‘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.”
On a related topic, the president rejected criticism that his administration has presided over a deterioration of relations with the rest of the world: “One, it is hard for any president to say that he and his country have had strong relations with Japan, Korea, and China at the same time,” Bush explained. “Two, we have changed our relationship with India from one of suspicion to one of partnership, while being able to keep influence in Pakistan. Three, I articulated a two-state solution, at the same time vowing to defend Israel and keeping strong relations with Saudi Arabia and Jordan and Egypt and the UAE.”
Turning to domestic matters, on the Supreme Court, the president expressed happiness with his picks of John Roberts and Samuel Alito. “My regret is I didn’t get to name a third judge,” he told us. Still, he said, the two he did name to the Court “will have an impact way beyond my presidency.”
Asked whether he believes Harriet Miers “would have been excellent on the court,” the president quickly responded, “Absolutely. Absolutely, no question in my mind . . . and there’s no doubt in my mind that my dear friend, Harriet Miers, would have had the same judicial philosophy 20 years after I went home, and had the intellectual firepower to do the job.” Bush said he felt it was important to pick a judicial candidate who was “not part of the judicial-nominee club — she went to SMU Law School” and who was a pioneer in her own law firm. His regret about the Miers case, he told us, was that “this really, really good person got chucked out there and, man, the lions tore her up.”
Beyond that, the president expressed unhappiness with the way some of his judicial nominees were treated by the Senate. “For the first time, the filibuster became a part of the judicial confirmation process,” he told us. “That’s a terrible precedent for the concept of advise and consent.” As he spoke, Bush seemed frustrated but resigned. Senators, he added, “can be meddlesome at times, but that’s the history of the Senate. . . . I understand that; that’s just part of the process.”
On Social Security, the president vigorously defended his 2005 push for reform. “I feel strongly about the issue,” he said. “They say, ‘Regrets?’ I regret we didn’t modernize Social Security. I do not regret having laid out a way forward in every State of the Union address I spoke.”
We also asked the president about reports Barack Obama is planning to use executive orders to undo some of the policies, like restrictions on embryonic-stem-cell research and abortion counseling, that Bush had used executive orders to put in place. Were there any that he would particularly hate to see go?
“Why don’t we wait to see what happens?” the president cautioned. “But I hear, for example, on the stem-cell issue — one of the principles by which I have conducted my presidency is all life is precious, and that a society, a whole society, is one that treats the most vulnerable with respect and care. . . . It is essential that on issues, like this issue, there be a clear statement of principle and an understanding of both sides of the issue, and a practical application of policy. And that’s what we’ve done — principle is, life is precious.” Bush said he hoped the new administration would pour money into other types of cell research, but he seemed reconciled to change. “Look, my position is clear,” he said. “We’ll see what they do on it.”
On another issue in which Bush policy might be reversed, we asked about Obama’s pledge to “cut investments in unproven missile-defense systems . . . not weaponize space . . . [and] slow development of future combat systems.” What did that mean for missile defense, especially after the most recent successful test of a missile-intercept system?
“A big decision in my administration was one I took early on, and that was to abrogate the ABM treaty, so we would have the flexibility to develop a system that would meet the threats of the 21st century,” the president said. In particular, he wanted American defenses that could deal with “the onesies and the twosies — in other words, launches from rogue regimes.” That has been accomplished, he said, “and it’s a very important tool for future administrations to know they have at their disposal.”
“This system has developed way beyond where it stood in 2001,” the president continued, “to the point where we were able to take a tumbling satellite out of orbit with one shot off an Aegis cruiser. So I hope that when people fully analyze the capabilities and understand that there is an important check against certain regimes’ ambitions . . . [that they realize] a missile-defense system is a tool, a part of a series of tools a president can be able to use to effect the advance of liberty for the sake of peace.”
In six weeks, the president will leave office, having been — in the view of most political observers — rejected by the public. But it’s a different moment, with a different message, that looms large for him. “I was asked the other day, you know, ‘Big moments during your presidency?’” he said. “Well, one such moment was being sworn in the second time and — because it was a tough four years — but I didn’t shy away from what I did during those four years. I didn’t try to sugarcoat my decisions; I defended them. And to have the people say, ‘We’re going to give you four more’ was — and be able to deliver that speech [at the second inauguration] and be sworn in a second time — a very meaningful moment. It’s hard to describe to you.”
Now, the president said he leaves with the satisfaction of knowing he stayed true to his principles. “I’m comfortable that I have made principled decisions for eight years,” he said, “that I was unwilling to sacrifice those principles for the sake of short-term approbation.” And as he goes — he and Mrs. Bush have just bought a home in Dallas — he told us he’s not troubled by what will be written about him. “I’m fully aware that it is impossible to have an objective history of this administration written at this point in time,” he said. But he remains confident that in the end, history will judge that, when it came to the big things, he made the right decisions.