On Jan. 12, 2007, two days after President George W. Bush told the country that he would send 21,000 more troops into Iraq, the president sat down with 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley for a candid conversation. The two met in Camp David's Laurel Cabin, where, in 2001, the president and his cabinet debated plans for the invasion of Afghanistan and thus launched the war on terror.
SCOTT PELLEY: The war on terror, in a sense, began in this room, began in this cabin where your Cabinet meeting was held. Back then the whole country was with you. And now you seem to have lost them. Why do you think so?
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Not to correct you, but the war on terror began on the streets of New York when an enemy attacked us. But you're right. We came here to plan a response. And, you know, I can remember thinking that it's gonna take a monumental effort to keep the country's attention on this war because it's an interesting dilemma for the president. On the one hand, you want them to understand we're at war. On the other hand, you want people to go about their daily lives. In other words, people can't be looking over their shoulder and seeing the next terrorist attack. And America has gone ahead. Our economy's good and people are, you know, helping their neighbors. And so I'm not that the danger the country felt after September 11th has slipped. Secondly, the Iraq War hadn't gone as well as I had hoped at this point in time. I mean, in my speech to the country I said we had good successes in 2005, and I truly believe we're gonna be in a position to reduce our presence. And then the situation changed on the ground. And people are, you know, people are discouraged. They don't approve of where we are. And so I think it's where the country is.
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.
BUSH: I would hope they'd want us to succeed before we get out there. That's the decision I had to make. You know, Scott, 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.
PELLEY: You actually thought about that?
BUSH: Of course I have. I think about it a lot, about different options. Listen, I've sat down with a lot of members of Congress, both parties, good decent people, who've said, "Start withdrawing now." I've thought about that, and my attitude is if we were to start withdrawing now, we'd have a crisis in our hands in Iraq. 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. Failure in Iraq would provide safe haven, and the extremists still want to attack us. In other words, there's a lot of reasons that I know we must succeed. And so I thought long and hard about would withdrawal cause victory or cause success. And the answer is I don't believe so, and neither do a lot of experts. And 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.
PELLEY You think the whole region could be in play? Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait?
BUSH: Absolutely. No question in my mind. And I know this is hard for some Americans to understand. The operative phrase that I thought made a lot of sense about this war is: if we fail in Iraq, the enemy will follow us here. And the point I make is that what happens in the Middle East matters to the homeland. And that's different than in some past engagements. Secondly, chaos in the Middle East will empower extremists who hate America. And failure in Iraq, defeat of America, in quotes, will then embolden these extremists. They'll be able to recruit more. They'll be able to find more suiciders. They'll have resources at their availability, like energy if they were able to topple modern governments. In other words, 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. 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.
PELLEY: Instability in Iraq threatens the entire region?
BUSH: If the government falls apart and there is sectarian enclaves and violence, it'll invite Iran into the Shia neighborhoods, Sunni extremists into the Sunni neighborhoods, Kurdish separatist movements. All of which would threaten moderate people, moderate governments, and all of which will end up creating conditions that could lead to attacks here in America.
PELLEY: But wasn't it your administration that created the instability in Iraq?
BUSH: Well, 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. We didn't find the weapons we thought we would find or the weapons everybody thought he had. But he was a significant source of instability.
PELLEY: It's much more unstable now, Mr. President.
BUSH: 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 and a unified Iraq. A young democracy will provide the stability we look for. I will tell you that if we just isolate ourselves from the Middle East and hope for the best, we will not address the conditions that had led young suiciders to get on airplanes to come and attack us in the first place.
PELLEY: You mention mistakes having been made in your speech. What mistakes are you talking about?
BUSH: You know, we've been through this before. 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.
PELLEY: The troop levels . . .
BUSH: Could have been a mistake.
PELLEY: Could have been a mistake?
BUSH: Yeah. [General] John Abizaid, one of the planners, said in front of Congress, you know, he thought we might have needed more troops. My focus is on how to succeed. 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 find scapegoats. Well, if the people want a scapegoat, they got one right here in me 'cause it's my decisions.