President Bush said the public's decision to reelect him was a ratification of his approach toward Iraq and that there was no reason to hold any administration officials accountable for mistakes or misjudgments in prewar planning or managing the violent aftermath.
"We had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2004 elections," Bush said in an interview with The Washington Post. "The American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates, and chose me."
With the Iraq elections two weeks away and no signs of the deadly insurgency abating, Bush set no timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops and twice declined to endorse Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's recent statement that the number of Americans serving in Iraq could be reduced by year's end. Bush said he will not ask Congress to expand the size of the National Guard or regular Army, as some lawmakers and military experts have proposed.
In a wide-ranging, 35-minute interview aboard Air Force One on Friday, Bush laid out new details of his second-term plans for both foreign and domestic policy. For the first time, Bush said he will not press senators to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, the top priority for many social conservative groups. And he said he has no plans to cut benefits for the approximately 40 percent of Social Security recipients who collect monthly disability and survivor payments as he prepares his plan for partial privatization.
Bush was relaxed, often direct and occasionally expansive when discussing his second-term agenda, Iraq and lessons he has learned as president. Sitting at the head of a long conference table in a cabin at the front of the presidential plane, Bush wore a blue Air Force One flight jacket with a red tie and crisp white shirt. Three aides, including his new communications adviser, Nicolle Devenish, accompanied him.
With his inauguration days away, Bush defended the administration's decision to force the District of Columbia to spend $12 million of its homeland security budget to provide tighter security for this week's festivities. He also warned that the ceremony could make the city "an attractive target for terrorists."
"By providing security, hopefully that will provide comfort to people who are coming from all around the country to come and stay in the hotels in Washington and to be able to watch the different festivities in Washington, and eat the food in Washington," Bush said. "I think it provides them great comfort to know that all levels of government are working closely to make this event as secure as possible."
The president's inaugural speech Thursday will focus on his vision for spreading democracy around the world, one of his top foreign policy goals for the new term. But it will be Iraq that dominates White House deliberations off stage. Over the next two weeks, Bush will be monitoring closely Iraq's plan to hold elections for a 275-member national assembly. He must also deliver his State of the Union address with a message of resolve on Iraq, and he will need to seek congressional approval for about $100 billion in emergency spending, much of it for the war.
In the interview, the president urged Americans to show patience as Iraq moves slowly toward creating a democratic nation where a dictatorship once stood. But the relentless optimism that dominated Bush's speeches before the U.S. election was sometimes replaced by pragmatism and caution.
"On a complicated matter such as removing a dictator from power and trying to help achieve democracy, sometimes the unexpected will happen, both good and bad," he said. "I am realistic about how quickly a society that has been dominated by a tyrant can become a democracy. . . . I am more patient than some."
Last week, Powell said U.S. troop levels could be reduced this year, but Bush said it is premature to judge how many U.S. men and women will be needed to defeat the insurgency and plant a new and sustainable government. He also declined to pledge to significantly reduce U.S. troop levels before the end of his second term in January 2009.
"The sooner the Iraqis are . . . better prepared, better equipped to fight, the sooner our troops can start coming home," he said. Bush did rule out asking Congress to increase the size of the National Guard and regular army, as many lawmakers, including the president's 2004 opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), are urging. "What we're going to do is make sure that the missions of the National Guard and the reserves closely dovetail with active army units, so that the pressure . . . is eased."
A new report released last week by U.S. intelligence agencies warned that the war in Iraq has created a training ground for terrorists. Bush called the report "somewhat speculative" but acknowledged "this could happen. And I agree. If we are not diligent and firm, there will be parts of the world that become pockets for terrorists to find safe haven and to train. And we have a duty to disrupt that."
As for perhaps the most notorious terrorist, Osama bin Laden, the administration has so far been unsuccessful in its attempt to locate the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Asked why, Bush said, "Because he's hiding." While some terrorism experts complain U.S. allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, could do more to help capture the al Qaeda leader, Bush said he could not name a single U.S. ally that is not doing everything possible to assist U.S. efforts.