George W. Bush on the lessons learned in Iraq

Freedom good. 9/11 bad.

By Tim Grieve
April 10, 2006 10:23PM (UTC)
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During a talk today at Johns Hopkins University, the president of the United States was asked to share with aspiring policymakers "some wisdom or some insight" based on his experience with the "very difficult decisions on the use of force and engaging in war."

This is how he responded:


"Thanks for the question. I would encourage those of you studying here to be a part of policymaking for our government. It's -- it is a high honor to serve your country. And my first advice is, never use force until you've exhausted all diplomacy. I -- my second advice is, if you ever put anybody in harm's way, make sure they have got all the support of the government. My third advice is, don't make decisions on polls. Stand your ground if you think what you're doing [is] right.

"Much of my decision about what we're discussing these days was affected by an event. Look, I -- during the 2000 campaign, I don't remember ever discussing with people what -- could I handle war, or could my opponent handle war. The war wasn't on our mind. War came unexpectedly. We didn't ask for the attack, but it came. And so much of the statements I make and have made since that war were a result of that attack.

"I vowed then that I would use all assets of our power to win the war on terror. That's what I vowed. It -- the September 11th attacks affected me. It affected my thinking deeply. The most important job of the government is to protect the people from an attack. And so I said we were going to stay on the offense two ways: one, hunt down the enemy and bring them to justice, and take threats seriously; and two, spread freedom. And that's what we've been doing, and that's what I'm going to continue to do as the president.


"I think about the war on terror all the time. Now, I understand there's a difference of opinion in a country. Some view the attack as kind of an isolated incident. I don't. I view it as a part of a strategy by a totalitarian, ideologically based group of people who've announced their intentions to spread that ideology and to attack us again. That's what they've said they're going to do. And the most dangerous -- the biggest danger facing our country is whether -- if the terrorists get a weapons of mass destruction to use. Now, perhaps some in our country think it's a -- that's a pipedream; I don't. I think it is a very real threat, and therefore, will spend my presidency rallying our assets -- intelligence assets, military assets, financial assets, diplomatic initiatives -- to keep the enemy off balance, and to bring them to justice.

"Now, if you're going to be the president or a policymaker, you never know what's going to come. That's the interesting thing about the world in which we live. We're a influential nation, and so, therefore, many problems come to the Oval Office. And you don't know what those problems are going to be, which then argues for having smart people around. That's why you ought to serve in government if you're not going to be the president. You have a chance to influence policy by giving good recommendations to the president.

"You got to listen in my line of work, and I listen a lot. Ours is a complex organization that requires a management structure that lets people come into the Oval Office and explain their positions. And I think it's to my interest, by the way, that not everybody agree all the time. You can't make good decisions unless there's a little -- kind of a little agitation in there. And sometimes we have.


"But anyway, good question. I guess, my answer to your question is, is that you got to be ready for the unexpected. And when you act, you base your decisions on principles. I'll tell you one principle -- I'm not going to filibuster, I promise -- but you got me going here, so --. I want you to understand this principle, and it's an important debate and it's worth debating here in this school, as to whether or not freedom is universal, whether or not it's a universal right of all men and women. It's an interesting part of the international dialogue today. And I think it is universal. And if you believe it's universal, I believe this country has -- should act on that concept of universality. And the reason I do is because I do believe freedom yields the peace.

"And our foreign policy prior to my arrival was 'if it seems okay, leave it alone.' In other words, if it's nice and placid out there on the surface, it's okay, just let it sit. But unfortunately, beneath the surface was resentment and hatred, and that kind of resentment and hatred provided ample recruitment, fertile grounds for recruiting people that came and killed over 3,000 of our citizens. And therefore, I believe the way to defeat resentment is with freedom and liberty.


"But if you don't believe it's universal, I can understand why you say, what's he doing, why is he doing that? If there's no such thing as the universality of freedom, then we might as well just isolate ourselves and hope for the best.

"And so -- anyway, kind of rambling here. Yes."

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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