Former President George W. Bush defended his foreign policy and economic record Thursday night, insisting that America will eventually eradicate terrorism and return to an era of financial prosperity.
"Just like freedom is going to prevail," Bush told the 2,500 members of the Economic Club of Southwest Michigan, "our economy is going to be the envy of the world."
In his second domestic public speaking appearance since leaving office on Jan. 20, Bush discussed the major issues of his presidency, including his response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the decision to invade Iraq.
Bush, speaking at Lake Michigan College's Upton Hall, compared the United States' current ideological struggle with Islamic extremists to previous ones the country faced with fascists and communists. The 43rd president said he firmly believes the U.S. will ultimately prevail and history will judge it as acting rightly.
"I'm confident it's going to have a happy ending," he said. "Because freedom wins every time."
Bush spoke for 20 minutes, then took just under an hour's worth of questions. Club officials previously said all questions would be pre-screened, but he instead took them directly from the audience.
The decision to go to Iraq was "hard," he said, but he hopes people will accept that it was the right one, for the sake of peace.
"Freedom is transformative," said Bush, who will make a public appearance with former President Bill Clinton in Canada today. "The belief that freedom is universal exists in peoples' souls all over the world. And if we take the lead, people will say, 'Thank God he never lost faith in democracy.'"
Next to the time he learned America had been attacked by terrorists, Bush said his most troubling time was the near economic collapse late in his presidency. Told inaction would lead to a crisis worse than the Great Depression, Bush said he decided he had to intervene to prevent widespread stock market collapse and bank failure.
"That's a sobering moment," he said. "I thought about it, and I didn't really want to be that president. So I abandoned free-market principles."
The former president said none of his current or future statements should be seen as passing judgment on President Barack Obama or the new administration's policies.
"There are plenty of people who will weigh in, trust me," he said. "I didn't like it when a former president criticized me, and therefore I am not going to criticize my successor. I wish him all the best."
Bush made only a veiled comment regarding the controversial interrogation practices his administration allegedly employed on enemy detainees.
While former Vice President Dick Cheney has vigorously defended them in recent weeks, Bush said only that he was confident all tactics used were legal.
"We made a decision within the law to get information," he said. "So I can say to myself, 'I've done what it takes to do my duty to protect the American people.'"
Bush is the final lecturer in the club's annual speaker series, which included addresses by former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, Bush chief of staff Karl Rove and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Though this year's lineup was Republican-heavy, club officials said they invite all prominent members of outgoing administrations to come speak. In past years, Clinton and three members of Bush's family, George H.W., Barbara and Jeb Bush have all appeared.
"I was very interested to hear you had my dad, my mother and my brother here," Bush quipped. "I appreciate you finally getting to me."
Known as a president who always maintained his sense of humor, Bush's remarks were filled with anecdotes and one-liners. He recounted the day he moved to his new Dallas home in January and walked with his dog, Barney, introducing himself to neighbors.
It was the first time the dog had been outside a place that wasn't the White House lawn or a presidential retreat, Bush said, so the dog was used to being free to take care of certain ... things ... anywhere.
"There I was, the former president of the United States. With a plastic bag," he said. "Picking up that which I had been dodging for eight years. Life was good."
The former president's remarks drew loud applause and laughter throughout, but his largest and longest ovation came in response to a question on his legacy. A woman asked Bush how he hoped her 12-year-old daughter and the rest of her generation would view his presidency.
"I hope it is this," Bush said. "'The man showed up in the office with a set of principles and he was unwilling to sacrifice his principles for the sake of popularity.'"