"Freedom is the Almighty's gift"

In an interview with the BBC's David Frost, President Bush expounds upon democracy, Palestine -- and the future of the Iraq war.

Published November 17, 2003 2:22AM (EST)

SIR DAVID FROST (TO CAMERA): I met with President George W. Bush in the Map Room here at the White House for an interview on the eve of his historic visit to the U.K; his historic state visit, the first by an American president for more than 80 years. There was much else to discuss, of course, as well as the visit.

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SIR DAVID: Mr. President, a lot of people say this might be your first trip to London, but it's not.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: No, it's not. I've been there a couple of times. I remember Laura and I went to see "Cats" in London. Gosh, I remember going to some nice pubs -- when I was drinking man in London. It's a great city, and I'm looking forward to going.

SIR DAVID: Well, we're looking forward to see you there, too. In fact, of course, you're famous for the fact that normally social -- dressing up socially is not your favorite thing, and you once said that marvelous quote, "Read my lips; no new tuxes."

PRESIDENT BUSH: (Laughs.) That's right.

SIR DAVID: Are you going to take a new tux this time?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, I'm going to take a tux, and I'm going to take a -- tails. And I -- don't tell anybody, but I had to rent them.

SIR DAVID: (Chuckles.)

PRESIDENT BUSH: (Chuckles) -- I'm looking forward to it. It's a huge honor to be invited by Her Majesty to stay in Buckingham Palace. It's hard to imagine me even considering staying in Buckingham Palace when I was living in Midland, Texas.

SIR DAVID: What would you like to see come out of this trip in terms of -- in addition to the fun part?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, I've got some business to do with Tony Blair. We've got a lot of things to discuss. We're going to talk about how to continue to spread freedom and peace, we'll talk about how to work the compassion agenda on the AIDS initiative, for example. There's been some time talking about that. I value his advice, and I -- every time I visit with him, whether it be on phone or on video, or in person, I come away with a -- you know, he's got some interesting ideas about how to advance a positive agenda. Secondly, I look forward to speaking to the people of your great country. I have a chance to give a speech, to talk about the importance of our relationship -- the unique relationship between America and Great Britain -- and I'll have a chance to answer some questions, I'm certain, from the -- from what we call the Fourth Estate here, the mighty media, and I look forward to it.

SIR DAVID: And Tony Blair, on Monday night -- and he will probably have told you he's expecting there to be quite a lot of protesters about the war. What would -- what would be your message to those protesters?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, freedom is a beautiful thing, I would first say, and it's -- aren't you lucky to be in a country that encourages people to speak their mind? And I value going to a country where people are free to say anything they want to say. Secondly, I would say that I understand you don't like war, and neither do I. But I would hope you understand that I have learned the lessons of September the 11th, 2001, and that terrorists declared war on the United States of America and war on people that love freedom, and I intend to lead our nation -- along with others, like our close friends in Great Britain -- to win this war on terror; that war is my last choice, not my first choice, but I have obligation as the president to keep our country secure.

SIR DAVID: And at the same time, you'll be working with Tony Blair. And what is the key to your working together so well? I mean, it's like you have a special relationship. Is partially the bond the bond of -- that you're both men of strong faith?

PRESIDENT BUSH: I think so. Tony is a man of strong faith. You know, the key to my relationship with Tony is he tells the truth and he tells you what he thinks. And when he says he's going to do something, he's going to do it. I trust him, therefore. I have seen him -- under some tough, tough circumstances -- stand strong, and I appreciate that in a person. The other thing I admire about Tony Blair is that he has got a vision beyond the current; in other words, he can see a world that is peaceful. And he agrees with me that the spread of democracy and freedom in parts of the world where there's violence and hatred will help change the world, that there are reformers in the Middle East that long for democracy, that long to live in a free world. And Tony Blair, like me, agrees -- you know, kind of rejects the elitist point of view that only a certain type of person can adapt to habits of freedom and democracy, and he knows that freedom in the Middle East will help change that world in dramatic fashion.

SIR DAVID: And in terms -- as you look at the world, Mr. President, at the moment, and you see that the protesters in Australia or wherever they are, and you see that poll that came out in the EU -- poll the other day that showed that the United States was second among the most dangerous countries in terms of war in the world, level, for God's sake, with North Korea and Iran. When you see things like that, do you think the world is out of step with America or America is out of step with the world?

PRESIDENT BUSH: (Chuckles.) Well, first of all, you have got to know I don't pay attention to polls. I just don't. I have got a job to do for the American people. It's a job that was changed on 9/11, and I refuse to -- I refuse to forget the -- I will never forget the lesson, is a better way to put it, of what happened to this country. And there are terrorists who are willing to kill innocent life in order to create fear and chaos. There are terrorists who want the free world to retreat from duties so that they can impose Taliban-type governments and enslave people. There are people like Saddam Hussein, who tortured and maimed and killed, and at the same time threatened and created conditions of instability. And I know some people don't understand the need to deal with that, but I feel firmly we must deal with those issues.

SIR DAVID: But do you need to woo people more in the rest of the world, do you think?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, we wooed. We did a pretty good job of wooing them at the United Nations. After all, remember 1441 was a unanimous vote that said after a decade of sending messages to Mr. Saddam Hussein for him to disarm -- 1441 said disarm or there will be serious consequences, and that was a unanimous vote; in other words, the world, at least on the Security Council, came together and sent a clear signal. Obviously, there was a disagreement about the definition of serious consequence, but I can assure you serious consequence isn't more resolutions or more debate. Serious consequence was with dealing with Mr. Saddam Hussein today, before it became too late. And I understand people don't agree with that position, but nevertheless I am convinced that the decisions we made -- and there's a lot of countries that made that decision with us -- that decision will make the world more peaceful and more free.

SIR DAVID: But do you --

PRESIDENT BUSH: That decision is in the long-term interest of people who love freedom.

SIR DAVID: And will you ever be able to forgive Jacques Chirac and Chancellor Schroeder for their actions at that time in undermining the second resolution?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Of course. It's like I can understand why people express, you know, their disagreement with the policy. I understand not everybody is going to agree with every decision that I make or others make. But I have had meetings with Gerhard Schroeder and Jacques Chirac since then. They have been very cordial meetings. Gerhard Schroeder has now committed German troops to Afghanistan, which is a very important mission, to help stabilize that good country as it not only enacts a Constitution but heads toward elections, and I appreciate the contribution of the German government toward Afghanistan. I'm proud to say that it is a -- it is a vital contribution, and I appreciate their willingness to work with us. Again, we're not going to agree on every issue, but a Europe which works closely with America and an America which works closely with Europe means the world will be better off.

SIR DAVID: Tell me about -- in terms of Iraq, tell me about weapons of mass destruction. The fact that we didn't find them and so on has been much discussed, but do you think that you were the victim of a failure of intelligence in a way?



PRESIDENT BUSH: No, not at all. I think our intelligence was sound and I know the British intelligence was sound. It's the same intelligence that caused the United Nations to pass resolution after resolution after resolution. It's the same intelligence that was used by my predecessor to bomb Iraq. And I'm very confident that we got good intelligence. And not only that, Mr. David Kay, who went over to kind of lead the effort to find the weapons or the intent of weapons, came back with a report that clearly stated that Mr. Saddam Hussein had been in material breach of Resolution 1441; in other words, had the inspectors found what Kay found, they would have reported back to the United Nations that he was in breach, that he was in violation of exactly what the United Nations expected him not to do. We will find -- you know, we will get to find the truth, but this guy for many years had been hiding weapons, deceiving weapons. He had dual-use programs that could have been sped up. Nobody could say that Saddam Hussein wasn't a danger. I mean, not only was he a danger to the free world -- I mean, and that's what the world said. The world said it consistently.

SIR DAVID: But did he really --

PRESIDENT BUSH: And he's a danger to his own people as well. Remember, we discovered mass graves with hundreds of thousands of men and women, and children, clutching their little toys, as a result of this person's brutality. Go ahead. Sorry. (Chuckles.)

SIR DAVID: Did you ever believe that stuff about him having weapons of mass destruction that could be unleashed in 45 minutes, or did you never really believe that?

PRESIDENT BUSH: I believed he was a dangerous man.

SIR DAVID: But you didn't believe that?

PRESIDENT BUSH: And -- well, I believed a lot of things, but I know he was a dangerous man, and I know that for the sake of security he needed to be dealt with. After all -- again, I repeat this because it's a very important point that people in your country must remember, and that is the world has spoken -- universally spoken -- about this man's danger for 12 long years, and in order for -- at the very minimum, in order for a multinational organization to be valid and effective, something has to happen other than resolutions. And when an organization says if you don't disarm -- in other words, in order to say they don't disarm, intelligence convinced a lot of nations, including France, that he had weapons; in other words, he had to disarm something. Dismantle your programs. If you don't do that, there will be a serious consequence. And the fundamental question is what is a serious consequence? It's not another resolution. It's not more empty debate. A serious consequence, in this case, was removing Saddam Hussein so those weapons programs would not be activated. And David Kay found evidence of weapons programs. He found some biological weapons - evidence of biological weapons. And it doesn't take much time; it doesn't even take much --

SIR DAVID: No, but we really need the big discovery, don't we?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, that's pretty big, what I just told you. Now remember, for a long period of time, it was assumed that he didn't have a nuclear weapons program, and yet, after 1991, the world had to change its attitude about this man's nuclear weapons program and admitted that it was very advanced. A nuclear weapon in the hands of somebody like Saddam Hussein, particularly given the lessons of 9/11, would be a horrendous development. And we had to deal with him, and we did in a way, by the way, that was a compassionate way. We spared innocent life, we targeted the guilty, and we moved hard and fast, and very little of Iraq was touched in toppling Saddam Hussein.

SIR DAVID: People have said, Mr. President, you know, that the same meticulous planning that went into winning the war didn't go into winning the peace, and we were a bit unprepared for some of the surprises -- the unpleasant surprises --


SIR DAVID: -- you know, the terrorists and all of that that came along. Is that a fair comment?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Ah -- No. (Chuckles.) It's not a fair comment. We look at all contingencies and are dealing with the contingencies. Look, let me -- if I could step back and maybe think out loud here about some of the stories or some of the speculation that was going on before we went into Iraq: one, that, you know, the oil revenues would be blown up, the oil fields would be destroyed; they weren't. As a matter of fact, oil production is up to 2.1 or 2.2 million barrels a day, to the benefit of the Iraqi people. That's a very important point. Remember there was speculation about sectarian violence, that the long-suppressed Kurds or Shi'a make take out their anxieties and their frustrations on the Sunnis. That didn't happen. There was talk about mass starvation. It didn't happen. Refugee flows that would be unmanageable -- that never happened, and so a lot of the contingencies that we had planned for didn't happen. What has happened is that, in a relatively small part of the country, there are Ba'athists --

SIR DAVID: You call it now the Ba'athist Triangle --

PRESIDENT BUSH: Yes, Sunni Triangle -- they are attacking, and they're attacking not only coalition forces, they're attacking innocent Iraqis because what they're trying to do is stop the spread of progress.

SIR DAVID: It's almost a guerrilla war there, really.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, I would call it a desperate attempt, by people who were in -- totally in control of government through tyrannical means, to regain power. This is nothing more than a power grab. Now there are some foreign fighters -- mujaheddin types or al-Qaida, or al-Qaida affiliates involved, as well. They've got a different mission; they want to install a Taliban-type government in Iraq, or they want to seek revenge for getting whipped in Afghanistan. But nevertheless, they all have now found common ground for a brief period of time, and what we will do is we will use Iraqi intelligence, we will use Iraqi security forces -- we're up to about 118,000 Iraqi folks in one type of uniform or another securing the country -- to be an integral part of chasing these killers down and to bring them to justice before they kill innocent life.

SIR DAVID: But it must have taken us a bit by surprise or otherwise we'd have prepared for it -- the level of this, the combination of the, what, 700 -- perhaps -- foreign terrorists who came into Iraq, and so on. That was --

PRESIDENT BUSH: You know, I don't think so. I think -- listen, a lot of those people who came in initially wish they hadn't come in initially. They're not wishing at all right now, but no, I we understood it was going to be tough. We've been there for seven months, David, which seems like a long time, particularly given the news cycles the way they are. I'm certainly not complaining about the news cycles, but it -- nevertheless, there's a certain sense of impatience that has now crept into the world, and my job is to enable our operators and military to make adjustments necessary to succeed. And we've got the same strategy, which is a peaceful Iraq; the tactics shift depending upon the decisions of the enemy, and we're making progress. That's not to say it's not tough. Of course it's tough. But what they want to do is they want to shake the will of the free world, and the good news about having a partner like Tony Blair is he won't be shaken, you see, and neither will I. And neither will Jose Maria Aznar. I heard Berlusconi stand up with a strong statement after the Italian police had been murdered, and we sent -- of course sent our sympathies and prayers to the Italian people there, but Berlusconi said, "They're not going to run us out." And that's what these terrorists need to hear. And more importantly- - or as importantly -- the Iraqi citizens need to hear that. They need to know that we won't leave the country prematurely. They need to know two things: we're not going to cut and run; and two, we believe they have the capacity to run their own country.

SIR DAVID: Well, as -- the cut-and-run thing, obviously, is absolutely vital. When you said you're not going to cut and run, you'll be there as long as it takes. Tony Blair, in his speech on Monday night, said, "We're not going to retreat one inch." I mean, we are there for as -- how long it takes to produce a successful Iraqi democracy, are we?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Yes, absolutely.

SIR DAVID: Whether that's years and years, or what?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, we don't think it will be years and years because, first of all, we think the Iraqi people are plenty capable of running their own country, and we think they want to run their own country. See, some in the world -- some in the world don't believe that Iraq can run itself; in other words, they believe that -- well, might as well let them have a military dictatorship or a tyrant. That's the only way they can be governed. I disagree, and Tony Blair disagrees with that. We believe that democracy will take hold in Iraq, and we believe a free and democratic Iraq will help change the Middle East. There are hundreds of reformers that are desperate for freedom. Freedom -- freedom is not America's gift to the world or Great Britain's gift to the world. Freedom is the Almighty's gift to everybody who lives in the world.

SIR DAVID: Is there any likelihood that Saddam himself could be behind this violence?

PRESIDENT BUSH: I -- you know, Saddam Hussein is a violent man. Listen, he -- he tortured and maimed and killed, he had rape rooms, and people disappeared because they spoke out against him, we've discovered mass graves. He's a brutal, brutal tyrant -- brutal tyrant. We did the Iraqi people a great favor by removing him, and so I wouldn't be surprised that any kind of violence is promoted by him, but I don't know -- I don't know. All I know is we're after him.

SIR DAVID: Because that's one of the interesting things that -- I mean, nobody has time for or a moment for Saddam Hussein. Some people are worried, in England and around the world, by the idea of regime change because they say once we've done regime change -- Britain and America --


SIR DAVID: -- with Saddam Hussein, what can we say if India wants to do regime change with -- not Pakistan -- or Pakistan wants to do regime change with India?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Yes, well, see, I -- that's -- yes, I can understand their concerns except they forgot the history. This issue has been discussed in the United Nations for over a decade, and the United Nations, as a -- kind of multilateral international body, passed resolution after resolution after resolution calling for Saddam Hussein to disarm. In other words, the diplomatic process went forward. There was plenty of diplomacy. And I would -- to the critics I would say that there will be diplomacy when it comes to India and Pakistan. The world will speak out clearly. The problem is that when the world speaks out clearly and then nothing happens -- all we've got is empty words it s tyrants take advantage of that. Tyrants -- if tyrants don't fear, feel like they can torture and kill with impunity, feel like they can blackmail the world, and all the world does is put out empty words, it makes multilateralism extremely ineffective. Obviously not every situation needs to be solved militarily. The military option is the last option as far as I'm concerned. And I would refer people to North Korea where we've got a multilateral attempt to convince Kim Jong Il to get rid of his nuclear ambitions. We understand -- just like Saddam Hussein -- that he has been torturous to his people. The -- you know, people in North Korea are starving to death, and that weapons of mass destruction in his hands, given his history -- just like weapons of mass destruction in Saddam's hands, given his history -- is a very dangerous element. It's dangerous. It is -- inhibits the capacity for peace and freedom to spread. But what I've done is I've convinced China and South Korea, and Japan, and Russia to speak with one voice to the North Koreans and say, "Get rid of your nuclear ambitions." We're also, at the same time, working on a counter-proliferation regime that will stop his ability to ship weapons of mass destruction or a nuclear warhead to a terrorist group. In other words, we're working together in multilateral, multinational fashion to bring peace and stability to the world.

SIR DAVID: Someone who knows how passionate you are about this war on terror and the -- and Iraq and so on, said, "I know George Bush, and I think, in terms of his legacy, he'd rather -- I'll tell you how strongly he feels," he said. "He'd rather be defeated by the voters than by the terrorists." Is that true?

PRESIDENT BUSH: (Chuckles.) I'd rather not be defeated by either. (Laughter.) And we will not be defeated by the terrorists. And I say that confidently because the allies in the war on terror are strong and steadfast, and there's no stronger and steadfast ally in the war on terror than Tony Blair. He understands the stakes. He knows that freedom is being challenged. He understands, as well, that the spread of freedom and democracy in the long run will defeat terror. And that's why the battle, the stakes are so high in Iraq right now. By the way, Iraq is a front in the war on terror. And it's important for people to understand that, because the war takes place elsewhere.

SIR DAVID: And the -- and in -- one of the reasons that people say in the Arab world -- that you won't really be able to redress the balance against America until -- until the United States is seen not to tilt towards Israel -- (President Bush chuckles) -- in the Middle East.


SIR DAVID: What do you think about that?

PRESIDENT BUSH: I think about that -- you know, I think it's an excuse -- I'm the first president ever to go to the United Nations

SIR DAVID: And say two --

PRESIDENT BUSH: -- two states side by side in peace. No president has ever said that. And I said it, and I said it with conviction, because I believe it is in Israel's interest that there be a peaceful Palestinian state. And I know it's in the Palestinians' interest. However, to achieve a peaceful Palestinian state, the emergence of a peaceful Palestinian state, a state where people are willing to risk capital, a place where people are willing to develop an economy, there must be a focused effort to defeat terror. And there hasn't been with the current Palestinian leadership. I went and embraced in Aqaba, Jordan Abu Mazen. And the reason I did so, David, is because he came to the Oval Office and he said "I will join you in the fight against terror. We're not going to allow the few to destroy the hopes of the many." As well, I could sense in his talk, in his feeling, that he's got great trust in the Palestinian people. In other words, given a chance, the Palestinian people will develop the habits of democracy, and out of that will come a great state, a peaceful state. And I trusted him. And we were working with him. We were making good progress. I was working with Ariel Sharon. I gave a speech on June 24, 2002, which says all of us have responsibilities, and you, Israel, have a responsibility.

SIR DAVID: Do you think Ariel Sharon could ever emerge as a man of peace?


SIR DAVID: Do you really?

PRESIDENT BUSH: I believe he wants peace for his people -- truly do. I mean, you know, look. I mean, he's a man who has presided over suiciders, where he has to go to the funerals of women and children because some cold-blooded killer is trying to destroy the hopes of all the people in the region. And, yes, I believe so. And I believe he believes in the Palestinian state. I've asked him in the Oval Office. I said, "Listen, am I out there by myself on the Palestinian state, or will you support it?" And he said he will. But both of us understand, as do a lot of other people, that for a state to emerge, there must be a focused effort to get after the Hamas killers, for example, who want to destroy the hopes of the people that believe in a Palestinian state.

SIR DAVID: As we approach the end of this interview, what would you say is the most important lesson you've learned in life in the presidency?

PRESIDENT BUSH: The most important lesson in life in the presidency? Have a clear vision of where you want to lead, and lead. And I've got a clear vision. It's a world that is more free and therefore more peaceful; a world based upon human rights, human dignity and justice; a vision that does not discriminate between one group of people or another, because I believe all people have the desire to be free. And I'm willing to lead there. And, you know, the people of this country will make the decision. You asked about politics. They'll make the decision as to whether or not they -- I've been honest with them and open with them and whether or not they like my leadership style. A lot of it will have to do on the economy, of course, whether or not I get another four years. But, no, I think it's important to know where you want to lead, and lead.

SIR DAVID: Would you hope to present to the country the same team -- Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, and Colin Powell, and Condi Rice for the second term?

PRESIDENT BUSH: It's been a fabulous team -- and Cheney for certain. And I haven't -- obviously, I'm not going to talk to my cabinet ministers until after the election. And -- but I'm proud of this team. I've put together one of the finest teams, one of the finest administrations any president has ever assembled. These are good, honest, decent, hard-working, experienced people who give me good, unvarnished advice. And when I make a decision, say "Yes, sir, Mr. President, we'll go execute it."

SIR DAVID: Well, thank you for your decision to do this interview.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Thank you, sir. Enjoyed seeing you.

By Salon Staff

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