25 Minutes in the Oval Office

President Bush on Iraq, Elections and Immigration

(Robert A. Reeder - Twp)
Wednesday, December 20, 2006

This 25-minute interview was conducted yesterday in the Oval Office by Washington Post staff writers Peter Baker, Michael A. Fletcher and Michael Abramowitz.

President Bush: Listen, a couple of things before we get going. Obviously, I've been thinking about -- and talking to a lot of people about -- the way forward in Iraq and the way forward in this ideological struggle. I want to share one thought I had with you, and I'm inclined to believe that we do need to increase our troops, the Army, the Marines. And I talked about this to [Defense] Secretary [Robert M.] Gates, and he is going to spend some time talking to the folks in the building, come back with a recommendation to me about how to proceed forward on this idea. I want to give him a little time to get his feet on the ground. And so I'll be addressing this after consultations with him. I just want to share that with you before we get going.

You're talking about troops in Iraq, not --

No, I'm talking about overall size.

-- overall size of the Army. Do you have a rough idea how much --

I'm going to wait for Secretary Gates. As I say, I'm inclined to believe it's important and necessary to do so. The reason why is, it is an accurate reflection that this ideological war we're in is going to last for a while, and that we're going to need a military that's capable of being able to sustain our efforts and to help us achieve peace.

So you've not made a decision about Iraq, per se, about what to do --

I have not, Mike, I have not. And we'll spend some more time -- Secretary Gates, as he indicated, is going to head to the region at some point in time. I need to talk to him when he gets back. I've got more consultations to do with the national security team, which will be consulting with other folks. And I'm going to take my time to make sure that the policy, when it comes out, the American people will see that we are -- have got a new way forward to achieve an important objective, which is a country that can govern, sustain and defend itself.

And one thing that will be clear is that I want the American people to know that -- and the Iraqi people to know that -- we expect the Iraqi people to continue making hard choices and doing hard work necessary to succeed, and our job is to help them do so.

Are we winning in Iraq, in your estimation?

You know, I think an interesting construct that General [Peter] Pace uses is, "We're not winning, we're not losing." There's been some very positive developments. And you take a step back and look at progress in Iraq, you say, well, it's amazing -- constitutional democracy in the heart of the Middle East, which is a remarkable development in itself.

I think one of the -- obviously, the real problem we face is the sectarian violence that needs to be dealt with. So part of my policy review is how do we deal with that in a way that then enables the Iraqi people to live in a more secure society so that the government can prove its worth to the people -- saying, we can help you. And one of the main functions of government is to provide security for its people. Our job is to help the Iraqis provide that security. And I'll come forward with a plan that will enable us to achieve that objective.

There's other threats, by the way. It's a multiple-front war, if you really think about it. You got Shia discord in the south; you've got Sunni attacks, much of that -- many of them are caused by al-Qaeda. A lot of them, former Baathists and regimists who are angry that Saddam is no longer in power, and they are a source of conflict in al-Anbar province. And we've got a very robust effort -- I said the other day something that, I guess, people didn't pay that much attention to -- but for October and November and the first week of December, our actions on the ground have -- as a result of action on the ground, we killed or captured nearly 5,900 people. My point in making that point is our troops and coalition troops are on the offense in a lot of areas.

And then the third area of conflict, the one that gets a lot of attention, as it should, is the sectarian violence taking place in Baghdad. And I fully understand that we've got to help the Iraqis deal with that. So my thinking is -- and a lot of our strategy sessions revolve around how best to deal with this problem, and how best to help the Iraqis deal with it. And I've got some more work to do, and I'll come forth at the appropriate time and explain the way forward to the country.

Given the election results, is increasing the troop level in Iraq even a viable possibility or option?

Yes, Mike, all options are viable.

-- given the political will out there?

Well, all options are viable. I think what the people want is -- they want a couple of things. They want to see Democrats and Republicans work together to achieve a common objective, and they want us to win in Iraq. A lot of people understand that if we leave Iraq, there will be dire consequences -- in other words, if we leave before the job is done. There are some, a fair number of people, who say, "Get out now." So I view the election results as people are not satisfied with the progress being made in Iraq and expect to see a different strategy to achieve an important objective.

But the election results seemed people wanted to bring the venture in Iraq to closure. That seemed to be the strong lesson. And what indications are there that you're actually listening to that sentiment?

Oh, Mike, look, I want to achieve the objective. I think the American people -- I know the American people are very worried about an external threat and that they recognize that failure in Iraq would embolden that external threat, and they expect this administration to listen with people, to work with Democrats, to work with the military, to work with the Iraqis to put a plan in place that achieves the objective. There's not a lot of people saying, "Get out now." Most Americans are saying, "We want to achieve the objective."

But there are a lot of people who are saying, "Let's get out with a phased deployment over a certain period of time."

If they felt -- if that leads to victory, it needs to be seriously considered. And I'm considering all options and listening very carefully to a lot of good people who have got different opinions about how to proceed.

Can we come back to General Pace's formulation about winning, not losing? You said October 24th, "Absolutely, we're winning." And I wanted to --

Yes, that was an indication of my belief we're going to win. Look, I've got four constituencies I speak to on a regular basis; one is the American people, who are justifiably frustrated at the progress in Iraq. And they expect the commander in chief and the people in Washington to support our troops. Supporting our troops not only means good equipment, good [pay], good housing -- it also means a plan that helps achieve the objective.

The second constituency is the enemy. I'm not through yet.


The enemy wants to know whether or not the United States has the will to stay engaged in this ideological struggle. They don't believe we do. That's what they say. And I believe that's what they believe.

The third group of people I speak to are the Iraqis. They wonder whether the United States has got the will to help them achieve their objectives. That's what they wonder. The leaders I have talked to wonder whether or not -- what the elections mean, or what the Baker-Hamilton commission means, or what changing [former defense] secretary [Donald H.] Rumsfeld means -- that's what they wonder. But in the back of their mind, they're saying, "Are they going to leave us again?" And that's an important question for them to have answered, because in order to make difficult choices and to take risk for peace, they're going to have to be assured that they'll get support. This is a group of people that have had their hopes dashed in the past.

And the fourth group is the military. Our troops wonder whether or not our country supports them, and they do. They wonder whether or not the mission and the sacrifice and the toil that they're making is worth it. And they need to know from the commander in chief: Not only is it worth it, but I strongly support them and believe that their work will lead to victory. That's what I believe.

Anyway, you just need to know that's who I'm speaking to when I speak. And to you, of course. You're the objective filter through which my -- (Laughter.)

I suspect your message gets out. (Laughter.)

I do want to say something about the press. I hope you realize that, one, I enjoy the relationship, and two, know it is vital for my presidency. You can't exist without me, and I can't exist without you. And I generally respect the hard work of the press corps. I don't necessarily generally respect every word you write, but nevertheless, I do respect the fact that you're a hardworking group of people seeking the truth. And we're necessary for each other. And that relationship can either be a positive relationship or a suspicious, harmful relationship. And I have worked hard to make it a positive relationship. And I think it is, generally, I do believe it is. And I bear no ill will, and I don't think you do, either.

We appreciate that, and you've certainly been good for business --

Good. That's what decision-makers do, Peter, people who seize the moment and make decisions to lead give people things to write about.

Some of the supporters of the war and you from the beginning have begun to ask the question publicly: Was it, in fact, the idea that turned out not so great, or the execution that turned out not so great?

The idea of?

The idea of the war in the first place, and the --

I've never really asked that question. I believe it's justifiable and necessary. Obviously, the war has not -- the results on the ground haven't happened as quickly as I hoped, and part of this review process is to develop new strategies and tactics so that we can expedite success. Look, I of all people would like to see the troops come home. But I don't want them to come home without achieving our objective, because I understand what happens if there's failure. And I'm going to keep repeating this over and over again, that I believe we're in an ideological struggle that is -- that our country will be dealing with for a long time.

Can I ask you a question about history?


President Lincoln fired a number of his generals in the Civil War until he found Grant.

Is that what triggered your question, looking at Abe?

Why haven't you fired any generals? And does the fact that you haven't fired generals suggest that you are satisfied with the military strategy that they have pursued?

We're reviewing the strategy, because it has -- the results aren't -- we haven't achieved the results as quickly as we wanted -- precisely what the secretary of defense said, by the way. And the chain-of-command issues are issues that percolate up through the Pentagon. And there is a clear chain of command that I adhere to, and I think it's important for the commander in chief to do just that.

I've often talked about how it's important to trust the judgment of the military when they're making military plans as the key advisers to the president, as opposed to the president determining the tactics on the ground, which has happened in previous wars. And so I'm a strict adherer to the command structure.

But isn't there a point in which you say, "We screwed up the amount of troops we need there, we screwed up the WMD, someone ought to pay a penalty for that"?

There is a constant review of the commanders, and I support that constant review. And to the extent that people think they can do -- somebody can do a better job, those recommendations will come forward.

Sir, when you look back at last month's election, do you see that strictly as a repudiation of Iraq and the fact that we're not winning in Iraq, or is it also a judgment of your leadership in general?

Michael, I said in my press conference, I think it's -- no question Iraq was a significant part of the elections. People were troubled by the lack of progress. War is difficult for people, particularly the American people are very compassionate people. When you turn on your TV screens and see bombings and deaths, and read about beheadings or sectarian violence, it troubles America. And they wonder or not -- whether or not we have a plan that succeeds. And I can understand that level of frustration.

Secondly, there's a sense that people's votes were being taken for granted, in a way. We had ethics disputes, and just a lot of signals that said that it's time to -- that people wanted a change. There was a lot of -- look, you've got a guy using earmarks to enrich himself; there was sex and all kinds of issues that sent the signal that perhaps it was time to give another group a chance to lead. I also believe that people are sick and tired of the needless partisanship in Washington. And there's a lot of it. And for some, every expression of position by somebody is an opportunity to attack, and people are tired of it. And there's some big issues that we need to work together.

I will tell you that I view the elections as an opportunity to say to all of us in Washington, "Let's work together." People want that. And what are some issues we can work together on -- energy, or immigration, budgetary reforms. I mean, there's a lot -- education, No Child Left Behind reauthorization. I believe there are some wonderful opportunities --

So you don't think you're out of the policy business with the Democrats in charge on the Hill?

Do what now?

You're not out of the domestic policy business --

Quite the contrary. Quite the contrary. The microphone of the president has never been louder, and I think we have a good -- in other words, to talk about what I think is important. But it turns out that what I think is important, the Democrat leadership thinks is important, as well -- energy security, immigration reform, education -- and Republicans on the Hill agree. And so my task is going to be to talk about big issues that the American people expect us to work on, and work with both Republicans and Democrats.

Will it be easier with Democrats, in some ways? Are there some issues --

I think the legislative process, Peter, is always hard, from the executive-branch perspective. They're pretty independent-minded people, they -- no matter who's in charge, they tend to take some ideas from the president, but they've got their own minds. And the task is to work together in a collegial and constructive spirit to solve some big problems.

I'll tell you one I want to work on, as well, is entitlements. And that's a hard issue, as you know. Social Security is viewed as the third rail of American politics. I've campaigned on it every time -- two times I ran for president. I've talked about it in the State of the Union every time. It's an issue that's -- a president is just going to have to keep talking about to convince people it's worthwhile to take the risk, the political -- so-called political risk to work together to get something done. And we will continue to do so. [Treasury Secretary Henry M.] Paulson is going to take the lead for us up there, working with members of both parties.

I will tell you this: In an issue like this, unless the president tries, nothing is going to happen. Without presidential involvement, nothing will happen. So we have a chance, and I'm going to work it. And I think that's -- I know that's the job of the president, is to say, "This is important to the future of the country, let us work together."

Yes, sir.

Just on that point, are you willing to sit down with Democrats in a commission that puts all the options on Social Security on the table? Not just reductions and benefits, not just private accounts, but also some kind of revenue increases, tax increases?

I don't see how you can move forward without people feeling comfortable about putting ideas on the table. I have made it clear that I've got a way forward that can do it and I want to hear other people's opinions. And that's what Hank Paulson is telling both Republicans and Democrats. It's going to be very important for people to feel there can be a full, wide-ranging discussion about how to move forward.

And specifically, tax increases on the table then?

Well, specifically, personal accounts; specifically, everything that the Democrats think will work, as well.

Well, they talk about tax increases.

Well, let them; that's fine. They can come to the table and talk about them. I proposed a way forward that doesn't require tax increases. Nevertheless, I look forward to hearing their opinions.

[Incoming Speaker of the House] Mrs. Pelosi has identified six or seven things that she wants the House to do in the first 100 hours. Can I just mention -- ask you in a bullet-point way just your point on this?

No. (Laughter.)

Minimum-wage increase -- generally supportive or against it?

Generally supportive. But, no, the answer is no, you can't. (Laughter.)

Look, here's the challenge. The challenge is to find out specifically what they have in mind and to explain to them areas where we can work together and can't work together. I'm pleased with our initial round of discussions. I fully understand that they're going to come out with this -- they made it very clear. And I want to work with them on issues where we can find common ground.

On immigration -- you mentioned immigration. Can you envision supporting a deal --

See, now you're getting me to negotiate with myself --

No, no, no, but this is a policy --

Same thing he's trying to do. (Laughter.) It's a classic ploy. (Laughter.)

This is about your policy, Sir, in terms of can you envision a deal in which you would agree with Democrats that would not necessarily have a majority support among Republicans --

Peter, remember the speech I gave right here in the Oval Office?

I remember several.

The one on immigration. I gave a comprehensive speech to the country from the Oval Office, prime time, about how I thought we ought to move forward on immigration. I still feel very strongly about that. And I hope that Congress will join me on a comprehensive bill, and I would hope that the majority of both parties support it.

[Former House] speaker Hastert had a policy that he would not put forward a bill that didn't have a majority support of his caucus. Is that important to you, having majority support of the Republican caucuses?

I'm interested in getting a comprehensive bill out, because I believe it is vital to solving the pressure we have on our border.

One of the interesting things that, if you notice from the recent enforcement activities that ICE took, there are a lot of people who are using forged documents to do jobs Americans are not doing. And my attitude is that there ought to be a way for people to come to this country on a temporary basis and fill those jobs in an open way, a transparent way, that doesn't cause there to be, one, a smuggling operation that's vibrant and making money, a housing operation that is illegal, and a document forgery operation that clearly is in effect.

There is a better way to treat people, and there's a better way to deal with the issue of finding workers Americans are not doing, to fill on a temporary basis. And, therefore, there need -- and that in itself will take pressure off our border. In other words, if people feel like they can come in on a temporary, legal basis, they're not going to have to sneak in, which in itself does away with -- that in itself does away with this kind of underground industry that has sprung up.

The point I make to you on that is that it's a comprehensive reform of the immigration system that is going to make our borders more secure. I strongly believe that is important, and look forward to working with people on the way forward. It's hard for me to predict the dynamics yet on how the Congress is going to handle the immigration bill. The point I'm telling you is that I think it's vital and necessary, and this is an area where we can work together to get it done.

I'd like to come back to your first statement, because I'd like to expand a little bit. You talked about the size of the military. Colin Powell said on a Sunday show that the Army was nearly broken. Do you believe that's true? And, if so, do you feel responsible for that? Do you --

I heard -- we have been transforming our Army to make it lighter, more lethal and easier to move, and that transformation has been very important. Secondly, we have been changing our force posture around the world to reflect the threats of the 21st century, and that has been a very important reform.

I also believe that the suggestions I've heard from outside our government, plus people inside the government -- particularly, the Pentagon -- that we need to think about increasing our force structure makes sense, and I will work with Secretary Gates to do so. He's going to come back and report --

So is our Army nearly broken, or not?

The people that would know best are those in the Pentagon. I haven't heard the word "broken," but I've heard the word "stressed." I know that we need to -- and my budgetary requests will reflect what a lot of people in Congress have been saying and in the Pentagon, and that is we need to reset our military. There's no question the military has been used a lot. And the fundamental question is, will Republicans and Democrats be able to work with the administration to assure our military and the American people that we will position our military so that it is ready and able to stay engaged in a long war, and this ideological struggle?

Can I ask a hometown question?

Final question -- yes, which one, Crawford, Midland, Houston, Dallas or Washington?

Washington. Do you support a bill that would give the District of Columbia residents a vote in the House of Representatives?

This is a Fletcher question. This is a Fletcher question.

He's not asking about a specific question. We're asking about your broad view on --

Do the residents of the District of Columbia -- should they have a vote in the House?

I will look at what Congress proposes. I will look carefully at what Congress proposes.

But what is your philosophical view of that? Because we've gone to Iraq to provide freedom for people in Iraq, and the people in this country --

I understand that. You're trying to get me to opine on specific legislation that may be forthcoming, and I look forward to working with Congress on that.

I'm actually asking you to opine on general --

That's my answer. (Laughter.)

-- philosophy on whether --

I know what you're trying to ask me to opine on, and I'm answering that there is -- I will look and see what Congress proposes.

Is Vice President Cheney correct, do you believe that secretary Rumsfeld was the best defense secretary?

I think he was one of the finest defense secretaries, and I said that there have been more profound change -- policy change under his leadership than at any time since the formation of the Defense Department.

Thank you.

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