Saturday, September 09, 2006

Bush Personally Signed Off On Khatami Visit

Paul Gigot, The Wall Street Journal:
ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE -- Speaker Nancy Pelosi?

"That's not going to happen," snaps the president of the United States, leaning across his desk in his airborne office. He had been saying that he hoped to revisit Social Security reform next year, when he "will be able to drain the politics out of the issue," and I rudely interrupted by noting the polls predicting Ms. Pelosi's ascension.

"I just don't believe it," the president insists. "I believe the Republicans will end up being -- running the House and the Senate. And the reason why I believe it is because when our candidates go out and talk about the strength of this economy, people will say their tax cuts worked, their plan worked. . . . And secondly, that this is a group of people that understand the stakes of the world in which we live and are willing to help this unity government in Iraq succeed for the sake of our children and grandchildren, and that we are steadfast in our belief in the capacity of liberty to bring peace."

Love or loathe President George W. Bush, you can't say he lacks the courage of his convictions. Down in the polls, with the American people in a sour mood over Iraq, Mr. Bush isn't changing his policy or hunkering down in the Oval Office. Instead he's doubling down, investing whatever scarce political capital he has to frame the November contest as a choice over the economy and taxes and especially over his prosecution of the war on terror.

The strategy carries no small risk, because if Republicans lose, Democrats will feel even more emboldened to challenge him on national security. The final two years of his presidency could be dreadful and the chances of a U.S. retreat in Iraq would multiply. On the other hand, his senior aides say, Mr. Bush will be blamed if Republicans lose in any case, so he might as well play his strongest hand to prevent such a result. And if the GOP holds both houses, he'll deserve much of the credit.

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The president is certainly in feisty, even passionate, form as I meet him for 40-some minutes Thursday afternoon, coming off the third of his speeches this week on the lessons of 9/11 and a fund-raiser in Savannah, Ga., for GOP House candidate Max Burns. The critics are saying the Bush Doctrine of spreading democracy in the Middle East is dead, but the Beltway coroners must not have talked with Mr. Bush. I pose the frequent complaint that his policy has succeeded only in unleashing the radical Furies in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq.

[George W. Bush]

"I would remind the critics of the freedom agenda that the policy prior to September 11th was stability for the sake of stability: Let us not worry about the form of government. Let us simply worry about whether or not the world appears stable, whether or not we achieve short-term geopolitical gain," he says. "And it looked like that policy was working, and, frankly, it made some sense when it came to dealing with the Middle East vis-à-vis the Communists.

"The problem with that philosophy, or that foreign policy, was that beneath the surface boiled resentment and hatred, and that resentment and hatred helped fuel this radical Islam, and the radical Islam is what ended up causing the attacks that killed 3,000 of our citizens. So I vowed, and made the decision that not only would we stay on the offense and . . . get these people before they could attack us again. But in the long run the only way to make sure your grandchildren are protected, Paul, is to win the battle of ideas, is to defeat the ideology of hatred and resentment."

But would he concede that elections have so far empowered mainly the radicals? "It's a part of the process. I think Americans must remember we had some growing pains ourselves. It wasn't all that smooth a road to the Constitution to begin with in our own country. Democracy is not easy," he says, coiled and intense in his presidential flight jacket.

Take the Palestinian elections that elevated the terrorist group Hamas to power. "I wasn't surprised," he says, "that the political party that said 'Vote for me, I will get rid of corruption' won, because I was the person that decided on U.S. foreign policy that we were not going to deal with Mr. Arafat because he had let his people down, and that money that the world was spending wasn't getting to the Palestinian people. . . . They didn't say, 'Vote for us, we want war.' They said, 'Vote for us, we will get you better education and health.'"

Mr. Bush concedes that Hamas's "militant wing," as he calls it, is "unacceptable." But he says he sees a virtue in "creating a sense where people have to compete for people's votes. They have to listen to the concerns of the street." The answer is for other Palestinian leaders to out-compete Hamas to respond to those concerns. "Elections are not the end. They're only the beginning. And, no question, elections sometimes create victors that may not conform to everything we want. . . . On the other hand, it is the beginning of a more hopeful Middle East."

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I try to dig a little deeper on Egypt, where the political opening of 18 months ago seems to have been abruptly closed by President Hosni Mubarak, with a muted U.S. response to the arrest of the moderate opposition leader, Ayman Nour. Has the U.S. given up on promoting reform in Egypt?

"Of course we have not given up," Mr. Bush says. "We were disappointed" about Ayman Nour. Does he believe Mr. Mubarak should release Mr. Nour? "Yes, I do, but he'll make those decisions based upon his own laws." Mr. Bush says he's spoken to Mr. Mubarak's son and heir-apparent, Gamal, about Mr. Nour, "and I have spoken to Mubarak a lot about democracy. And, equally importantly, I've talked to . . . a group of young reformers who are now in government. There's an impressive group of younger Egyptians -- the trade minister and some of the economic people -- that understand the promise and the difficulties of democracy."

The pace of Middle East reform will vary by country, he adds. In Kuwait, they now let women vote. "And so if you look at the Middle East from 10 years to today, there's been some significant change. Jordan changed, Morocco, the Gulf Coast countries, Qatar," and of course the nascent democracies of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Regarding Iraq, Mr. Bush is a bit reflective, if also insistent about the costs of failure. "I'm not surprised that this war has created consternation amongst the American people," he concedes. "The enemy has got the capacity to take -- got the willingness to take innocent life and the capacity to do so, knowing full well that those deaths and that carnage will end up on our TV screens. So the American people are now having to adjust to a new kind of bloody war.

"Now, my view of the country is this: Most people want us to win. There are a good number who say, get out now. But most Americans are united in the concept -- of the idea of winning."

On that point, I ask Mr. Bush to address not his critics on the left who want to withdraw, but those on the right who worry that he isn't fighting hard enough to win. "No, I understand. No, I hear that, Paul, a lot, and I take their word seriously, and of course use that as a basis for questioning our generals. My point to you is that one of the lessons of a previous war is that the military really wasn't given the flexibility to make the decisions to win. And I ask the following questions: Do you have enough? Do you need more troops? Do you need different equipment?" The question I failed to ask but wish I had is: Does this mean that, like Lincoln, Mr. Bush should have fired more generals?

With sectarian strife in Iraq, some critics (such as Sen. Joe Biden) are saying the best strategy now is for the country to divide into three -- Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni. Mr. Bush says partition would be "a mistake," though he does add that "the Iraqi people are going to have to make that decision." But he says Iraqis didn't vote for partition when they approved their new constitution or new government, and "this government has been in place since June; 90 days is a long time for some, but it's really not all that long to help a nation that was brutalized under a tyrant to get going."

Mr. Bush is most emphatic when he links Iraq to the larger struggle for Mideast reform. "In the long run, the United States is going to have to make a decision as to whether or not it will support moderates against extremists, reformers against tyrants. And Iraq is the first real test of the nation's commitment to this ideological struggle. . . . I believe it strongly. One way for the American people to understand the stakes is to envision what happens if America withdraws." He has been hitting that last point hard in his recent speeches, and it is the linchpin of the argument Mr. Bush will make through November against the Democrats who insist on pulling out immediately.

Intriguingly, the president broke a little news on the subject of Iran, acknowledging that he personally signed off on the U.S. visit this week by former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. The trip has angered many conservatives because Mr. Khatami presided over the nuclear weapons development and cheating that Mr. Bush has pledged to stop. Why let him visit?

"I was interested to hear what he had to say," Mr. Bush responds without hesitation. "I'm interested in learning more about the Iranian government, how they think, what people think within the government. My hope is that diplomacy will work in convincing the Iranians to give up their nuclear weapons ambitions. And in order for diplomacy to work, it's important to hear voices other than [current President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad's."

One thing Mr. Khatami has said this week is that because the U.S. is bogged down in Iraq it will never have the will to stop Iran's nuclear program. Is he right? "Well, he also said it's very important for the [coalition] troops to stay in Iraq so that there is a stable government on the Iranian border," Mr. Bush replies, rather forgivingly.

On other hand, Mr. Bush remains as blunt as ever about the nature of the Iranian regime when I ask if one lesson of North Korea is that Iran must be stopped before it acquires a bomb. "North Korea doesn't teach us that lesson. The current government [in Iran] teaches that lesson," Mr. Bush says. "Their declared policies of destruction and their support for terror makes it clear they should not have a nuclear weapon."

The impression Mr. Bush leaves is of a man deeply engaged on the Iran problem and, like several presidents before him, trying to understand what kind of diplomatic or economic pressure short of military means will change the regime's behavior. One way or another, Iran will be the major dilemma of the rest of his presidency, and Mr. Bush knows it. READ MORE

* * *

Five years after 9/11, I ask the president if he is surprised that -- and can explain why -- both Iraq and his larger antiterror policies have become so politically polarized. "Well, first of all, I do believe there's a difference between the political rhetoric out of Washington and what the citizens feel," he says.

"But this is a different kind of war. In the past, there was troop movements, or, you know, people could report the sinking of a ship. This is a war that requires intelligence and interrogation within the law from people who know what's happening. . . . Victories you can't see. But the enemy is able to create death and carnage that tends to define the action.

"And I think most Americans understand we're vulnerable. But my hope was after 9/11, most Americans wouldn't walk around saying, 'My goodness, we're at war. Therefore let us don't live a normal life. Let us don't invest.'" Mr. Bush calls it an "interesting contradiction" that he wants "people to understand the stakes of failure" in this conflict. But on the other hand, he also wants "the country to be able to grow, invest, save, expand, educate, raise their children." This is another way of saying how hard it is for a democracy to maintain support for a war without a tangible, ominous enemy such as the Soviet Union or Imperial Japan.

Could he have done more, as president, to win over more Democratic allies? "I met with a lot of Democrats over the course of this war, and" -- he pauses for the longest time in our interview -- "you know, it's hard for me to tell, Paul, whether I could have done a better job. . . . I don't know. I just don't know."

He then says that he has GOP majorities, and thus Republican leaders, to deal with. "Obviously, I wish that the effort were more bipartisan; it has been on certain issues. It certainly was when it came time for people to assess the intelligence that they had seen and knew about and vote on a resolution to remove Saddam Hussein from power." And it was as well on his policy of pursuing state sponsors of terror. But then the 2004 campaign intervened, he says, and now it's another campaign season.

Mr. Bush is an avid reader of history, and he has a contest with political aide Karl Rove to see who reads the most books. ("I'm losing," Mr. Bush says.) So I ask him if any current Democrat could play the role that Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan played in helping Harry Truman establish new policies in the 1940s at the dawn of the Cold War.

Notably, he talks about Truman first. "I doubt Truman would have been able to predict how long the Cold War would last, but I applaud Truman for beginning to wage the Cold War" -- pregnant pause -- "for which he was very unpopular, for which the country was viewed as polarized." He never does mention a contemporary Vandenberg, and in truth the only one I can think of is Joe Lieberman, of late and by necessity not a Democrat but an "independent."
* * *

The Truman reference is nonetheless revealing, because it suggests that perhaps Mr. Bush has begun to realize he will get little credit for his Middle East policies during his own presidency. His critics on the left in particular want to portray him as another LBJ, forlorn over a misbegotten war, and destined for historical disdain because of it. But Mr. Bush hardly resembles the LBJ who more or less came to agree with his Vietnam critics. He seems far more like Truman, both in his personal combativeness and also in his conviction that his vindication will come down the road.

One of his main goals now, also like Truman, is to institutionalize some of his antiterror policies by putting them on firmer legal and political ground so future presidents can use them. That's what his speech this week on military tribunals was mainly about, and the same goes for warrantless wiretaps and CIA interrogations of al Qaeda suspects. For all of the controversy they've caused, Mr. Bush is convinced that the next president will be grateful to have these tools. And despite all the partisan rancor surrounding them, Mr. Bush's legacy in defending them is likely to be lasting.

When I put to him the criticism made by Newt Gingrich, among others, that the U.S. security bureaucracy is too slow and unwieldy, he couldn't rebut it fast enough. "I disagree strongly," he says. "We were stove-piped in the past. We had an FBI whose primary responsibility was white-collar crime or criminality. We had a CIA that couldn't talk to criminal investigators. And we've changed all that."

Mr. Bush adds that the intelligence he receives is "quantifiably better" than it was before 9/11. One reason is the warrantless al Qaeda wiretaps, which gather intelligence from what he calls "the battlefield" in this conflict. "And so the data points are becoming richer, and the analysis is more complete, because now the reports I get on analysis have input from different parts of the intelligence community that John Negroponte is overseeing." Mr. Bush isn't likely to call legislation he signed a failure, but this is still the most reassuring thing I've heard about the CIA in years.

This is the fourth time I've interviewed Mr. Bush at length in the last eight years, going back to his time as Texas governor. One of the notable things about him is how similar he seems. He has always been supremely confident in his decisions and focused above all else on pushing forward, not looking back. If he is tortured by doubt, he doesn't show it to journalists. Some see this as obstinance, but he sees it as firmness of conviction.

Whether or not he's right about the elections this fall, you have to respect his willingness to put that conviction on the line. "I said in my Inaugural Address, we should end tyranny in the 21st century," he says. "And I meant that."

Mr. Gigot is the editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.