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Echoes of Iraq war as Bush marks D-Day

As President Bush gave a stirring but solemn speech commemorating the heroes of D-Day, there were also unmistakable echoes of another war,  in Iraq. NBC’s Tom Brokaw spoke with the president in an exclusive interview.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

President Bush and world leaders gathered on the coast of Normandy Sunday, where the tide of war turned 60 years ago. The president gave a stirring but solemn speech commemorating the heroes of D-Day, and the sacrifices of World War II. But there were also unmistakable echoes of another war, one that has raised passions and caused divisions, here and at home: the war in Iraq. NBC’s Tom Brokaw spoke with the president in an exclusive interview -- his first American television interview in four months. Read a full transcript of the interview below:

Tom Brokaw: “Mr. President, in the last week or so, you have been comparing World War II with the time that we're going through now. And a lot of people wonder whether that's really an  apt comparison. After all, Germany had occupied most of Europe. Japan was determined to take over most of Asia.”

President Bush: “Right.”

Brokaw: “It was a whole different order of magnitude in World War II.”

Bush: “Exactly what my speech said. I said there were similarities to World War II. And the fight we have today is unique in many ways. The similarities were when we were attacked in an unprovoked fashion in World War II and on September the 11, 2001.

“Another similarity is that there are people who have got this kind of distorted sense of the world, trying to impose their will. Fascism on the one hand, and fanaticism on the other. But I also made it clear, this is a different kind of war. And it's a different kind of war, because you're right. In World War II, there was armies and invasions and pill boxes overlooking, you know, the beaches of Normandy.

“And this war that we're fighting, there's fanatics who hide in cities and caves and kill innocent people. Both armies, or both the movements, were trying to dispirit the free world.

“But I also said in the speech, it's very important that Americans understand this, that we can win the war on terror like we won the war against communism and like we won the war against fascism, by being tough and strong and spreading freedom.  And that's what also the speech said.”

Brokaw: “One of your predecessors, who was the commander-in-chief during the time of World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was well known for his canny ability to hold the alliance together and to be patient and planned. D-Day was not easy.”

Bush: “Right.”

Brokaw: “A lot of people wanted to rush it. Some people say that's the difference between then and now. They planned, they took their time. Then when they were ready, they went. In Iraq, we rushed it.

Bush: “Well, I, you know, it's hard to say we rushed it, because there was a great military victory going into Baghdad. I mean, it was well planned and well thought out.”

Brokaw: “But with the planning afterward.”  

Bush: “Well, that's -- it's been it's been different in some ways than expected, obviously. And there was been some successes we didn't expect. I can remember sitting in the White House talking with friends and allies and planners about whether or not the oil supply would be disrupted, which would've been catastrophic for the Iraqi people. It wasn't.

“Or whether or not there'd be mass starvation, or whether or not there'd be, you know, great movements of people, refugee flows, none of which happened.  What did happen was, the quick victory enabled some of Saddam's loyalists to meld into the population to fight another day. And that's what we're doing now. But you know, look. I now, whether you say we rushed it and therefore didn't have a strong coalition, we had a strong coalition.”

Brokaw: “No, I'm talking about the planning that was—“

Bush: “Well, it's-- look. I think if you were to—“

Brokaw: “Is that a fair criticism?”

Bush: “I think it's fair to say that, you know, that the enemy didn't lay down its arms like we had hoped.”

Brokaw: “And you were not greeted as liberators like Vice President Cheney said that you would be.”

Bush: “Well, I think we've been -- let me just -- I think we've been thanked by the people of Iraq. And I think you'll hear more of that from people like Prime Minister Alawi and the foreign minister, who both have repeatedly, ‘Thank you for what you've done, and by the way, help us.’

“It's not easy work to take a country from tyranny to a free society. And we'd been there a little over a year. And it's-- you might recall if you're looking for parallels in World War II, it took about four years to get an active reconstruction effort going.

“And in my speech that you referred to, I make-- pointed out that in the immediate aftermath of World War II, there was a-- the Soviet Union exploded a bomb, that China went communist. It was a question of whether or not the Greek government would go communist.

“The reconstruction effort was halting at best. The marshal plan hadn't been started. And I-- my only point is, these are difficult assignments. It was a difficult assignment then. It's a difficult assignment now. And what America must do is understand the consequences of getting it right. And the consequences of getting right is that a free society in the Middle East is going to help change the country, change the countries in the Middle East and make us more secure and the world more peaceful.”

Brokaw: “When you were talking about what we're engaged in now, in the context of World War II at the Air Force Academy in the commencement address, you refer other the ruthless and treacherous surprise attack on America that we went through during our time. But that wasn't Iraq, that was al-Qaida.”

Bush: “Right. But-- no question about it. But I also went on to say that part of winning the war on terror is to deal with regimes that harbor terrorists, that feed terrorists. And there's no question that Saddam Hussein did that.

“He had Zarkawai n his midst. He had Abu Nadal. He's been paying families of suiciders to attack Israel. He had also posed a threat with weapons, and he used them.

“And the whole world, in analyzing Iraq, thought that Saddam Hussein was a danger and should disarm. And that's why we got a unanimous declaration out the United Nations's Security Council. So, Iraq is a part of the war on terror.  No question it was al-Qaeda that attacked us. But it's also no question that the Taliban harbored al-Qaida.

“And that's why we removed the Taliban out of Afghanistan. In other words, part of the war on terror is not only go after al-Qaida, to go after those who sponsor them, provide them safe haven, and as well as to spread freedom. That's the long-term hope for winning the war, this war that we're now in.

Brokaw: “You're here in France for this great feeling, especially in Normandy, for the Americans as a result of what they did 60 years ago.

“But throughout Europe, even your friends will say big-time American businessmen, who are over here a lot, they've never seen anti-Americanism so high or the personal feelings against you so high as well.  Is that important for you to remedy?”

Bush: “You know, look. It's important for people to know what --that I've got a future, that I believe in a future that's peaceful based upon liberty. And I remember my predecessor who's life we mourn, Ronald Reagan, they felt the same way about him.

“Tom, that doesn't mean a fella like me should change my beliefs. I'm not going to. I'm not trying to be popular. What I'm trying to do is what I think is right. And what is right is to fight terror.

“And what is right is to spread freedom. And what is right, to stand on the -- is to stand on the values that my country and our country upholds. And I will continue to do so. In the meantime, I work hard to build alliances. And you know, we've got good relations with countries in Europe. And the countries in Europe like Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, have been strong supporters of our mutual policies.”

Brokaw: “As you know, I saw President Chirac late last week. And he is determined to find more common ground with the United States about Iraq. But at the same time, he also said we shouldn't try to impose our values on another country. And when I asked him about the World War II comparison, he said, ‘You know, war is never appropriate resolution to conflict. Wars always leave scars.’

“Is that the essence of the difference between the United States and Europe these days, that we're more inclined to use war as an instrument, and the Europeans are less inclined?”

Bush: “I think that's an unfair characterization. War is the last resort.  Now, if the British say ‘more inclined,’ it kind of sounds like we're anxious to use—“

Brokaw: “No, I don't mean that. But the—“

Bush: “You know, I'm not. It's the last resort. On the other hand, we are at war.  In other words, I think what you should be asking is, if I might be so bold—“

Brokaw: “Go ahead.”

Bush: “--is am I willing to use the military in a time of war? And the answer is absolutely. We are at war. And maybe some might not see us at war. But I clearly see a war, and I see a danger for America. And I feel it's my solemn obligation to wage that war. And perhaps, that's where some of the anxiety comes forth.

“Maybe some in Europe don't see us at a time of war. I have-- I recognize that the enemy declared war on us. And I will continue to wage that war using all the assets of the United States and continuing to rally other nations to join in that war.”

Brokaw: “And conversely, do you think that the Europeans are being unrealistic about the real nature of the war on terror?”

Bush: “You know, I -- that's up to the pundits and the scribes to figure out. My job is to continue to rally them, is to say, ‘Look. We are at war. And we're in danger. We're in danger in America of another attack.

“I mean, one of the worst things that happened in my judgment was, is that the al-Qaida killed innocent people in Spain, and the al-Qaida leadership think that they affected the outcome of the election. And—“

Brokaw: “Don't you think they did?”

Bush: “Well, no question they affected the election. Whether or not they affected the outcome is another question. But I do-- it's not what I think. It's what they think is what worries me. It worries me that the al-Qaida leadership says, ‘Well, we may be able to affect the election of the United States. We may be able to, you know, change the outcome of democracy by killing.’ And, you know, it's a dangerous period for the free world. And I spend time explaining that to people.

Brokaw: “As you know, military people in the field especially, are always concerned about whether they have support at home.”

Bush: “Yeah.”

Brokaw: “And there's been a marked deterioration in the support for the war in Iraq.  Also in your recent speeches, you have talked about World War II in terms of the sacrifices that the American people have made.

“Many people believe that you ought to be asking more of the American people at home to sacrifice more so that they feel more connected to what's going on the—“

Bush: “What does that mean, sacrifice more?”
Brokaw: “Well, like in World War II for example, they rationed gasoline. They gave up their meat supplies. You don't have to go that far. But there's a great sense, I think, that there's a disconnect between what American military people are doing overseas and what Americans are doing at home.”

Bush: “Yeah. I, you know, I—“

Brokaw: “You not agree with that?”

Bush: “I-- no, I don't. I am-- and first of all, Americans have been sacrificing. Our economy hadn't been as strong as it should be. And there's people that hadn't been working. Fortunately, our economy is now strong and it's getting stronger. Job report has been very robust recently, which is positive news. In other words, people are getting back to work. The country is going to be strong economically, which means we're more able to be able to afford keeping our troops overseas. I think that what's really important for the American people is to understand that the long-term consequences of a free Iraq will be very important for the peace of the world and security of America. And that is my main responsibility, is to explain to people why soldiers are sacrificing in Iraq. And my judgment is that the American people understand that.

“Now, it's easy to say things aren't going so well when you're seeing pictures of, you know, a horrible humiliation of Iraqi prisoners on TV. But as a free Iraq begins to emerge and the people begin to see leadership say, ‘We appreciate America, thank you for your sacrifices, we will be a free country,’ I think you'll see the American people begin to connect the sacrifice there in the theater to the long-term objectives of this government.”

Brokaw: “And what about the role of the American military after June 30? Will we have to get permission from the new Iraqi government to engage in operations, or have we worked out some kind of a—“

Bush: “We have worked out an agreement with them. And there was an exchange of letters, which basically says that one, we're invited to be there, and that's important. A government that's sovereign ought to be allowed to say whether or not there ought to be a coalition or foreign troops on their soil to help them.

“And secondly, our commanders will work out an agreement with an Iraqi chain of command as to how to operate on different situations. But one thing the American people need to know is that if our troops are over in harm's way, they will defend themselves. We're not going to have to seek permission for our troops to defend themselves from people trying to inflict harm on them.”

Brokaw: “And we'll have fewer people there in six months, or more?”

Bush: “You're always trying to get me to put down artificial timetables. The definition—“

Brokaw: “Well, you pick the timetable.”

Bush: “I'm not going to pick a timetable. But I will tell you that our mission is to train and stand up Iraqi forces that are efficient and capable, as quickly as possible, thereby taking the pressure of coalition forces.

“And, you know, we-- in April, the, you know, surge of violence in April taught us a pretty good lesson, that not-- that there needs to be a chain of command. The Iraqi people, who have decided to defend their country and themselves in harm's way, need to understand they're not fighting for America. They're fighting for themselves. And there needs to be a robust training, continued training, which we're doing, all of which I think will lead to the Iraqis better being able to defend themselves, at which time we'll then assess the troop levels needed to complete the mission.”

Brokaw: “Are you worried that in the next nine months or so before the election, that one faction in Iraq will try to become dominant, and especially since we have a constitution in Iraq now that says minority rights?”

Bush: “Yeah.”

Brokaw: “What happens then?”

Bush: “You mean if that constitution is laid aside?”

Brokaw: “Yes.”

Bush: “I would hope it wouldn't be. I would hope that the Iraqi citizenry realizes the importance of recognizing the rights of all people within their country.

“We, you know, this fellow Alawi has made the right-- sent the right signals thus far, that he believes there ought to be a constitution which recognizes the right for people to worship freely. And the election process hopefully will yield a co-- an assembly that agrees with that.”

Brokaw: “Ahmed Chalabi has been a principal figure from the beginning of the war in Iraq. He has now been identified as a suspect in a spy case involving Iran. His funding has been cut off.

“A lot of people are saying, ‘I told you so.’ On the other hand, his admirers are saying he's a victim of a CIA vendetta. Which is it?”

Bush: “The FBI is investigating the allegations. And we'll find out soon. And there's very-- they are serious allegations, that somebody might have passed on sensitive information to this man who then shared it with the foreign government.

“And if that's the truth, then justice should be done to the person that passed on secrets. Mr. Chalabi's not a U.S. citizen.”

Brokaw: “If you're a member of the American public, and you're looking at what's going on in Iraq with Americans being killed almost every day by this continuing insurgency, and no weapons of mass destruction have been found, and George Tenet, the director of the CIA, has quit in the middle of this war, and Ahkmed Chalabi, who was a principal source of information to the United States now has been removed, and he is under investigation, would you as an ordinary citizen out there in America say, ‘Man, I don't know what's going on here, but I don't like it at all?’”

Bush: “If I didn't see a positive end, I would be thinking that.  Whereas if all I thought was happening is-- was that there was, you know, civil war -- perhaps civil war …  And I would be saying, you know, what's going on here?  On the other hand, the American people are beginning to see that there is a positive end.

“And the end is a free Iraq.  And the American people have got to understand that part of winning the war on terror is to encourage the habits of liberty in parts of the world that need the habits of liberty. I mean, winning the war on terror requires more than just doing in al-Qaida, which we are actively doing, by the way. We're searching and finding.

“But it also means installing governments that don't necessarily look like America.  They won't look like America, but that our government that has embraced the habits of freedom in places like Afghanistan and in Iraq, which will in turn, strengthen places like Pakistan and Turkey.”

“These are vital missions, Tom. Because they're-- these are the countries that represent the beginnings of massive change in the greater Middle East. Now, I agree. Some won't think that's possible. I do. But had we taken that tack, by the way, that's, you know, a country can't be a democratic country after World War II, it's very conceivable that Japan would not have been our close ally today. Other words, there were some cynics and pessimists that said well, Japan can't possibly be a free society because of the nature of the people.

"Fortunately, some of our forefathers refused to buy into that. And now, Japan is one of our strongest allies in keeping the peace. I think 60 years from now, people are going to look back and say, "Thank goodness America stood the line and worked for democracy in Iraq, which served as a catalyst for change in the greater Middle East, which is now a more peaceful place than it would've been.’

“The other ambition of the terrorist is to drive us out of the greater Middle East so that they can have not only safe haven, but perhaps controlled government that have got past the energy resources and/or weapons, which would be a grave danger to America. And it's why it's important that we complete this mission, and I'm confident we will.”

Brokaw: “On June 30, will more resources be shifted to Afghanistan where we have a much smaller force than we do in Iraq, where a lot of people believe that the threat is at least as great, because Osama bin Laden is still there and al-Qaida's hiding out?”

Bush: “Look… our commanders think it necessary to accomplish the military mission. That's how I run the operation.

“I say to our commanders, ‘Do you have enough? We expect you to find the remnants of al-Qaida and Taliban in the far-reaches of Afghanistan. Do you have enough troop levels to do that -- enough troops to do that?’ And the answer is yes, we do. If they need more, we provide more.”

Brokaw: “During World War II, FDR had the draft.  He could summon as many men and women as he needed to serve in the armed forces.”

Bush: “Right.”

Brokaw: “Some people are beginning to believe that the United States is going to need the draft again, because we're putting such a strain not only on a regular military, but also on the reserve forces and on the National Guard.  As you do your projections, do you think that the draft will ever return to America?”

Bush: “No.”

Brokaw: “Think it's a bad idea?“

Bush: “I do. I think the volunteer force is necessary and been the model of efficiency.”

Brokaw: “Mr. President, behind you are the crosses of the American cemetery and the Stars of David, of the people who fell. And not this in this beach, but in the ensuing battles of World War II.

“Sixty years from now, do you think another American president will go to a cemetery to honor those who fell in Iraq, with the same sense of sacrifice and pride in what went on?”

Bush: “I do. I do. And I hope America never forgets those who sacrificed war for security and freedom, whether it be here or elsewhere around the world. This memorial ceremony today is really important.  Because a great generation is—"

Brokaw: “’Going to a new horizon,’ as you put it?”

Bush: “--going to a new horizon. And we should never forget what they've done here. I hope America will always honor their sacrifice. And at the same time, I hope they'll always honor the sacrifice of the soldiers who are fighting for our security today. We are at war in America. Different kind of war. It looks different. Some days it doesn't seem like we're at war. But we are at war. And it's a war we will win if we're strong and persevere and steadfast, and honor those who have sacrificed by completing the job.”

Brokaw: “Let me ask you about President Reagan.

Bush: “Yeah.

Brokaw: “The Bush family's been involved in politics for a long, long time.  But in many ways, President Reagan was a patron of the Bush family in politics as well.  Because your dad became his vice president, then ran for president, certainly helped you as you ran for governor of Texas.  What is your best memory of Ronald Reagan the politician and the man?”

Bush: “You know, I remember I'd just gotten out of college in '68 and I went to a Reagan rally in Jacksonville, Fla. He was campaigning for Ed Gurney, who was running for the United States Senate.

“And I remember how electrified the crowd became when Ronald Reagan just walked in the room. There was something unbelievably charismatic about him.  And people loved to be in his presence. And they-- and how calm he was, and relaxed. He was a very relaxed person. He didn't take himself so seriously that he got kind of bunched up in his airs. An impressive figure, particularly for, you know, a guy fresh out of college in 1968. He impressed me a lot.

“And I remember the stories my dad would tell of his great sense of humor. He had a wonderful Irish sense of humor. Keep people off-guard by being humble and funny. He'll be sorely missed. He was a great president, Tom.”

Brokaw: “Your father said Ronald Reagan taught us that we could disagree without being disagreeable.”

Bush: “Yeah.”

Brokaw: “Do you think that there is too much disagreeable in American politics today?”

Bush: “I'm trying to elevate the debate as best I can. But it's pretty rough right now. And I've read a lot of history… that American politics has been rough. I remember the year of the pamphleteering, when people would write all kinds of stuff, without any without any sense of propriety.

“And seems like we may be-- some of that may be happening these days. People just write down whatever they want, whether it's truthful or not… And, you know, look, politics is a rough business. But my job is to-- I think my job as the president, is to try to elevate the debate out of the muck, focus our country's attention on where we need to go and what we need to do as a nation to make ourselves more secure and make the world more peaceful and free.”

Brokaw: “There's been such good feeling between the United States and the French for the past several days here in Normandy. And it is a reminder of the sacrifices of the Americans, the British, the Canadians, to liberate Europe.

“But once the memory of this fades away, you think we'll go back to the old confrontation between America and those principals used to be our European allies like the French and the Germans?”

Bush: “Yeah, you know, I think you tend to define the whole relationship based upon the difference of opinion in Iraq. But we're working in Afghanistan together. We're working in Haiti together. We spend a lot of time talking about Africa and how to keep the peace there.

“There are-- we're on the proliferation security initiative together. We're working on AIDS. I mean, there's a lot of things we're working with the French on in a cooperative way, and to make the world a better place.

“No question we had a difference of opinion on Iraq. Not on the first Security Council [resolution that] passed unanimously that said to Saddam Hussein, ‘You're a dangerous man, disarm, prove it, or else you'll face serious consequences.’ It was the disagreement over… do you ever say serious consequences and then not do anything about it. My attitude is that when America speaks, when it says something, it better mean it. So, when we said serious consequences, I meant serious consequences. But no, I think relations are good. And we are working together on a number of fronts.”

Brokaw: “Thank you, Mr. President.”

Bush: “Tom.”

Brokaw: “You think of yourself as a Ronald Reagan Republican?”

Bush: “Think of myself as a George W. Republican, different era.”