ABCNEWS WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT MARTHA RADDAT: Mr. President, let's start back in 2006 and talk about the surge. At what point in 2006 did you really fear that things were falling apart?
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: You know, the violence spike --- and I'm trying to get the -- you know, get the calendar right here. The violence started to spike late spring, if I'm not mistaken.
I remember thinking that, after the Samarra bombing, the Iraqi society took a look and decided, "Well, we don't want to have serious civil strife." And then, all of a sudden, civil strife started, and it kind of slowly began to build up. Throughout the summer, there was unspeakable violence.
And I had a choice, obviously, as to whether or not to kind of pull back and hope for the best or move in and try to change the conditions. And, you know, I made the choice to move in and change conditions and started the surge.
Watch Martha Raddatz's interview with Bush tonight on "World News With Charles Gibson" at 6:30 ET.
RADDATZ: But during that period -- during that period, how worried were you?
BUSH: I was worried. Look, I'm worried any time it looks like we're going to fail in Iraq. I'm driven by a lot of things. One is strategic concerns about Iraq. I mean, if Iraq fails, it's going to affect the security of the country, and it's going to create great turmoil in the Middle East. It will embolden Al Qaeda.
I'm also concerned about leaving our soldiers behind -- in other words, having the deaths and the sacrifice they made go in vain. I see parents all the time of, you know , people are mourning the loss of a loved one.
And they want to know whether or not the president is going to make the decisions necessary to accomplish this mission. And so I'm driven by a lot of concerns, but those are the two main ones.
RADDATZ: You said you worried any time you think it will fail. Did you think it would fail?
BUSH: I thought it was failing, yes, I did, and that's why -- and I listened to a lot of opinions. And as you remember, there were like all kinds of opinions.
There was the pull back and, you know, let Baghdad take care of itself, and guard the borders, and there was the -- there's all kinds. And obviously, one opinion that was brought forth by people inside the administration and in the Pentagon was to send 30,000 more troops -- or more troops, and 30,000 was the number they arrived at.
RADDATZ: And that was the surge. Who would you credit with the surge?
BUSH: Well, if it's a failure, people will credit me. If it's a success, people will credit all kinds of people, I guess. I don't know. I mean, I think it was a good team effort.
It was certainly an effort -- a recommendation of Secretary Gates. It was a recommendation of the Joint Chiefs. Pete Pace was the chairman at the time. It was definitely a recommendation of some inside the administration.
And you know, (National Security Advisor) Stephen Hadley gets a lot of credit because he was the one who shepherded the process -- you know, to get it to my desk in such a way that I could make a decision. And I was presented with some pretty stark choices.
RADDATZ: All during that period -- April, May, June, July -- when things were really going downhill, people were talking about there being civil war.
RADDATZ: .You were saying, 'We're winning. We have a plan for victory. We are winning,' up through October.
BUSH: Well, there was -- I also recognized -- I think if you'd go through the -- kind of fully analyze my statements, I was also saying, "The fighting is very tough, it's -- you know, the extremism is unacceptable. The murder is unacceptable."
And you know, it's very important to be realistic.
RADDATZ: But the overall thing -- when you say, "We're winning," you know what the American people hear. You know how that will play.
BUSH: Well, yes. I think we -- and I wanted -- that's as much trying to bolster the spirits of the people in the field as well as -- look, you can't have the commander in chief say to a bunch of kids who are sacrificing either, "It's not worth it," or, "You're losing." I mean, what does that do for morale?
I'm the commander in chief of the military as well, obviously, as, you know, somebody who speaks to the country. And if you look at my remarks, they were balanced. They weren't Pollyannaish.
RADDATZ: But you weren't talking about a new strategy. I mean, I remember going to some strategy tactic things with you. You weren't talking about a new strategy publicly.
It's one thing for the troops and boosting morale. I totally understand that. But do you think you lost credibility with the American people? Do you think that's one...
RADDATZ: ... of the reasons you couldn't sell this?
BUSH: I think the quickest way to lose credibility with the American people is for them to think the president makes decisions based upon the latest public opinion poll or what's good for a political party.
RADDATZ: Let me talk about the polls, then.
RADDATZ: Vice President Cheney said to me a few weeks ago that this administration doesn't go by fluctuations in the polls. The fact is those polls have not fluctuated over the years. They have been solidly saying that the war was a mistake.
BUSH: Yes, well, you know, look, obviously I care about what the American people think. They're the people that are paying for the effort.
I think you can -- and I understand people don't like war. I don't like war. I think some of those polls also say we don't want to lose. There are a lot of people who understand the consequences of failure.
And, you know, to give Al Qaeda a safe haven in Iraq would be a huge mistake. This is a group that attacked us and killed 3,000 of our citizens. And so, yes, look, I mean, I can fully understand people's concerns. And, yes, we care about their concerns.
I also think it's very important for the president to keep the strategic objectives in mind, as well. And some don't understand the connection between failure in Iraq and our security, and I understand that. But my job, first and foremost, is to create the conditions so that future generations of Americans can live in peace. And that's exactly what I think we're doing.
RADDATZ: You've talked about conditions. General Petraeus talked about these conditions.
RADDATZ: But they're very vague, and it's one of the things that both sides of the aisle talked about after General Petraeus' testimony. What are these conditions? Shouldn't we have a clear, specific plan five years into this war, six years into this war, that tells exactly what those conditions are, how you decide and determine an end state?
BUSH: Yes. Well, I beg to disagree that General Petraeus is vague. I think General Petraeus was quite specific about what he wants to see the Iraqi forces do. I think he wants the Iraqi forces to be more in the lead.
In my speech yesterday, I talked about the three areas that I expect to see improvement in. One is security. And we want to see more Iraqi forces in the lead.
And you can measure the number of forces that are trained. And you can measure the number of forces that are more capable. And you can look at the number of provinces in which (inaudible) has transferred control.
In my speech, I said that we want to get to a position where we're an overwatch, where we're training and stepping in where the Iraqis need us. I talked about the economy, and that's measurable. You can measure statistics, inflation statistics or employment statistics or revenues.
And then I talked about political. And, remember, there was such a thing as benchmarks. And we are measuring whether or not the political system is meeting those benchmarks. The key for me is implementing the benchmarks.
RADDATZ: Right, and no oil law, no real political reconciliation on...
BUSH: I disagree with no real political reconciliation.
RADDATZ: On the national level.
BUSH: No, I disagree with that, too. I think you'll find that the government is functioning a lot better than it was a year ago. They had passed major law. Yes, there needs to be an oil law, but they are sharing oil revenues.
I'm not making -- this is not a perfect system. On the other hand, they have made progress. And is there more to be done? You bet there's more to be done. Is it worth it to help them do it? That's the fundamental question. And I believe it is worth it to help them do it.
RADDATZ: General Petraeus talked about the drawdown and that he wants 45 days to reassess.
RADDATZ: You said you'll give him all the time you need, he needs.
RADDATZ: Do you think there will be 140,000 troops on the ground when you leave office?
BUSH: Don't know. But I do know that -- by the way, my statement, I -- you know, sometimes people read what they want to in the president's words. My statement was, in essence, this: If General Petraeus needs 45 days, he'll have 45 days.
You know, we're into a presidential year. Some are wondering whether or not I'll be making decisions to help our candidate for president or whether or not -- you know, look, it's very important for our military to know that my decisions will be based upon the considered judgment of our commanders on the ground and the Joint Chiefs. And that's basically what I was trying to say.
And so David will have time to make the decision, and I don't know what he'll decide, Martha, and...
RADDATZ: So you're not saying it would be just 45 days, or will it go beyond 45 days. You just don't know.
BUSH: I don't know. But on the other hand, I did say that my hope is that conditions will enable us to continue return on success.
RADDATZ: Because Secretary Gates was much more specific in his testimony, saying that he hoped there would be more of a drawdown in the fall. Are you hoping to do more of a drawdown in the fall?
BUSH: I couldn't have been more specific in my speech. I said, "I hope conditions will enable us to continue return on success." That's what I hope.
RADDATZ: Can you imagine, given how it's going now -- and you've had setbacks in the last few weeks -- that we could possibly get to 100,000 troops by the end of the year?
BUSH: I can't...
RADDATZ: See, this is what frustrates people on the Hill. It frustrates the American people, that there are...
BUSH: Well, I hope it doesn't frustrate you, because you understand. You follow this very carefully -- that for the president to speculate on what a troop level will be, and then conditions change, and then the troop level's not what it is.
In other words, I don't want to get expectations up to the point where conditions dictate another response. The question is, "Are we going to have the troops in place that will enable us to succeed?" And the answer is we will, so long as I'm the president.
RADDATZ: Let's do the math here again.
RADDATZ: You've got Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen talking yesterday about the strain on Afghanistan. More troops have been promised. Secretary Gates said they'll send more troops to Afghanistan.
Even though you've gone back to 12-month deployments, there is still a tremendous strain on the troops. How do you maintain that deployment schedule, send more troops to Afghanistan and keep 140,000 troops in Iraq? The math doesn't work.
BUSH: Well, first of all, by getting down to 15 brigades by July, we're going to be able to be 12 in and 12 out, and that's very important to take strain off the force.
Secondly, we have found troops to move into Afghanistan -- the United States Marines, as well as some additional Army.
Thirdly, we expect our allies to send more troops in in Afghanistan. This is a NATO effort. This is not a sole United States effort. And so my purpose in going to the NATO summit was to convince others to bolster their presence, and they did.
And you know, will we need more troops in 2009? I signaled that if that's the case, we'll find them.
RADDATZ: We'll find them. I mean, but you'll have to draw down in Iraq.
BUSH: We are drawing down in Iraq. That's the whole point.
RADDATZ: Even more. Even more, because -- I know 3,200 Marines, but Secretary Gates has promised even more.
BUSH: Well, see, the thing that I think was missed yesterday in my speech was that we are drawing down in Iraq. We're taking five brigades -- will be coming home. That's 25 percent less combat troops in Iraq in July than we had a year ago.
RADDATZ: And about 10,000 more than before the surge started. So get back to that...
BUSH: Many of whom are -- many of whom are enablers, as you well know.
RADDATZ: The pressure on the commanders to draw down is great. It has to be, given what we do in the world, given Afghanistan.
Let me read you a couple of quotes from Admiral Mullen, "We cannot now meet extra force requirements in places like Afghanistan. I am deeply concerned about Afghanistan. The Taliban is growing bolder. Suicide attacks are on the rise and so is the trade in illegal narcotics. We do what we can, but doing what we can is not doing all we should."
BUSH: All the reason to increase the size of the Army and the Marine Corps, and that's precisely what we're trying to do, is to ease that pressure by doing that, as well as having 12 in, 12 out in Iraq.
Look, in my speech yesterday I said something I truly believe is important. The worst thing for morale for the United States Army and the military would be to fail in Iraq or in Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, we are part of a larger coalition. And part of the short-term strategy was to convince others to put troops in, and that's exactly what happened. It was a very successful NATO summit, in large part thanks to President Sarkozy of France, who committed additional troops in Afghanistan.
RADDATZ: On Afghanistan and Pakistan, intelligence agencies will say that, if there is another 9/11 plot being hatched, it is probably in that region...
RADDATZ: ... not in Iraq.
BUSH: Yes, I would say not in Afghanistan. I would say in...
BUSH: Yes. Probably true. And, you know, all the more reason to have the capacity to listen to the phone calls of terrorists making phone calls. That's why we need to have this FISA law passed by the United States Congress. We're still under threat, and we're still pressuring terrorists. And it's -- we've been pretty successful at bringing to justice the number-three person in Al Qaida, with Pak help, by the way.
RADDATZ: Since you brought that up, ABC News reported this week that your senior national security officials all got together and approved -- including Vice President Cheney -- all got together and approved enhanced interrogation methods, including waterboarding, for detainees.
BUSH: You mean back in 2003?
RADDATZ: Are you aware of that? Are you aware of that?
BUSH: Was I aware that we were going to use enhanced...
RADDATZ: That they all met together?
BUSH: Of course. They meet together all the time on...
RADDATZ: And approved that?
BUSH: ... a variety of issues.
RADDATZ: And approved that?
RADDATZ: You have no problem with that?
BUSH: In 2003?
BUSH: No. I mean, as a matter of fact, I told the country we did that. And I also told them it was legal. We had legal opinions that enabled us to do it. And, no, I didn't have any problem at all trying to find out what Khalid Sheikh Mohammed knew.
BUSH: And guess what? I think it's very important for the American people to understand who Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was. He was the person who ordered the suicide attack -- I mean, the 9/11 attacks. And back then, there was all kinds of concerns about people saying, "Well, the administration is not connecting the dots." You might remember those -- that period.
RADDATZ: I remember.
BUSH: Well, we started to connect the dots, in order to protect the American people. And, yes, I'm aware our national security team met on this issue. And I approved. I don't know what's new about that; I'm not so sure what's so startling about that.
RADDATZ: Let's go back to Afghanistan, Pakistan.
RADDATZ: Because you say that's where the next 9/11 hatch is likely being...
BUSH: Could be being done, yes.
RADDATZ: ... then why not more assets there? Why aren't you concerned about getting more troops in that area?
BUSH: Because they're not in Afghanistan. And if they were in Afghanistan, they'd be routed out of Afghanistan. We've got plenty of firepower to take on Al Qaeda cells in Afghanistan.
RADDATZ: Then why is Admiral Mullen so worried about that area? Why are the Joint Chiefs so worried about that area?
BUSH: We're all -- we're all concerned about the area. This is the area in which Al Qaeda had had safe havens before. And any time you can find instability or anytime you can find vacuums, we've got to worry about it. But there's other places to worry about, as well.
RADDATZ: Are you assuring a smooth transition to the next president? And do you think, if the Democrats are elected, that they will actually be able to pull out troops rapidly, that they actually will do it?
BUSH: First of all, I'll do everything I can to see to it that my candidate for president, John McCain, wins. And so I would hope that that -- I don't have to answer that question after November.
Secondly, yes, I'd like to -- look, I think any president wants to make sure that there's a framework in place, a structure in place for the next president, no matter what party they're from, is capable of dealing with the national security issues that person will face.
RADDATZ: What would your advice be on Iran? We heard your speech yesterday...
RADDATZ: ... about Iran. And are you concerned that they are infiltrating more into Iraq, clearly the Basra operation?
BUSH: Yes, I think -- you know, I don't know about more infiltration, but infiltration, yes, I'm concerned about it and have been for quite a while. And my message yesterday was Iran has a choice. And if they choose to be a good neighbor, then, you know, we'll help the Iraqis solidify that relationship.
However, if they -- you know, if they choose to infiltrate and send equipment, then we'll deal with them. And we'll get -- we're learning more about their habits and learning more about their routes. And make no mistake about it: We'll protect our troops and civilians and Iraqis.
RADDATZ: How do you deal with Iran? What is our strategy towards Iran?
BUSH: On this issue, on the Iraqi issue or on the nuclear weapons issue?
RADDATZ: Both, both.
BUSH: OK, on nuclear weapons issues, to convince the world that the capacity of the Iranians to enrich is a forerunner to what could be a nuclear weapons program. And, therefore, it's in all our interests to pressure the Iranians to get them to quit enriching or learning how to enrich.
In Iraq, it's very simple, and (inaudible) the message to the Iranians is: We will bring you to justice if you continue to try to infiltrate, send your agents or send surrogates to bring harm to our troops and/or the Iraqi citizens.
RADDATZ: And what does that mean, "bring to justice"?
BUSH: It means capture or kill, is what that means.
RADDATZ: You know all the rumors that abound about your administration...
BUSH: getting ready to attack (laughs)
RADDATZ: ... possibly ready to attack Iran. You're laughing. Talk about those rumors.
BUSH: I'm not suggesting you're spreading the rumors yourself, but, yes, look, there's a lot of rumors about what's in my mind. I have always said all options need to be on the table, but my first effort is to solve this issue diplomatically.
RADDATZ: So your intention is not to attack Iran...
RADDATZ: ... by the end of the administration?
BUSH: Yes, I'm chuckling, because, you know, from my perch, my perspective, these rumors happen all the time -- are um-- I wouldn't say they're amusing. It's part of the job, I guess.
RADDATZ: So not true?
BUSH: No, I've said this over and over and over again . You've had to, you've been very patient as you've listened to these press conferences that I've had and I've said the president's job is to solve these issues diplomatically first and foremost. But, of course options need to stay on the table.
RADDATZ: And advice to the next president on Iran, the next president who will likely inherit these problems?
BUSH: Yes, maybe, is that you can't solve these problems unilaterally. You're going to need a multilateral forum and that, whatever you do, understand there's consequences in other words, you know, if it looks like, one, the threat isn't taken seriously, it will create all kinds of instability in the Middle East. If you send the wrong signals as the president to the Iranians, they may pocket that signal, become even more difficult to deal with. And thirdly, that whatever the president does sends messages inside the country as well to people that would like to see a different form of government and a different system.
RADDATZ: Two quick questions. The economy. A little over a year ago, you told ABC you had been a good steward on the economy.
RADDATZ: Are you still that? Or do you have to take responsibility for what's happening?
BUSH: Of course I take responsibility for a downturn just like I took, try to take some credit for the fact that we had the longest, uninterrupted job growth in the history of the country. And I'm concerned. I'm concerned about those who are worried about staying in their homes. I'm concerned about energy prices. And all the more reason for the Congress not to be raising taxes on the people who are paying those high energy prices.
RADDATZ: Any more you can do about this? Can you imagine a second stimulus package?
BUSH: My advice to Congress is why don't we let the first one work? It hasn't even started yet. We're getting ready to send out checks in the second week of May over a hundred, hundred and something, thirty billion dollars worth of checks to individual families, plus the small business, the business stimulus. What we ought to do is let it work. Give it a chance and then take a step back. Look, I'll consider any ideas. As you know, the Senate passed a bill on housing. Some ideas were good and some were bad in our judgment. We put out our concern. And praise for the ideas that were good. Look, I do believe this economy, the basic underpinning is good and I think we'll come through, but this is a very difficult period.
RADDATZ: One final question. On the Olympics, the Olympic head has called on China to improve human rights, call this a crisis. You've watched the protests with the torch moving. The EU has called for people to boycott. Are you still insisting on going to those opening ceremonies?
BUSH: My plans haven't changed. But what I find interesting about this, just so you know, is that this isn't a new issue for me. Everytime I meet with the Chinese president and I've met a lot with him, I bring up religious freedom and human rights. I mean, so the Dalai Lama is not all of a sudden, okay, the Olympics show up and George W. Bush is for the first time concerned about the Dalai Lama. I'm the only president who's ever stood up with the man publicly. And uh--
RADDATZ: But your presence at the Olympics says something to the world.
BUSH: Yeah. It says I'm supporting our athletes is what it says. And I don't view the Olympics as a political event. I view it as a sporting event. And, you know, I have brought up religious freedom and Darfur and Burma and the Dalai Lama before the Olympics, during the Olympics and after the Olympics I bring it up. And so, I'm uh, I, I view this as an opportunity to support U.S. athletes. And my plans haven't changed. No, they haven't changed.
RADDATZ: Nothing will change your mind on that?
BUSH: My plans haven't changed.
RADDATZ: Okay, thank you, sir.
BUSH: Enjoyed it. Welcome to my place.