critical part of the war on terror."

President Bush: Right.

Gibson: And that's the one thing that I question, whether people do have any sense of that. For loathsome as he may have been, Saddam Hussein was not connected to al Qaeda, and he was not behind 9/11.

Bush: No, I understand that people ask, "How can this be a connection, between the war on terror and," you know, "How can Iraq be a connection when Saddam Hussein didn't order the attacks?" And you know, I understand that concern, because he didn't order the attacks. The enemy, however, believes that Iraq is a part of the war on terror. Osama bin Laden has called Iraq central to the war on terror. And if we lose, if this young democracy fails, the enemy will be emboldened. They will have resources in which to launch attacks. They have declared their desire to have a caliphate throughout the Middle East, and one of their targets is to topple modern governments.

Friends, moderates, reformers across the Middle East will say, "Where was the United States?" And so the stakes are incredibly high here, Charlie, and yes, this is a part of the war on terror. It is a central part of the war on terror.

Gibson: But the point that I make and that many of the critics make is that Iraq wasn't a part of the war on terror until we went in there.

Bush: I think we … (overlap)

Gibson: Now because of Iraq, they're being produced, because (crosstalk)

Bush: I … I … listen, I understand it's dangerous and troublesome, but I think it's very important for the American people to ask, "Why, why is it that Osama bin Laden wants to drive us out of Iraq before this democracy can sustain itself?" One reason is they want a launching pad, another launching pad, a safe haven similar to Afghanistan. And the other reason is because Osama bin Laden recognizes that this is an ideological struggle, and the way to defeat an ideology of hate is with an ideology of hope, and that's liberty and democracy.

Some say, "Well, it's impossible for democracy to take hold in the Middle East." Well, that's true if we leave. But the Iraqis themselves have said, "We want to live in a land of liberty, we want to be free," and that's why 12 million people voted.

This … this struggle is akin to the Cold War. And what I'm not going to let happen on my watch, Charlie, is to concede and cede territory to an enemy that wants to hit us again. An enemy that has made their intentions clear -- that is, drive the United States out of the Middle East, and the first place to do so is in Iraq: "Let us defeat the forces of reform and moderation, let us have oil from which to punish the West economically, and let us have a weapon of mass destruction." That is their desire, and their goal, and we must not let them succeed. And so absolutely, Iraq is tied to the security of the United States.

Gibson: A very good argument, that you just made for what you did in Afghanistan and what you did in working with the Pakistanis, to go after the Taliban, who were at the center of this, but Iraq was not, until we went in.

Bush: Charlie, I just told you, the president's job is to confront a threat, and … and if … if I can walk you back in history, uh, Saddam Hussein was clearly a threat. He was a sponsor of terror, he was shooting at American airplanes, he had invaded a neighbor, he had killed thousands of his own citizens, he had used weapons of mass destruction. We have learned since that he did not use them, but he had the capacity to use weapons of mass destruction. He was paying for suicide bombers, the families of suicide bombers.

It wasn't just the United States that saw a threat -- Republicans and Democrats saw a threat. The international community saw a threat. He was given a last chance, and it was his choice to make.

Presidents don't get do-overs. But I did. … I'm going to make this statement to you: This world is safer and better off without Saddam Hussein in power, and now the challenge is to help the reformers and moderates fight off the extremists in Iraq and develop a … and help a country grow that can defend itself, sustain itself, and govern itself, and will be an ally in the war on terror. Victory in Iraq is a major defeat toward the extremists and the radicals who want to do America harm.

Gibson: In the back of everyone's mind in this country is always "Am I safer?" Is it not demonstrably clear with what's going on in Iraq that there are more people now who want to do us harm, more jihadists, than there were five years ago?

Bush: Charlie … it is estimated that there were 10,000 people trained in terror camps in Afghanistan. It's very hard to tell the size of the enemy. No question they're violent in Iraq, but they're violent in Iraq for a reason, because they cannot stand the thought of a young democracy emerging in the Middle East. You know, it's interesting, Hezbollah launches attacks on Israel, unprovoked attacks on Israel, and I think one of the reasons why is they're trying to destabilize the young democracy of Lebanon.

I find it interesting, uh, and history I think is going to judge this to be the case, that radical extremists, whether they be Shia or Sunni, use terrorist techniques to stop the advance of democracy. And the reason why is, is because they've got ideological aims and objectives. And they're willing to use terror to achieve those objectives, and one of the things they're trying to do is to drive us out of the Middle East so they can topple modern governments.

Gibson: Given the desire that you've often expressed, to foster democracy in Iraq and throughout the Middle East, does it drive you a little nuts that 10,000 people in Baghdad demonstrated in support of Hezbollah?

Bush: … I'm sorry that there's 10,000 people who think Hezbollah's worth protesting for, on the other hand I appreciate a society that allows them to protest. That's what democracy is all about, that's what freedom is about. And when I talk about democracy, I don't say that, you know, Iraq democracy ought to look like America. Iraq's got its own traditions, its own history, its own issues, yet I will point out that they did establish a constitution, understanding that it's the constitution that can bind this country together. And it's hard work.

Listen, I'm not suggesting that this is, that this is easy to get done, it's hard. It's hard because this country, for example, is recovering from tyranny. It's hard because the former tyrant had divided people into groups, and pitting groups against each other, so there's a lot of resentment and animosity, and it's hard because al Qaeda, and their associates, will do whatever it takes to stop the advance of democracy. This is like the Cold War. I keep saying that, but I truly believe it's the case.

Gibson: You used the phrase a moment ago, what binds this country together, talking about Iraq.

Bush: Yeah.

Gibson: They, the Iraqi Parliament, has started debate on whether or not that country ought to be divided into three parts.

Bush: Yeah.

Gibson:Mistake?

Bush: In my judgment it would be. The constitution calls for a united country. I don't think there's … talking about three separate governments, I think they're talking about a form of federalism.

Gibson: We are talking about three separate governments.

Bush: Well, some of them are, but others are talking about federalism, and I think it would be a mistake to have three separate countries.

Gibson: Let me ask you a couple of broader questions. You talked in your speech on Tuesday about working with friends in the region. To deny terrorists safe haven. On that very day, President Musharraf was signing an agreement with the Taliban to in effect give them free reign in an area on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Isn't that exactly doing, he's giving them safe haven? (crosstalk)

Bush: I don't read it that way. As a matter of fact, the intelligence community came in and gave me a little more, uh, granularity on what he had done. … what he is doing is entering agreements with governors in the regions of the country, in the hopes that there would be an economic vitality, there will be alternatives to violence and terror. You know, we are watching this very carefully, obviously. We have made it … we have made it clear that, uh, he should not provide an environment that enables people to go from his country into Afghanistan. I haven't seen the statements that he made in Afghanistan yesterday or today, but he is in Afghanistan today, and I know President Karzai is concerned about, the issue of enabling the Taliban to move.

And so, we'll see how it shakes out. I will tell you this: President Musharraf, in my conversations with him, and I talk to him quite frequently, fully understands, and does not want his country to become a launching pad for military actions against neighbors and/or U.S. troops.

Gibson: Does that agreement worry you, though?

Bush: Well, I don't know all the details … (overlap)

Gibson: Did you call him?

Bush: Yeah.

Gibson: Did you call him?

Bush:Well, I'm going. I'm going to see him pretty soon.

Gibson: A broad question: You have, a number of times in going off to give speeches like you're going to give today, used the line that we are not going to rest until there is victory in this war on terror.

Bush: Right.

Gibson: And you always get applause when you say it. I don't know what victory is. Is it getting rid of every jihadist who would do us economic and, and, and indeed actual harm?

Bush: … There will be a series of victories in order to achieve victory in this ideological struggle. The first series of victories come when we dismantle al Qaeda and we're in the process of doing that. Now, the short term strategy is to bring those to justice who would do us harm. The longer term victories come when democracy, Iraqi style democracy, Lebanese style democracy, a Palestinian democracy, exist, take root and are capable of helping kind of … defeat the … systems of government that created resentment and hopelessness which enables people to create suiciders, and that is the long term struggle.

Short-term victory will be achieved by defeating people on the battlefield. Using our intelligence, and to find people before they hurt us. Long-term victories will be achieved, uh, when, the ideology of hate is overcome by the ideology of hope. And that's why I make the case that this is akin to the ideological struggles of the past. And it's going to take a while. And it's very important for, … the free world to understand the stakes, and it became evident to me, evident to me -- more evident to me -- when Shia extremists attacked democracy of Israel at the same time that Sunni extremists are attacking the democracy of Iraq.

Gibson: And tell me what long term means. I just had a grandson. He's five months old. When he graduates from college …

Bush: Yeah, you know, it's like asking Harry Truman, when would the Cold War end? Harry Truman made some very difficult decisions, and by the way, was very unpopular as a result of the difficult decisions he made, but he'd be sitting down on the then equivalent of Air Force One and somebody, one of your predecessors said, Mr. President, when can you tell me will the Cold War end? And he'd say, I hope as soon as possible, but I recognize it is an ideological struggle that will take time.

My point is, is that the short term objective is to protect this homeland from attack, and they want to hit us again. They want to come and they want to kill Americans. The short term objective is to help this Iraqi democracy survive, and thrive, and that's why we will not leave until our commanders say that we've enabled them to achieve the objective. The short term objective is to understand the stakes in this war against extremists. The long term objective is to … win the ideological struggle.

Recalling Sept. 11

Gibson:One of the extraordinary phenomenon, not to give too much away about myself, but in these five years, I have found at times, it's overwhelming what happened and I find myself crying ...

Bush: Yeah.

Gibson: … at inappropriate times. I was talking to, when I was over in Jerusalem, at the beginning of the war, to the new foreign minister of Israel. I said you know, we got to talking about 9/11 and I suddenly realized I was crying …

Bush: Yeah, I thank you for that.

Gibson: Does that happen to you?

Bush: Yeah, of course. Generally it's triggered when I meet somebody who lost their loved one … and that happens fairly frequently. Tell me … well, I lost a member of my family on 9/11, and … you know, it's a good sign, by the way, that you're able to empathize, that your heart breaks for somebody who suffered. 9/11, as I told you before, for this country, you know, is a … just changed our way of thinking, it changed your way of thinking, it changed my way of thinking. For others overseas it was a terrible event, and that's the fundamental difference about, you know, why some people react to the decisions I have made the way they do.

Gibson: When you said yesterday in your speech, "We'll bring these people to justice," I thought you were looking at some of the 9-11 families.

Bush: I was.

Gibson: Was there a tear in your eye?

Bush: There was. … tears can get contagious as far as I'm concerned, and I … this was a … fairly dramatic setting, the East Room, full of 9/11 families, and, you know, you're out there trying to focus on the speech, and … but I'm also the type of speaker that relates to the audience, in other words I try to pick people out of the audience and give the speech to them. I was … I picked some people out of the audience and they started tearing up, or started crying. And, uh, you know, … the truth of the matter is, I had to … you know, really concentrate on making sure I continued the speech.

But yes, I did. I felt, you know, I just … I felt, this, I guess kind of bonded to onded to the people there that were … were still agonizing. And I frankly was, when I said that we will bring these people to justice, and there was this kind of energy released in the room it caught me by surprise, because this … this had been a speech for people that are paying attention to every word, and yet there was an emotional outburst, which, you know, it affected me.

Gibson: Mr. President, thank you. For your time.

Bush: Now we can play some gin rummy.