The war in Iraq was foremost on President George W. Bush’s mind when he met for an on-the-record session with a small group of conservative journalists for over an hour Wednesday afternoon. But he also talked about Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) reform, State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP), the importance of pending trade agreements, and his nomination of Judge Michael Mukasey for attorney general.
As he made clear in his prime-time speech on Iraq last week, the president is optimistic about the U.S. military’s ability to accomplish its mission. He repeatedly emphasized the commander-in-chief’s crucial relationship to members of the military and their families; he explained, “If I ever believe we’re not going to succeed, I can’t leave our troops there.”
He’s specifically encouraged about the improvements in security and political progress in Anbar province. The president explained that during his recent trip there he met with a two-star Marine general and asked him whether he thought the reconciliation there was real. The general knew the local sheiks and believed they are “absolutely committed to fighting extremism,” and see the U.S. as a force for good in the province. President Bush was comforted to notice that his meetings with local leaders in Anbar looked a lot like his meetings with county commissioners when he was governor of Texas. He saw it as an encouraging signal that “politics is working.” President Bush said he was further heartened having had recently met with the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in the Roosevelt Room, who explained why their experiences made them think that the U.S. will succeed in Iraq.
Along with security and political reconciliation, President Bush believes that economic prosperity is key to success in Iraq. He thinks that two major elements will help to enable a stable, secure Iraq. He noted the enormous wealth in Iraq and pointed out that oil revenues were being shared even in the absence of a national agreement; “there’s a blossoming of an entrepreneurial spirit” in Iraq, Bush raved. “I’m optimistic,” he concludes.
Asked about efforts to enact the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, President Bush said that Congress “ought to accept what General Petraeus recommends” rather than have the Administration “accept what they’re recommending.” Regarding Senator Jim Webb’s amendment on troop rotations, he simply stated, “Congress shouldn’t dictate troop deployments.”
The president blasted MoveOn for their “Betray Us” ad in the New York Times and the Democratic silence in response to it. “I was incredulous at first and then became mad.” The president said, “It is one thing to attack me — which is fine.” But the president’s view the attack on Petraeus as “an attack on men and women in uniform.” He said pointedly: “I was looking for the voices from leadership on the Hill and I didn’t hear too many.” He said, “This is wrong” and added that the ad “was uncalled for…and so was the silence” from the Democrats on the Hill.
President Bush met the group of ten journalists after a stop at the National Security Agency. He returned to the White House exuding a confidence in and dedication to protecting NSA staff. “I’m sorry you can’t see what I see,” observing that at the NSA he had visited “a building full of incredibly bright and hardworking people.” The president emphasized the importance of the work they do, tracking the plans and movements of an enemy who is “constantly listening and adjusting.” He stressed the importance of FISA reform to provide them with an indispensable tool, adding that he didn’t want the needed changes to become a political issue next year because it is important that his successor have such an essential program in place.
The president said he is comfortable that his nominee for attorney general “shares my concerns about the War On Terror and the need to protect ourselves, and my concerns about executive privilege,” which is “a very important privilege I’m going to defend.” He explained that he had a “good conversation” with Judge Mukasey in the White House residence, and told the New Yorker that “this is a tough place — it’s a tough town.” He said that he talked with both the nominee and his family about the hearings ahead, noting “these hearings will pass,” and “I think he can handle it — more importantly, he thinks he can handle it.”
President Bush recognizes that the debate of over the expansion of S-CHIP has to framed carefully. He was emphatic that he cares deeply about poor children but is “discouraged that the S-CHIP program doesn’t focus on poor children.” And he said that he opposed the substitution of a government program for private health insurance, which he sees as the tactic of “incrementalism” favored by those who want to see national health care.
He also assured the group that any tax increases to fund Alternative Minimum Tax reform will be opposed, the president assured the group. “I’ll veto a tax increase,” the president stated emphatically. He commented how resilient the economy has been, noting that “supply-side works,” a case he (unsurprisingly) thought the vice president had effectively made in this morning’s Wall Street Journal.
President Bush cited Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s assessment that the failure to pass pending trade agreements is a bigger threat to stability in Latin America than Hugo Chavez.
Finally, the president commented on the long-term consequences of success in Iraq and mentioned his frustration with Washington’s inability to tackle entitlement reform. He concludes, “I learned as governor, and I’ve learned in spades here — Congress and the president have different time horizons.”
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is National Review Online editor. Kate O’Beirne is National Review’s Washington editor.