Bush Looks Back
An Oval Office conversation with the outgoing president.


Byron York

‘Conservatives will rebound,” President Bush said during an Oval Office interview Friday, but only with “new blood,” “new ideas,” and a “new wave” of leadership. In a candid exchange during an hour-long session with National Review editors and writers, the president conceded that his eight years in office have sometimes been tough for conservatives, but said his philosophy of “compassionate conservatism” is still the guiding belief of a majority of Americans.

”Somebody said, ‘Oh, that’s the end of the conservative movement,’” the president told us. “Really? How about ‘64? Was that the end of the conservative movement? No. Do we need to be reinvigorated with new blood, new ideas? Absolutely . . . and there will be a new wave of people.”

Even though the phrase “compassionate conservatism” has been ridiculed by many, including some conservatives, the president explained Friday that he remains devoted to the idea. “This is a philosophy that most people adhere to,” he told us. “It wasn’t very well defended, but most people adhere to it. Compassionate conservatism basically says that if you implement this philosophy, your life would become better. That’s what it says. And that’s what it’s all about. It’s saying to the average person, this philosophy will help you make your life better. It’s the proper use of government to enable a hopeful society to develop based upon your talents and your success.”

Elsewhere during the interview — which the president compared to doing “jumping jacks for my own book that I’m going to be writing” — Bush strongly defended his decision to go to war in Iraq; argued that the U.S. has better relations with many foreign nations than ever before; said he is certain that Harriet Miers would have been a great Supreme Court justice; defended his failed effort to reform Social Security; and, finally, expressed concern over Barack Obama’s reported intention to undo Bush policies on, among other things, stem-cell research and missile defense.

On Iraq, we brought up Karl Rove’s recent statement that, “absent weapons of mass destruction, no, I don’t think there would have been an invasion.” Bush wouldn’t engage the question, saying only that a president doesn’t ‘get an opportunity to redo a decision.” Instead, he brought up the counter-factual if Saddam had been left in power: “You put in the middle of the Middle East a man rich with oil who sponsored terror, who had the capacity to make a nuclear weapon, combined with Iran — it’s conceivable you’d have a nuclear arms race in the Middle East now, causing nations to say, wait a minute, where’s the United States, where do we land, how do we protect our own interests; a state sponsor of terror trying to compete with another state sponsor of terror. I argue vociferously that the Middle East is better off without Saddam Hussein.”

He also argued that it’s impossible to consider his decision to invade Iraq “without placing it in the post-9/11 environment and what life was like.” He noted that it’s hard to remember the situation six years ago: “That environment just goes away instantly. It’s like, you know, 24-hour news cycles mean yesterday’s environment is just totally eradicated from people’s minds.”

“What was it like,” he continued, “to be sitting here and people saying, `You have refused to connect the dots, Mr. President; how come you didn’t know about the phone call from the guy in San Diego to somewhere else?’ So we started connecting the dots. But the post-9/11 environment shifted dramatically. So it’s no longer ‘Why aren’t you connecting the dots?’ — it’s ‘Why are you connecting the dots?’”

“Over time,” Bush said, “because we were effective at protecting the homeland, the fear of an attack began to dissipate.” He explained that “the job of the government is in some way self-defeating toward keeping the country alert and aware.”

The president talked with some satisfaction of the new security agreement with the Iraqis, and how Iraq is on a decent footing for his successor: “The importance of this agreement is it enshrines a presence and the doctrine of return on success that gives the president, the new president, some latitude,” Bush told us. “He’ll have two really good commanders that have had a lot of experience in Iraq, David Petraeus and Odierno; they’ll be his advisers on the region. He obviously will have Secretary Gates in place.”

Reviewing his decision to implement the surge, Bush recalled the political pressures on him to retreat: “It was in this room that a prominent member of my political party said, ‘You must remove troops from Iraq because it could cost us elections if you don’t,’” the president said, gesturing around the Oval Office. “And it was in this room I looked at him and said, ‘You must not understand George W. Bush.’”

Walking through his decision-making process during the worst days of 2006, he said, “I read the situation report every day,” and “I was very emotionally involved with the action on the ground on a daily basis.” Early in 2006, he said, “the violence — if you look at a chart that we saw every day, or the summary of what we saw every day — it was increasing.”

“And so I’m the kind of guy,” he continued, “that said, ‘It’s not working, what’s going wrong?’ I mean, it was apparent that there was a problem. I don’t think there was a moment, but there was a season where things weren’t going well. And this was all-consuming during this period of time. The issue of Iraq in ‘06, well, the entire presidency frankly, has been — I shouldn’t say ‘all-consuming,’ because we’ve got the capacity to do more than one thing at one time — so it was very consuming.”

“And I can’t remember the moment, but I know full well Steve [Hadley, the national-security adviser] and I said, ‘We’re going to figure out and get to the bottom of this thing; this is unacceptable behavior.’ And you’ve got to understand — with me, I’m thinking victory the whole time.”

That thinking set off the process that led to the surge, but not before Republicans lost the election in 2006, in part because of the war. “Rather than rush into a decision of this size,” Bush told us, “I was deliberate, and so the process took time to eventually make its way through the system. And then there were some complicated factors like an election. I was very mindful of dropping military decisions before an election date, because again, one of the constituencies is the military and their families. And I just didn’t think it was the right time to rush this to get it out before an election, trying to affect the election. I’m trying to affect the battlefield first and foremost.”