NEW ORLEANS — Calling resistance against terrorism the “defining struggle of the 21st century,” President Bush declared Tuesday that he would not let Americans’ frustration with the war deter him from finishing the job in Iraq.
In an exclusive interview Tuesday night on “NBC Nightly News,” the president said history would vindicate his decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and remove President Saddam Hussein from power. But it would consign him to ignominy if he heeded the calls of critics and much of the public to pull U.S. troops home before democracy could be stabilized in Iraq, he said.
“If we lose our nerve and leave the Middle East before the job is finished, the world will be much worse off,” Bush told “Nightly News” anchor and Managing Editor Brian Williams.
“I have been saying all the time that we need perseverance and patience and the willingness to defeat a terrorist organization, an ideology of hate, with not only military action but the spread of freedom,” he said.
“I believe this is the calling of our time.”
‘War came to our shores’
The president acknowledged that many Americans were dismayed by the rising number of U.S. service personnel who have been killed in a seemingly ever-more-volatile Iraq. He said that while he did not dismiss that concern lightly, he could not let it temper his resolve.
“I have no doubt — the war came to our shores. Remember that,” he said, referring to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes on New York and Washington. “We had a foreign policy that basically said, ‘Let’s hope calm works.’ And we were attacked.”
Bush said he could “understand the frustrations of our citizens.” But “if we retreat for the sake of popularity, is that the smart thing to do? My answer is absolutely not,” he said. “It’d be a huge mistake to give the battlefield to these extremists.
“We retreat, they follow us,” he added. “And I see this clearly as day.”
Bush spoke with Williams as he toured a rebuilding site in New Orleans, which he visited Monday and Tuesday as a show of support for the Mississippi gulf region on the anniversary of the devastating landfall of Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,600 people. He admitted that there were “failures” in the federal response after the hurricane and promised the people of Louisiana and Mississippi that he would do all he could to right the wrongs.
Iraq called key to terrorism battle
Bush shot back at critics who accused him of having misled the public into believing Iraq was responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks: “They weren’t Iraqis, nor did I ever say that Iraq ordered that attack,” he said.
But he said the intense violence in Iraq was a sign of how entrenched the terrorist movement was there, making it all the more important that the United States draw a line in the sand.
“These terrorists have made it clear they want us to leave Iraq prematurely, and why is it?” he asked. “Because they want a safe haven. They’d love to get ahold of oil. They have territorial ambitions. ...
“I personally do not believe Saddam Hussein picked up the phone and said to al-Qaida, ‘Attack America.’ [But] he was on our state-sponsor-of-terrorists list, and he was paying families of suiciders. He also, by the way, had weapons of mass destruction at one time and had the capacity to make them. That’s a dangerous mix.”
U.S. unpopularity seen as necessary price
Still, Bush acknowledged that the war effort — along with other policies that have bucked international sentiments or treaties — had cost the United States on the world stage. But he insisted that it was wrong to equate criticism of his administration with opposition to American principles and ideals.
“People don’t like my policies, necessarily,” he said, noting opposition to the decision in 2002 to withdraw U.S. support for the International Criminal Court and his opposition to the Kyoto Protocols on global warning, in addition to the war in Iraq.
But “you’ve got to make decisions based upon what you think is right — that you can’t try to be popular,” he maintained.
“I readily concede our policies may not be beloved,” the president said. “But I’ll tell you the policies that are: We feed the hungry. When the tsunamis hit, it was the United States of America who took the lead. On HIV/AIDS, we’re spending $15 billion of taxpayers’ money to help people [who are] suffering. And so this country is a country that is doing a lot of good.
“I think when it’s all said and done that they’ll look back and say: ‘Thank goodness America took the lead in fighting this war on terror, too. Thank God they’re helping to lay the foundation for peace.’”
Asked what other goals he hoped to reach before he left office in January 2009, Bush returned to two of the major themes of his State of the Union address last winter: repair Social Security and reduce American dependence on foreign oil.
“Baby boomers are retiring, fewer people are paying into the system, and the system is going broke,” Bush said of the retirement program, which the White House projects will begin paying out more in benefits than it collects in payroll taxes in 2017. “And it’s going to require both Democrats and Republicans coming together to reform these systems so that they keep their promise.”
He was more animated when it came to energy.
“We’re addicted to oil — which is a pretty strong statement for a guy from Texas to make,” Bush said, calling U.S. dependence on foreign sources of oil “a national security issue — not only an economic security issue, it’s a national security issue.”
Reversing that dependence will take a lot longer than environmental critics of the White House believe, he said. “Technology is going to take the lead. [But] technology doesn’t happen overnight.”
“If there was a magic wand to wave, I’d wave it,” he added. “... What I don’t want to do is lay out something that is not going to work.”
By MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson with NBC News’ Brian Williams in New Orleans.
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