Editor’s note: Yesterday President George W. Bush met with a small group of journalists at the White House. National Review’s Byron York was there and wrote up the meeting here. Below is the transcript, as provided by the White House.
Thanks for coming. What I thought I would do is talk a little bit, share my mind with you, and then answer questions for a while. We’re on the record until I tell you we’re not on the record. And some times that works, and a lot of times it doesn’t work. I’m a skeptical “off the record” guy. As I said in the press conference today, it is conceivable that 20 or 30 years from now the world will see a Middle East in which violent forms of — extreme forms of Islam compete for power, moderate governments will be toppled, oil will be used to extract concessions, and Iran will have a nuclear weapon, and writers such as yourself would say, what happened to them? How come they couldn’t see the great conflict taking place in front of their very eyes? Why did they lose their nerve? Why did they not support moderate people who yearn for something better than the vision of the extremists? And my answer to it is, I see the threat, and will use American power to protect ourselves, and at the same time, try to create the first victory in this ideological — the first victories — in the ideological war of the 21st century. So, much of the thinking and decision-making that I do now is based upon my belief that we’re in this grand ideological struggle. It is a struggle between moderate people, and a struggle between ideologues who are totalitarian and kill to achieve an objective without conscience. It’s interesting, here in America, I ran into a kid the other day who used to work here and he goes to a famous law school, and he said, the problem, Mr. President, is people don’t believe we’re at war. I not only believe we’re at war, I know we’re at war. My biggest issue that I think about all the time is the next attack on America, because I am fully aware that there are people out there that would like nothing more than to have another spectacular moment by killing the American people. And they’re coming. And we’ve got to do everything we can to stop them. That’s why I believe we ought to listen to their phone calls, obviously on a limited basis, one coming out of the country, and why I know we need to interrogate these people. That’s why we need the Patriot Act. That’s why we need to be on the offense all the time. Iraq is the central part of this global war right now. The extremists, radicals have made it clear that they want us to leave. You know, it’s an interesting world in which people are not willing to listen to the words of an enemy, but in this case, we’re able to listen to the enemy and find out what the enemy thinks and publish their thoughts. The Commander-in-Chief must listen carefully and take their words extremely seriously.
Other parts of the world, and some here — and I’m not casting dispersion, I’m just giving you a sense — I’m telling you what’s on my mind. I am in disbelief that people don’t take these people seriously, as if they’re some kind of incompetent, and/or isolated people. They’re plenty competent, they’re plenty tough, and they’re plenty ambitious.
The good news is, is that we’ve severely hurt them. My strategy, from day one, was to go on the offense, stay on the offense, and keep the pressure on them until we are able to bring as many to justice as possible. They morph. You know, they kind of — there is al Qaeda central, there is al Qaeda look-alikes, there is al Qaeda want-to-bes. They’re dangerous. Some are more dangerous than others. And we have got special teams and special operating teams, as well as intelligence teams, pressuring them a lot.
And we’re pretty successful. We have upheld doctrine. And we take threats — the doctrine is “if you harbor” — and we upheld that doctrine, of course, in Afghanistan. And then we’re taking these — we’re dealing with threats. I made the right decision on Saddam Hussein. Now the question is, can we help this government succeed? And the answer is not only can we help them, we must help them, and they will succeed.
I know it looks grim right now, but it has looked grim before in this war on terror. It looked grim right after September the 11th. It looked grim when we were so-called bogged down in Afghanistan. It looked grim in parts of the Iraq fight, and it looks grim right now, because murder is the tool of some, revenge is the tool of others. And in this different kind of war, the propaganda of the enemy is brutal and effective, and it upsets Americans because we value life.
My responsibility is to speak as often as I can to the American people and explain the stakes and how we’re going to succeed. We will succeed, based upon a security strategy and a political strategy that runs concurrent. And the two feed off each other.
The first question that you must ask a President — you can put thisany way you want — I’m not asking myself questions, but you should be asking me — is, do you trust Maliki? Is he the right guy to show the courage necessary to achieve the objective? And the answer is, I think he is. Witness the fact that he is working hard to bring Shia and Sunni clerics together, working hard to bring the political parties together; understands that he’s going to have to deal with these militias; more than willing to work to bring these death squad leaders to justice, which we’re doing now.
Today, at the press conference, they asked about, well, he got concerned that we were making decisions in certain neighborhoods. Look, our agreement with him is, we’ll keep you posted. We didn’t keep him posted. But he understands that he’s going to have to — we’re going to have to go after these guys. This is a sovereign government. This was elected by the people. As fragile as it is, it is a government of the Iraqi people, which we’ve got to honor.
And the security process is — the fundamental question is, is General Casey right in achieving the balance between independent operations by the Iraqi army and our need to be there? And this is an art, not a science. It is, at what point do you let them go? And I trust his judgment. His judgment is a lot more refined than anybody else’s that I hear from, because he’s there, he’s living this issue, he wants to succeed. He is constantly adjusting our game plan. This stuff about “stay the course” — stay the course means, we’re going to win. Stay the course does not mean that we’re not going to constantly change.
Classic example: I told them in the press conference today, last spring I thought we were going to be able to say to the American people, we’ll have a lot fewer troops in Iraq. You know why I thought that? Because that’s what General Casey thought. He felt like the situation was progressing to the point where he was going to be able to let them go, to a much greater extent — let them go defend themselves to a much greater extent than turned out to be, because of this al Qaeda-inspired sectarian violence. And so he says, look, this thing isn’t going to — we need more troops, not less. And so what happens is, is that I say, okay, whatever you need. You want more troops, you’ve got more troops. You want less troops, we’ll have less troops, but please give me the rationale why.
What’s happening is I’m not — remember the pictures in the Oval Office, with them sitting over the maps, picking out the targets in Vietnam? That’s not happening in this war. The Commander-in-Chief, through the Secretary of Defense, must empower the military people on the ground, and the embassy, to work — and by the way, these guys are working very closely, which is important — to implement the strategy. And if tactics need to change, change them. Just keep us posted. And that’s what’s happening.
Abizaid, who I think is one of the really great thinkers, John Abizaid — I don’t know if you’ve ever had a chance to talk to him, he’s a smart guy — he came up with this construct: If we leave, they will follow us here. That’s really different from other wars we’ve been in. If we leave, okay, so they suffer in other parts of the world, used to be the old mantra. This one is different. This war is, if they leave, they’re coming after us. As a matter of fact, they’ll be more emboldened to come after us. They will be able to find more recruits to come after us.
Abizaid clearly sees this struggle — he sees the effects of victory in Iraq as having a major impact on other parts of the Middle East. He also sees the reciprocal of that, a defeat — just leaving — the only defeat is leaving, is letting things fall into chaos and letting al Qaeda have a safe haven. And he sees it as a — he sees that as an accelerating effect to creating incredible hostility toward people that are moderate in their view. They may not necessarily be as democrat as they want, but they’re moderate in their view about the future.
Let’s see here. Interesting dynamic in the Middle East — just so you know — the main worry now from most of the leaders I’ve talked to is Iran. People in our country should find it illustrative that as Olmert began to reach out — Olmert campaigns on a platform: “Vote for me, I’ll withdraw from the West Bank.” I am a two-state solution person. I don’t believe Israel could possibly survive in the long-term unless there’s a democracy on her border. I don’t see how she retains her Jewish state if there’s not a place for Palestinians to go to. That’s why, on the right of return issue, I was pretty clear about changing the dynamics, for the first time in Middle Easter peace talks.
Olmert believes in the same thing. His attitude is, if I don’t have a partner, I’m going to withdraw anyway. That’s what he campaigned on. My attitude is, give him a chance to participate with you in the process, to make it lasting. He said, fine. He starts to reach out to the Palestinians, the Jordanians, and others, and Hamas strikes; then Hezbollah strikes. This is a group of extremists who can’t stand the thought of democracy.
The reason I bring that up, it all fits together. These are people that are bound together by a common desire to spread their vision, a vision that at some point will clash — beginning to clash. Now the extremists and radicals have found great comfort with each other. But people are now beginning to really see the true culprit as Iran.
Iran empowered Hezbollah, Hezbollah takes the attack, and — which creates an interesting dynamic, and it gives us an opportunity to fashion kind of — an alliance of reasonable people headed toward a clash — all kinds of different ways, by the way — with extremists and radicals. I’m not necessarily speaking military. It makes it easier for us to isolate Iran in that the dynamics have changed. Hopefully, it will make it easier for us to be able to convince Syria to change, and/or isolate Syria.
My only point to you is, is that I view this Iraq conflict as obviously incredibly vital for our immediate security, but I also understand this kind of battle that’s taking place in Iraq as a part of a larger struggle that we’re just going to have to deal with. And if we don’t deal with it, the rest of the world won’t deal with it. It’s really important for the United States to stay in the lead and to be able to explain to the American people the stakes and the consequences.
My attitude about our — look, I’m into campaigning out there: People want to know, can you win? That’s what they want to know. I mean, there’s — look, there’s some 25 percent or so that want us to get out, shouldn’t have been out there in the first place — and that’s fine. They’re wrong. But you can understand why they feel that way. They just don’t believe in war, and — at any cost. I believe when you get attacked and somebody declares war on you, you fight back. And that’s what we’re doing.
Anyway, that’s where my — that’s what I’m thinking about these days. Upbeat about things. Upbeat about the elections. As I said — I’m sharing with you what I said in the press conference — I’m not breaking a lot of news here, but I said, look, I understand the conventional wisdom, it’s over. You’ve got people who are dancing in the end zones and they’re measuring their drapes in their new offices. It’s not over. We’ve got the issues on our side.
Protecting this country is the number-one issue. And you talk to — admittedly, my focus groups are not broad, but people always say to me, thank you for protecting us. I view this as a struggle of good versus evil, by the way. I don’t think religious people murder. I think people are misusing religion to justify their murder. And a lot of Americans understand it that way. Maybe it’s not nuanced enough for some of the thinkers and all that stuff — that’s fine. But that’s exactly what a lot of people like me think. And my job is to make it clear to the American people the stakes, and to spell it out as plainly as I can. And a lot of people understand it.
The other thing that’s really interesting about this particular part of the war on terror, and the overall war on terror, is we’ve got a military that is, one, full of decent, honorable, courageous people; two, who strongly support what we’re doing — strongly. I find it really interesting that those most attuned with the stakes of the struggle are those who are right in the middle of the fight. And the reason I tell you that morale is high is because the re-enlistment rates are high and the sign-up rates are high. And everybody knows the stakes when they’re signing up. They understand the rotations. You’re a U.S. Marine, you understand you’re there for seven months, home, and you’re back. These guys are talking to people that have been two or three tours in Iraq. And yet, people are signing up, and they’re saying, I want to do my duty.
And it’s a remarkable country. They tell their parents, this is a — again, very unique in the sense that people are emailing their loved ones. I’ve worked rope lines and the wife says, I’m emailing my husband after the event. I said, tell her the commander — tell him the Commander-in-Chief respects him — send — and all of a sudden the guy — wow, Mom, I saw the President. It is amazing when there is that direct communication. The point is, is that when these people are motivated to fight these people, word gets back here and the families tell their friends, and their friends tell their friends. And it’s just an interesting — it’s just an interesting aspect of today’s society.
As I say, people want to know, can you win? They’re with us if we can win. If we’re there and can’t win, we’re gone. If we can’t win, I’ll pull us out. If I didn’t think it was noble and just and we can win, we’re gone. I can’t — I’m not going to keep those kids in there and have to deal with their loved ones. I cannot — I can’t cover it up when I meet with a family who’s lost a child. I cry, I weep, I hug. And I’ve got to be able to look them in the eye and say, we’re going to win. I have to be able to do that. And I’m not a good faker.
And so what I’m telling you is — my last thought before I answer your questions is — we’ll win this. It’s going to be hard, but — it will take some perseverance and patience and courage.
All right, any questions? Yes.
Q If the Baker Commission comes back, recommending reaching out to Syria and Iran, would you be at all suspicious that that might not be a path to victory?
THE PRESIDENT: I am going to — I’ll answer that question after the Baker Commission comes back with their recommendation. (Laughter.)
Q Nice try.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes.
Q Let me ask one other follow-up.
THE PRESIDENT: Okay.
Q In your previous press conference, I noticed that twice you mentioned Jimmy Baker. Was that a — I interpreted it, probably over-interpreted it that you were being respectful, but not deferential to –
THE PRESIDENT: No, I don’t know. It’s interesting you said that. It’s just what I call him. I mean, it’s like — I’ve never heard anybody call him, James. And you know, we just — I’ve known him forever. This is a guy who was my dad’s campaign manager in one of his first congressional races, you know, and so he’s always been known — no, don’t read anything into it.
I like him. Listen, the guy is a skilled guy. He is a very, very confident person, as you know. And this is a useful exercise. And I’m looking forward to their ideas and interests. If I didn’t think it would lead to victory, I won’t do it. I’m interested in one thing: I’m interested in winning.
The President spends a lot of time convincing the American people it’s worthwhile. This war is on the TV screen every night. And I’m wise enough not to blame media for anything, but I also understand it’s created quite a headwind — the TV screens do. I reminded them today at this press conference that, obviously, it’s on my mind. But, you know, 90 percent of the action is in five provinces out of 17. And it’s a 30-mile circle around Baghdad. In other words, there’s a lot of territory there that they’re beginning to recover. And there are ways to measure that. You know, agricultural production is up. Things are happening. It’s an entrepreneurial group of people.
And I certainly — don’t be writing — don’t write me down as hopelessly naive and trying to always put lipstick on the pig, but I understand there’s got to be — you know, life is moving. People are living their lives, schools are opening. And it — and yet, this is a war that you don’t measure platoons storming hills. You measure — evidently, the measurement is violence. Well, if the absence of violence is victory, no one will ever win, because all that means is you’ve empowered a bunch of suiciders and thugs to kill.
Here’s the way I view the enemy there: al Qaeda is lethal as hell — scratch the “hell” — it’s lethal. The suiciders tend to be al Qaeda. The VBIEDs tend to be al Qaeda. The spectacular killings tend to be al Qaeda. We can’t measure — solely measure how many Shia killings are al Qaeda that then caused the Sunni reprisal. But you’ve got to know some are. A lot of the bloodshed these days, of course, is the revenge killings — Sunni on Shia — it’s obvious. There is a criminal element in Iraq, as well, that the government is going to have to deal with. There is a vacuum, and into vacuum moved criminals.
One of the stories — interesting stories I tell is about the fellow that came here. He got kidnaped and he was rescued pretty early by our Delta team. I said, what’s it like to be kidnaped, man? It must have been weird — Baghdad, to be kidnaped. And he said, yes — he said, I was in there with, like — I forgot the number — nine other people from different nationalities. He said, at one time I said, I’m going to get out and you’re — you’re going to get out and I’m not. And all these people said, well, that’s a pretty pessimistic thing to say. He said, well, my government won’t ransom me; yours will. And he was right. We weren’t going to.
And sure enough, the Norwegian went for — I don’t know what the numbers are — but they made a nice little living, because there was no — no push-back. There was no kind of structure. And so these weren’t necessarily political people. These were people that just found a pretty good niche for a while. Made a couple of million dollars, nobody got hurt. And fortunately, our Delta teams found the guy, and got him out of there. But it was just an interesting story.
Q Just to follow up on what Tony was saying, if the — as you say, you need to be on the offense all the time and stay on the offense. Isn’t the problem that the American people were behind — solidly behind this when you went in and you toppled the Taliban, when you go in and you topple Saddam. But when it just seems to be a kind of thankless semi-colonial policing defensive operation with no end — I mean, where is the offense in this? Instead of talking to Syria — can’t Syria get some payback for sending all these guys over the border to subvert Iraq? Can’t — shouldn’t Syria be getting subverted in return, in some way?
THE PRESIDENT: Now you’re thinking. (Laughter.) First of all, we are on the offense and we had made a conscience effort not to be a body count team. And you’re right, and it’s frustrating for me. So like I asked Pete Pace, how we doing. Every day, by the way, so you know, I see who dies on our team. I don’t see who dies on their team. And so it gives you the impression that they’re just there, they’re kind of moving around, directing traffic, and somebody takes a shot at them and they’re down. That’s not exactly what’s happening.
What’s happening is they’re pressing hard. Al qaeda has got special operation teams on them every day, and the death squad leaders have got — well, they had two operations today that created a little news. And these boys are after — giving actionable intelligence. They’re moving hard and they’re pressing hard. And I don’t want to give you numbers. It’s frustrating however, because you’re right, it’s the perception that this great military power full of decent people is just getting picked off and nothing is happening. And I share the same frustration you share. And the American people, most of them out there are saying, how are you doing; get after them.
And so we explain we are, but — and I think the judgment is right in the Pentagon not to be talking about the number we kill and capture on a weekly basis because it then begins to — they’re just fearful. There’s a culture over there. And I believe they’re right. Maybe we’re wrong. I’d be interested in your opinion.
Syria: My belief is that — if what you’re suggesting is we use the military, my attitude is, is that that ought to be the last option, not the middle option, or the first option. I believe — I know the President must be able to convince those whose loved ones will be in harm’s way that we tried alternatives prior to military action.
Krauthammer came in here in the midst of resolution one-and-a-half — remember you came in here? — he wondered whether or not we were going to get mired in diplomacy. I think that’s what you were wondering.
Q I usually do. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: Yes. Well, diplomacy is — I think through all consequences of all options. Syria needs to know that there are other people who are interested in isolating them economically than the United States, and we’re working toward that end, for example.
Q Can I ask you, Mr. President, about Iran?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes. We’ll go off the record in a minute.
Q Oh, I’m sorry.
THE PRESIDENT: Not on Iran.
Q Were you going to continue on that question?
THE PRESIDENT: No, I wasn’t. I was thinking about it, then I decided not to.
Q Sorry, guys, we’re about to break news. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: No, this is not a news — look, here’s what I want you to do. I want you to go away with here’s what the guy’s thinking. You either like it or don’t like it, but at least it gives you a sense for how I’m strategizing.
The President must think strategically in order to achieve objectives, and you just have to. Anyway, you’re going to get – out of this, I hope you come away with, these are the strategic thoughts about how to solve problems; how he sees the world, where it’s headed, where it could head, and what he’s doing to do something about it.
No question that Syria has got to understand that she’s got choices to make, the country does. I said today, and I’ve said often, that our interests in Syria, one, do not destabilize Seniora. The Seniora — bolstering, helping the Seniora government is in this country’s interests and it’s a priority. Why? Because we want young democracies that are fragile to take root in the Middle East.
Ultimately, the forms of government matter as to whether or not we have peace. I understand that stands in contrast to previous policy where people said forms of government didn’t matter. I think form of government does matter. Witness Zimbabwe for example. I called Sala of Yemen to congratulate him on open elections. Look at the elections in Yemen as to whether or not they were fair or not, and did the people have access to state — it’s an interesting moment.
Secondly, we want Syria to not be the headquarters for militant Hamas and Hezbollah, and obviously the Iraq issue – providing an avenue, to the extent they are, of money, material, and people.
What can we do? We can convince others that it’s in the world’s interests that Syria stop doing this and have them help us convince Syria. Diplomacy gets pretty complex until you get to the consequences. Then it gets really complex. And we are at the stage of formulating consequences. Most people now are beginning to understand. There was a moment of clarification when Hezbollah attacked Israel. It changed people’s perspective. It became abundantly clear to a lot of folks that Syria — and then I told you Iran — but Syria’s complicity with Iran is part of the problem.
Nations in the neighborhood now see that like they never have before. And we will work with them. I would hope that some people would support Syrian opposition leaders as a way to send a signal. Anyway, I spent a lot of time on this subject with allies including Prime Minister Blair. I worked with Jacques Chirac to get the resolution passed to get Syria out of Lebanon to begin with. That’s why it happened so quickly.
So things are happening. If what you’re asking me is — you are frustrated with the fact that there doesn’t seem to be many consequences — well, we’re working on trying to convince others to be consequential. The same with Iran.
Your question on Iran.
Q To get your strategic thinking, as you say, on Iran, it does look as if, from my diplomacy here that Ahmadinejad has been pretty dismissive of what’s happening in the Security Council. When you leave office in January of ‘09, are you going to allow the Iranian program to be intact when you leave office, or would you see that as a historic failure of this administration if, after eight years, the Iranian program is going ahead?
THE PRESIDENT: I would hope to have it in a place where the Iranian program is not going ahead.
Q Okay. I don’t know how to read that.
THE PRESIDENT: No, no. You shouldn’t read anything to it at all. I just want to make –
Q Are you saying that a military attack is not feasible?
THE PRESIDENT: I’m not saying that at all. That’s important. As a matter of fact, I said in Germany, in a press conference — will you take the military option off the table? I said, no. And I meant it.
Right now, the strategy is to — you know what the strategy is — is to push other nations to understand it’s in their interest to convince Iran not to have a nuclear weapon and to stop its program in a verifiable way.
I asked Hu Jintao one time, what is your biggest problem. He said, 25 million new jobs a year. That’s a massive problem. And the reason I bring that up is you begin to get a sense for the varied interests involved in convincing people to believe like we believe. And we’re now in the process, Charles, of making sure that the idea of Iran with a nuclear weapon is more vital than other interests. We’ve done a pretty good job of it, frankly.
Again, the argument now is over what consequences, and my attitude is the more we can isolate Iran economically if they choose not to simply just stop their enrichment in a verifiable way, the more likely it is we’ll be able to determine whether or not this government is as cohesive as some assume it is. I think it’s in the country’s interests to pressure to determine if there’s fractures or fissures. But all options are on the table.
Q But, with Iran and North Korea, couldn’t we end up in a situation where we have essentially reverted to a policy of strategic deterrence, as we would for —
THE PRESIDENT: I would hope not.
Q But some of our friends seem willing to live with that.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, on North Korea, we’re putting in the places to — putting in the parts to make sure that, to the extent that he’s got capabilities of launching a weapon or preventing him from selling the weapon, we’re putting those in place. The missile defense system was designed precisely for this kind of situation, the one we’ve got now, which is ones, twosies, or threesies — it’s not a multiple launch regime, but it’s getting pretty accurate. And all of a sudden, somebody stands up a weapon and aims it and says, “Hands up,” and we say, they’re not coming up, because we’ve got the capacity to stop it.
The same with the proliferation issue. That’s the first round of sanctions in the — or consequences in the resolution was we bound together to stop you from proliferating, Kim Jung-il. This is a situation where constant pressure is needed to force these leaders to make different decisions before we use the military. And in the case of North Korea, I changed the whole policy, as you know, to convince other countries to be an equal partner. And they are now at the table. They’re not just the people that invite us to the table, or provide the table, they’re at the table.
And I’ve worked very hard on this to get — for there to be people that understand the consequences of what it means for North Korea to have a nuclear weapon. It is clear in everybody’s mind of the consequences. It’s interesting to watch the reaction to the world the other day when a Japanese official announced that perhaps they should think about developing a nuclear weapon. Let me just say, it got a lot of people’s attention.
And I can’t predict — in open societies it’s easier to predict the behavior of these leaders. I can’t predict, is the answer for how they’ll behave. I do know that focused pressure on — and keeping people knitted up, because what America cannot afford to do is become isolated in this instance. If we’re the only one at the table — if everybody had their way, they’d just scatter and say, go solve it. And then what happens is, is that we end up in a position where people say, do what the man says. It doesn’t sound unreasonable, let him learn how to enrich, that’s easy — or whatever Kim Jung-il would demand. And the world would tend to say, go fix it, America, it’s your fault, not their fault. And that’s what ends up happening in bilateral relations with these leaders. And I’m just not going to let it happen to us.
Again, I told you a predicate of my thinking is, is that I’ve got to give diplomacy a chance. And it’s painful, and it irritates guys like Krauthammer because it’s not nearly as — it just doesn’t work very quickly. And, look, I understand the frustrations of it. I’m a 1441 guy, I’ve been through this. But it’s in our interest, at least that’s the decision I have made, that we pursue the diplomatic route on these difficult issues.
Q Mr. President, a couple of scenarios that I’ve seen recently — the Rand Corporation has a study of what would happen if a ten kiloton nuclear weapon was exploded in Los Angeles Harbor: 60,000 dead, 6 million — leaving the Los Angeles base with a trillion dollars in damage. Popular Mechanics has an article of North Korea developing chemical and biological weapons — antrax, botulism, the plague. You’re trying to get diplomacy to work, but what else are we doing to protect ourselves? Again, this is a –
THE PRESIDENT: Got the Proliferation Security Initiative, which is a 90-nation — let me get the number — 70? Anyway, it’s — 70 — a lot of nations that have agreed to inspect cargo ships. But more than that, the guy is the largest counterfeiter of U.S. dollars, or one of the largest; drug runner. I mean, he’s got a lot of problems over there. And we’ve got others now beginning to work on it.
Most people view this as he’s isolated, he’s out there in the middle of nowhere, don’t worry about him, let him starve his people to death — which he is doing. And we have now got a 70-nation coalition that is focused on him. As you probably are aware, there’s been some financial measures that he keeps talking about.
* * * * *
Well, OFF THE RECORD, banks don’t want to be labeled: Bad guys do business here. They’re very conservative people, whether it be Iranians or North Koreans.
* * * * *
We’ll go back on the record.
Q Can I just circle back, sir, to the –
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, Kuds.
Q – going to win in Iraq? I personally think most of the discouragement in Iraq with respect to polls and whatever else is not from people on the left, it’s from people on the right. They want to win.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, sir — that’s his answer. He said they’re being picked off. What are you doing about it.
Q It’s a funny thing — and I count myself as one of those, very frustrated, I get discouraged sometimes. I think you’re dead right in your strategy, your thinking, and I continue to support it. But if I buy a stock and the price goes up, I know I’m winning. If I buy a stock and the price goes down, I know I’ve got to get out. So my question is, how can we measure victories? How can you measure winning? The last couple of years there just doesn’t seem to be any signals or signs that we’re winning.
THE PRESIDENT: That is the significant disadvantage we have in this war because the enemy gets to define victory by killing people. And I am — both these questions, I fully understand where you’re coming from, because I live it every day. Look, I’m not looking for sympathy — it’s a volunteer job.
Q I want to go on the air –
THE PRESIDENT: You want to say, 12 million people voted, or we killed Zarqawi.
Q I want to go on the air tonight, I want some good news. I need some good news, sir.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, I do, too.
Q I really do.
THE PRESIDENT: You’re talking to Noah about the flood. I do, too.
Q It’s a hard thing.
THE PRESIDENT: I appreciate that, but — go ahead.
Q You said if we leave Iraq they’ll come after us –
THE PRESIDENT: Yes.
Q – we’ve heard you say that quite specifically. So maybe that’s a sign of victory, is that they haven’t come here.
THE PRESIDENT: Look, he’s trying — this is so hard. That’s what makes this more difficult — I don’t know what Harry Truman was feeling like, or Franklin Roosevelt. But I do know — I’m sure there were moments of high frustration for them — but I do know that at Midway, they were eventually able to say two carriers were sunk and one was damaged. We don’t get to say that. A thousand of the enemy killed, or whatever the number was. It’s happening; you just don’t know it. And there’s no scorecard. There’s not a scoreboard that makes it — great, four more schools — that doesn’t score, that doesn’t mean anything.
You know, Larry, I’ve thought long and hard about this, because it is precisely what is frustrating most people. Most people out there — I agree with you — those who say we shouldn’t have been there, they’re clear. A lot of people — one time I — well, a lot of people are just saying, you’re not doing enough to win. We’re not winning, you’re not doing enough to win, and I’m frustrated, I want it over with, with victory. And I’m trying to figure out a matrix that says things are getting better. I think that one way to measure is less violence than before, I guess. We’ll have to see what happens here after Ramadan. I believe these people — oh, I was going to tell you Abizaid believes Ramadan, no question, caused them to be more violent because he says there’s some kind of reward during Ramadan for violence. And I think they’re trying to affect the elections.
Q Well, one measure you mentioned is the compromises you’d like to see Prime Minister Maliki make.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes.
Q Specifically one we all know about is for sharing oil revenues.
THE PRESIDENT: Absolutely.
Q If they were to come to a deal on that, that would be a big victory.
THE PRESIDENT: I think it’s going — see, that’s what this benchmark deal is all about. There’s one way, Kudlow — forgot to — I should have thought of that. The idea is to develop with the Iraqi government a series of benchmarks — oil, federalism, constitutional reform — there’s like 20 different things — and have that developed in a way that they’re comfortable with and we’re comfortable with.
They were asking me today, put out benchmarks. Well, it’s a sovereign government. You just don’t put out benchmarks. You work with the sovereign government to develop a way forward that’s got enough pressure on them to move, but at the same time, they’re comfortable with. Look, if we wanted to, we could put so much pressure on the Maliki government to topple it. What good would that do? We could put so many demands on them, it might satisfy people in the short-term, but it would defeat the purpose for victory in Iraq.
So one thing, Larry, is precisely that. The problem is that if you’re a bubba like him, he’s a blood and guts guy, he doesn’t want oil — that’s beyond his scope.
Q No, I’d take oil — that would be big progress, sir, be big progress. Look, the three elections were huge benchmarks of victory –
THE PRESIDENT: We need benchmarks, and we’re developing them with the Iraqi government. And they are practical things such as using oil. The governing structure — we’ve had a lot of people out there saying, split up the country. That’s not going to work. But there are ways to achieve a more balanced federalism from what some people think is going to happen to them. There could be more — like Texas, we always want less federal, more state. And that’s the way — this balance can be achieved through negotiations. That’s what they’re trying to do.
Look, Maliki called these religious leaders in; they went to Mecca. They came out — the Sunnis and Shias came out with fatwahs and proclamations saying violence against Muslims is unacceptable. I mean, there is a process going forward. Tribal leaders are negotiating. It’s a reconciliation process.
But, Larry, reconciliation takes a while when you’ve lived under the thumb of a tyrant who caused people to hate to begin with. People are revengeful anyway.
Q – is showing the — propaganda –
THE PRESIDENT: I’m getting your drift there, but –
Q You said Larry was a blood and guts guy.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I’ve known him for a while, so — I was actually trying to pay him a compliment. (Laughter.)
Q But there’s quite a lot of those guys out there. The Canadians released this thing saying — because 20 or 30 of their guys have been killed in Afghanistan — and it turned out in one encounter they killed hundreds of bad guys. And these are Canadians who aren’t even supposed to kill people, that’s not what they do. (Laughter.) And wouldn’t it, to be — as I understand it from guys out there, every time American troops encounter the enemy, the enemy die in large numbers. Why can’t the American people hear that end of it?
THE PRESIDENT: You know, we didn’t think about it — we thought about it, and I’m relying on the military. I am.
Q If I could follow –
THE PRESIDENT: Hold on, Michael. But I’m — look, I understand completely where you both are coming from. You don’t have to tell me people are out there looking for something. I’m from Texas. My buddies are saying, are you doing enough, not, are you doing too little. They want to know, are we winning. They want to know, this mighty country, are we putting it — are we doing what it takes to win? That’s my question to General Casey.
The frustration is that the definition of success has now gotten to be, how many innocent people are dying? And if there’s a lot dying, it means the enemy is winning. That doesn’t mean they’re winning. It means they’re — the question is really, how tough are the Iraqis? And it seems like to me they’re unbelievably resilient. And I think — say they are because they want to succeed.
But I’ll think about it. I’ll run it back up the flag pole. (Laughter.)
Q You said protecting the country is the number one issue. Some of us were talking the Karl Rove yesterday, and he said, the NRCC believes immigration is a better issue than national security. How does this –
THE PRESIDENT: That’s fine. Look, you talk to the political — I’m just going to tell you what the President thinks.
Q But you’re going out campaigning.
THE PRESIDENT: I’m campaigning like mad, and I’m looking at people in the eye and say, you better have a government that does everything in its power to protect you from attack — because that’s what I believe. That’s what I’m living. And you’re right here in the office where I get briefed every morning and it’s on my mind. And I’m telling you it’s on my mind, and I can’t keep it off my mind. I was affected deeply by the attacks of September the 11th. It became clear to me that day that we were at war. And I didn’t need a consultant or a guru or anything to tell me that. I know we’re at war.
And we’re still at war, and these guys want to kill. And again, my frame of mind is this: We will press and press and press to protect ourselves. And this stuff about how Iraq is causing the enemy — whatever excuse they need, they have made up their mind to attack, and they grab on to things to kind of justify. But if it’s not Iraq, it’s Israel. If it’s not Israel, it’s the Crusades. If it’s not the Crusades, it is the cartoon. I’m not kidding you. I’m not kidding you. (Laughter.) They are cold-blooded killers.
Q If it’s not the Crusades, it’s the cartoon — that’s a good slogan.
THE PRESIDENT: No, and I’m serious about this. I haven’t talked — Karl says that the NRCC thinks that. Well, I don’t know who — I don’t know who he’s talking to.
Q Well, they’re obviously trying to win the House.
THE PRESIDENT: Right.
Q – you’re going to sign the defense bill tomorrow?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, tomorrow morning. It’s a big issue, but it’s an issue that we’ve been living with. And it’s an issue that’s come to a head, but it’s come to a head 10 years ago, too. This war on terror is — we didn’t recognize it in ‘93 on the first World Trade bombing, but we recognize it now. And I will just tell you this, that if this country lets down its guard, it will be a fatal mistake. And so I make it an issue — let me put it to you that way then. It’s on my mind. And that’s the way I like to lead.
If they came in here, if Rove and them came in here and said, okay, here’s what the focus groups are saying, change, I’m not changing. Now, maybe you’ll say, oh, God, if only Bush had changed. But my job is to explain as clearly as I can to the American people exactly what’s happening.
And the other thing is, is that I’ve always been taught that the economy matters during an election. I’ve had some experiences with that and some not-so-good experiences with that. (Laughter.) And I believe that when it gets down to it, money in people’s pockets are going to matter. I really do. Immigration is an issue. I don’t hear it being discussed much out there. Of course, generally, I’m doing all the discussing. Anyway, you’re — so your point is basically, should I not be emphasizing immigration more than –
Q Well, it seems to be there are significant portions of the Republican base that disagrees with you on this. I was in Tennessee, and I asked Bob Corker about this. He said, well, I disagree with him on immigration. He volunteered that.
THE PRESIDENT: Really? What is my position on immigration?
Q Well, they feel that you lean closer to the amnesty side, and they’re closer to –
THE PRESIDENT: No, no, what — but they’re wrong. I’m not for amnesty. I won’t lean toward amnesty. I’m against amnesty. There’s no lean there, it is no. I am for a guest worker program so that we can better enforce the border. But anyway, just so you know my position.
Q Mr. President, one more thing on Iraq –
THE PRESIDENT: Go ahead.
Q What do you think of the proposal of Alaska-style — funding direct payments per individual? It will get you over this problem about the Sunnis getting a fair –
THE PRESIDENT: Michael, here’s what I think. I think that’s a very intriguing idea. I think there are two elements around which the country can unite: the army and the oil. And I actually brought up this idea when I was with the Maliki government as an idea for them to consider. I said, you ought to look at a trust like they have done in Alaska as an idea on how to unite their country. And Shahristani, that’s the minister for energy, I think, Shahristani –
Q I think the answer is yes.
THE PRESIDENT: I actually brought it up with him as an idea — not to say this is — Michael, a lot of this — the government has to come up with — these have to be Iraqi ideas in order for this to be a successful experience. Now, we can plant them. I’m not saying they have to be originated, but they have to say, wow, here’s an idea, let’s do this; as opposed to saying, Americanizing the solution.
But we’re working on the oil issue through Zal to convince them that this is an important step forward. Oil should be a unifying element for the country. I can’t tell you exactly the state of play, but I do believe they recognize it as such, and it will put a lot of suspicion and division behind them if they can get it done the right way. And so we agree with you that this is a cause for you. I also believe the army will be, too.
MR. BOLTEN: Mr. President.
Q Isn’t the big problem with the Iraqis that they’re so into brinksmanship, that the political breakthroughs we have are when we force deadlines on them, and that they let the deadlines pass and they wait until the train is about to hit them –
THE PRESIDENT: Yes.
Q – and when you say that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror, they know you’re not going to abandon the central front in the war on terror, so they think, okay, well, we’ll wait a while.
THE PRESIDENT: That’s that arc that Casey talks about, about how fast do you push, push them out without us, but if you push too fast, does it not achieve our objective. First of all, part of this is a brand new experience for these guys. I was with the man from the Dominican Republic, President Fernandez, and we were talking about Cuba. And he said, just remember it takes a while for democracy to take hold. And I said, yes, okay, no kidding. We’re used to it. But we are really — we are working through a lot of serious issues, kind of psychological issues with these folks, as well as what it means to actually build consensus. So it’s a relatively new experience for them. The Maliki government has been in office for five months. And one of the troubles I have to deal with is the Kudlow impatience factor. Seriously — not just you, Kuds — but it is a world that is like, instant, things have to happen.
Q You’ve also got your own term problems.
THE PRESIDENT: Believe me, I understand. Two years is a long time. Last year was a long year. (Laughter.) Believe me, it’s a long time.
But let me finish here. Part of the benchmark is precisely to create that sense of purpose for this government to have something to aim for. There’s nothing worse than to watch the government formation — we thought we had the government in like March, wasn’t it? And then we got it in June. And it was just an agonizing period. I’m sure you head bangers were just unbelievably frustrated with what’s going on, where are you.
And I understand that. And old Zal is a great ambassador because he’s patient in the sense that he understands there this dance that they go through. But I believe they’re getting more crisp in their decision-making. That’s one of the interesting things about Maliki, he appears to be a decision-maker. He doesn’t like it when he’s pushed too hard. You see blowbacks occasionally. Today he didn’t like it when there was an action taking place in the Sadr City. He didn’t like it because it caught him by surprise. Presidents don’t like surprises. But he appears to be a crisper decision-maker and a follow-through guy. That’s the whole purpose of the benchmarks, is to have — okay, you said, you’re going to do this now, let’s start getting some decisions made. So, precisely, you picked up the whole purpose of it.
Q The less optimistic people would say just –
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, that’s like saying, success is no violence. I’m not so sure how realistic that is. I also believe that this is going to take a while, and I know it’s necessary. I know it’s necessary. And people say, well, it’s because — you’re only trying to avoid failure. No, quite the contrary. I am trying to show success. It will affect Iran. A free Iraq will affect Iran. It will affect Syria. And that’s why when you say — and the problem with the President is, you then put it up — you put different decisions up based upon a two-year window based upon my presence in office, as opposed to conditions necessarily on the ground. So Krauthammer says, you got two years to take care of business, man. Yours is,your got two years to make this happen.
And one of the things we try to think about is how to institutionalize change so that certain things can’t be undone. I fully recognize that part of the problem we have in our democracy is that change of government can be disruptive to try to do big things. But we’ve managed it before. We’ve been through the Cold War. We had a Harry S. Truman who fought the first battles of the Cold War in Korea, and yet the Cold War was continued by both Republicans and Democrats. So it’s a different kind of struggle, but it’s got the same kind of context to it, as far as I’m concerned.
Q You mentioned the economy a moment ago –