This past week, the president of the United States decided to go for broke. Despite national sentiment against the war, despite condemnation on Capitol Hill, President George W. Bush ordered more than 21,000 additional troops to war-a gamble that may be a pivotal moment for his presidency and the country.
In his first interview since his address to the nation, Mr. Bush sat down with Scott Pelley at the presidential retreat, Camp David. 60 Minutes also traveled with the president as he explained his plan to the troops and, then, met with families of Americans killed in action.
Whatever you think of his policy, after this interview you won't doubt that Mr. Bush is a man determined to go his own way.
In his speech, the president mentioned that mistakes had been made. Asked what mistakes he was talking about, Bush tells Pelley, "Abu Ghraib was a mistake. Using bad language like, you know, 'Bring them on' was a mistake. I think history is gonna look back and see a lot of ways we could have done things better. No question about it."
"The troop levels…," Pelley remarks.
"Could have been a mistake. I…," the president replies.
"Were not - could have been a mistake?" Pelley asks.
"Yeah. And the reason I brought up the mistakes is, one, that's the job of the commander-in-chief; and, two, I don't want people blaming our military. We got a bunch of good military people out there doing what we've asked them to do. And the temptation is gonna be to find scapegoats. Well, if the people want a scapegoat, they got one right here in me 'cause it's my decisions," Bush says.
"Fair to say there were not enough American troops on the ground to provide security for Iraq?" Pelley asks.
"There's not enough troops on the ground right now to provide security for Iraq. And that's why I made the decision I made," Bush replies.
Asked if he thinks he owes the Iraqi people an apology for not doing a better job, Bush says, "Well I don't, that we didn't do a better job or they didn't do a better job?"
"Well, that the United States did not do a better job in providing security after the invasion?" Pelley clarifies.
"Not at all. I think I am proud of the efforts we did. We liberated that country from a tyrant. I think the Iraqi people owe the American people a huge debt of gratitude. That's the problem here in America. They wonder whether or not there is a gratitude level that's significant enough in Iraq," Bush replies.
60 Minutes spoke to the president at Laurel Cabin at Camp David, the presidential retreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Maryland. It's a private place for him, rarely seen by the public. And he has never done an interview at Camp David. Laurel Cabin is where the war on terror began; four days after 9/11, his cabinet debated plans there for the invasion of Afghanistan.
"Back then the whole country was with you. And now you seem to have lost them. Why do you think so?" Pelley asks the president.
"The Iraq war hasn't gone as well as I had hoped at this point in time," he says. "And people are, you know, people are discouraged. They don't apprec- they don't approve of where we are. And so I think it's where the country is."
Thursday morning, leaving the White House, Mr. Bush started a campaign to sell the country on the new plan. Just 12 hours after his address to the nation, his strategy was already being savaged on Capitol Hill and in the media. He had wagered the war and his presidency on his personal ability to sell the troop build-up. Pelley joined the president on board his helicopter, Marine One, a scene the public almost never sees.
The overnight polls were showing his primetime address to the nation hadn't convinced many people that sending more troops was the answer.
"This was a hard decision. But once I make up my mind I know it's important for me to explain it as clearly as I can. And, just gave it my best shot and I'm going to go down to Fort Benning today to continue explaining the decision I made, in this case to men and women who wear the uniform," Bush tells Pelley. "I owe it to the troops to explain my decision and to thank them and to thank their families. It's an extraordinary country to have men and women volunteer in the face of danger."
Mr. Bush, realizing he had never had a TV camera on board Marine One, urged 60 Minutes to catch the Washington Monument going by. He had been reading a book on the history of the city and pointed out landmarks on Pennsylvania Avenue. He told Pelley he is reading another book, a historical parallel to Iraq about France's long, losing fight against insurgents in Algeria; Henry Kissinger had recommended it. In minutes, Marine One reached Andrews Air Force Base and Air Force One.
At Fort Benning, the president would be able to count on a friendly audience. But even among Americans in uniform there's growing frustration. A poll, three weeks ago in the respected Military Times newspapers, showed, for the first time more troops disapprove than approve of the way he's handling Iraq.
Pelley mentioned to Mr. Bush that thousands of those troops have served two, three and even four tours already and if he would impose a limit.
"You know, Scott, it is…we're fortunate that people are willing to continue to serve. I've talked to some wives in there whose husbands have been over there for their second time. I said, 'How you doin'?' 'I'm doing fine, my husband understands what we're doing.' The military is motivated," Bush says.
"In Vietnam as you know, you served 365 and you were done," Pelley remarks.
"This is a different situation. This is a volunteer army. In Vietnam, it was, 'We're going to draft you and you're going to go for a year.' This is a military where people understand there may be additional deployments," Bush says.
Next during the visit to Fort Benning came something Mr. Bush told 60 Minutes was the hardest part of his presidency: facing families whose loved ones were killed after he sent them into battle. Over the years he has met with about 400 families.
After two hours in a meeting, he seemed a different man.
"How was all that?" Pelley asks.
"You know, I … it's hard for the family members to recount, relive their love in front of the president. And yet, once you get beyond the initial meeting, it's amazing how strong the folks are and want to just let me know a lot of things. What their son or husband was like. They want me to know generally how much they understood the cause and how proud they were to serve our country," Bush says.
"What are stories you heard today?" Pelley asks.
"You know, one mom says 'My son was 6'5", good-looking guy,' showed me the picture. 'He was in a Humvee and an IED hit and he was so big, his body shielded four other troops from death.' I said 'Well, did you get to meet the other four?' And she said 'They're like my family now.' You know, a lot of them say 'Mr. President, don't let my son die in vain,'" Bush says.
The president told Pelley he reads the casualty report every morning and personally signs every letter to the families of Americans killed in action.
After a last pass by the troops in Fort Benning, he headed back to the White House and would meet 60 Minutes again the next morning at Camp David.
Much of his presidency unfolds at the retreat named for President Eisenhower's grandson. By our count, this was Bush's 365th day at Camp David, one year out of his six years in office so far, living and working at the camp first set up by FDR.
60 Minutes wondered why he seems so determined to go his own way when most of the nation doesn't back his plan.
"I'm not gonna change my principles. I'm not gonna, you know, I'm not gonna try to be popular and change my principles to do so," Bush explains.
"You're not very popular in the country right now, to be frank," Pelley remarks.
"I'm afraid you're right," Bush acknowledges.
Asked if that gets to him, the president says, "Not really."
"You know that there's a perception in some quarters of the country that you're stubborn," Pelley says.
"Oh, yeah. Well," Bush replies.
Asked if agrees with that, the president asks, "Do I agree that I'm stubborn or do I agree that people think I'm stubborn?"
"People think you do. What do you think?" Pelley asks.
"I think I'm a flexible, open-minded person. I really do. I really do. Take this policy. I spent a lot of time listening to a lot of people because, Scott, I fully understand the decisions I make could affect the life of some kid who wears the uniform. Or could affect the life of some child growing up in America 20 years from now," Bush says.
"You know, a lot of people have asked me to ask you whether all of this is just crushing. It has to be. You read the polls, you know what people are saying, the war has not gone the way you had hoped it would, and they wonder whether it's just crushing on your spirit," Pelley asks.
"Quite the contrary. My spirits are strong, and I'm blessed to be the president," Bush says. "I really am not the kind of guy that sits here and says, 'Oh, gosh, I'm worried about my legacy.' I'm more worried about making the right decisions to protect the United States of America. See, we're in a war. People wanna come and attack you and attack our country. I understand criticism. But I've got a pretty thick hide."
60 Minutes had some questions that might test that presidential hide.
"You know better than I do that many Americans feel that your administration has not been straight with the country, has not been honest. To those people you say what?" Pelley asks.
"On what issue?" the president replies. "Like the weapons of mass destruction?"
"No weapons of mass destruction," Pelley says.
"Yeah," Bush says.
"No credible connection between 9/11 and Iraq," Pelley says.
"Yeah," the president replies.
"The Office of Management and Budget said this war would cost somewhere between $50 billion and $60 billion and now we're over 400," Pelley says.
"I gotcha. I gotcha. I gotcha," Bush replies.
"The perception, Sir, more than any one of those points, is that the administration has not been straight with…," Pelley says.
"Well, I strongly disagree with that, of course," Bush says. "So I strongly reject that this administration hasn't been straight with the American people. The minute we found out they didn't have weapons of mass destruction, I was the first to say so."
"You seem to be saying that you may have been wrong but you weren't dishonest," Pelley remarks.
"Oh, absolutely. Everybody was wrong on weapons of mass destruction and there was an intelligence failure that we're trying to address. But I was as surprised as anybody he didn't have them," Bush tells Pelley.
"Most Americans at this point in time don't believe in this war in Iraq. They want you to get us out of there," Pelley says.
"I would hope they'd want us to succeed before we get out there. That's the decision I had to make. I mean, there is, you know, Scott, there… I thought a lot about different options. One was doing nothing, just kind of the status quo. And I didn't think that was acceptable, and I think most Americans don't think it's acceptable. Secondly, we'd get out," Bush says.
"You actually thought about that?" Pelley asks.
"Of course I have. I think about it a lot, about different options and my attitude is if we were to start withdrawing now, we'd have a crisis in our hands in Iraq," Bush explains. "And not only in Iraq but failure in Iraq will embolden the enemy. And the enemy is al Qaeda and extremists. Failure in Iraq would empower Iran, which poses a significant threat to world peace. So then I began to think, 'Well, if failure's not an option and we've gotta succeed, how best to do so?' And that's why I came up with the plan I did."
Bush thinks the whole region, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, could be in play. "No question in my mind these people have a plan. They have a vision of the world. And they intend to use murder to enact their vision. And I fully understand that, you know, some of my buddies in Texas say, you know, 'Let them fight it out. What business is it of ours? You got rid of Saddam. How come, you know, just let them slug it out.' And that's a temptation that I know a lot of people feel. But if we do not succeed in Iraq, we will leave behind a Middle East which will endanger America in the future," he tells Pelley.
"Instability in Iraq threatens the entire region," Pelley remarks.
"If the government falls apart, it'll invite Iran into the Shia neighborhoods, Sunnis, Sunni extremists into the Sunni neighborhoods, Kurdish separatist movements," Bush says.
Asked if it wasn't his administration that created the instability in Iraq, Bush says, "Our administration took care of a source of instability in Iraq. Envision a world in which Saddam Hussein was rushing for a nuclear weapon to compete against Iran. My decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the correct decision in my judgment. He was a significant source of instability."
"It's much more unstable now, Mr. President," Pelley remarks.
"Well, no question, decisions have made things unstable. But the question is can we succeed. And I believe we can. Listen, I'd like to see stability, a unified Iraq. A young democracy will provide the stability we look for," Bush says.
Bush tells Pelley he saw some of the video of Saddam Hussein's execution and thought it was discouraging. "You know, obviously could have handled this thing a lot better. It's important that that chapter of Iraqi history be closed. They could have handled it a lot better," he says.
"I wonder if there was also some sense of satisfaction. You've had this guy in your sights for a long time," Pelley asks.
"Not really. Not really. I was satisfied when we captured him, Bush replies. "I'm just not… revenge isn't necessarily a, you know, something that causes me to react. In other words, I'm not a revengeful person. I'm glad he received the justice that was due."
Bush tells Pelley he saw video of the execution on the Internet. "Somebody showed me parts of it. Yeah. I didn't wanna watch the whole thing," he says.
"Well, you keep saying 'parts of it.' What do you mean you 'didn't wanna watch the whole thing?'" Pelley asks.
"Well, I just, I wasn't sure what to anticipate beyond the yelling and stuff like that. And I didn't…," Bush says.
"You didn't wanna see him go through the trapdoor," Pelley asks.
"Yeah. Yes. I didn't," the president says.
The new Iraqi leader is Mr. Bush's challenge now. The president's plan depends on cooperation from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But the president's own people have questioned Maliki's competence and reliability. The last time he promised to send more troops to Baghdad he didn't deliver.
"You are gambling a lot, Mr. President, on the Prime Minister Al-Maliki. Why do you think that's a gamble worth making?" Pelley asks.
"Prime Minister Maliki and others who I talk to in the government understand that our patience is not unlimited," Bush says.
"You're a plain speaker. Let's be blunt. What have you told Maliki he has to…" Pelley asks.
"I told him it's time to get going. He's gotta provide the troops he said he would provide inside Baghdad and we'll help him. I said when our guys get moving along with yours, you can't get on the phone for political reasons and stop the troops from going after killers. What they would do is, 'We're going after this killer,' and they said 'Well he's for political reasons, don't.' Killer is a killer. And we expect them to go after both Shia and Sunni murderers in order to provide the security for Baghdad," Bush says.
But here's the problem: one of the worst offenders running one of the most violent militias is the militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. And Sadr also holds the controlling block of seats in the parliament. If Sadr withdrew support, Maliki would likely fall.
Asked if al-Sadr is an enemy of the United States, Bush says, "Anybody who murders innocent people, or frustrating the ambitions of the Iraqi people and the United States."
"I was on the battlefield in Najaf when al-Sadr's people killed your United States Marines," Pelley remarks.
"Right. And we killed them, as you recall," the president says.
"Is Muqtada al-Sadr an enemy of the United States?" Pelley asks.
"If he is ordering his people to kill Americans, he is," Bush replies.
"Your military officers say that Iranian agents today are killing American troops on the ground in Iraq. Is that an act of war on the part of Iran against the United States?" Pelley asks.
"I think what they're saying is, is that the Iranians are providing equipment that is killing Americans. Either way, it's unacceptable," the president says.
"Is that an act of war against the United States on the part of the Iranian government?" Pelley asks.
"I'm not a lawyer. So act of war is kind of a, I'm not exactly sure how you define that. Let me just say it's unacceptable," Bush says.
Asked what he would say to the president of Iran about the meddling in Iraq, Bush says, "'If we catch your people inside the country harming us citizens or Iraqi citizens you know we will deal with them.'"
Back at home, there is a raging debate at the Capitol even within his own party. The congressional leadership said it might try to stop him. The president has not answered that challenge until now.
"The Democrat leadership says, 'We wanna support the troops who are on the ground. We just wanna redline the extra 20,000,'" Pelley remarks.
"Yeah. I will resist that. Listen, we've got people criticizing this plan before it's had a chance to work. They're saying, 'We're not even gonna fund this thing.' And they're not gonna give it a chance," Bush says.
"There's no Democrat plan," Pelley asks.
"It doesn't look like it to me. The interesting is, Scott, a lot of people are saying, 'Well, we can't afford to fail.'" Bush says. "In other words, people understand the consequences of failure. But what's deafening is those who say 'We can't afford to fail and here's the plan that will cause us not to fail.' Frankly, that's not their responsibility. It's my responsibility to put forward the plan that I think will succeed. I believe if they start trying to cut off funds, they better explain to the American people and the soldiers why their plan will succeed."
"Do you believe, as commander-in-chief, you have the authority to put the troops in there no matter what the Congress wants to do?" Pelley asks.
"I think I've got - in this situation, I do, yeah," Bush says.
"Final question. How can you escalate the war when so many people in this country seem to be against it?" Pelley asks.
"I'm gonna have to keep explaining. That's why I'm doing this interview with you. And I gotta keep explaining that failure in Iraq will affect the security of the people here in the United States. And secondly, that we can succeed," the president says. "Scott, sometimes you're the commander-in-chief, sometimes you're the educator-in-chief, and a lot of times you're both when it comes to war. We are in an ideological struggle. And it's a really classic ideological struggle. And, Iraq is part of it. And it's very important for me to not only continue to explain why I believe we can be successful in Iraq but explain to people that what happens in the Middle East will affect the future of this country."
Produced By Harry Radliffe, Shawn Efran and Graham Messick
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