This afternoon I had the privilege of being one of eight columnists interviewing George W. Bush in the Oval Office. The others were Tony Blankley of the Washington Times, Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal, Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post, Lawrence Kudlow of CNBC, Kathleen Parker of the Orlando Sentinel, Mark Steyn of the Chicago Sun-Times, and Byron York of National Reviewall conservatives of various stripes. Like many others who have been with Bush in the Oval Office, I have found him to be much more articulate and forceful in that setting than he often is in press conferences or in taking questions from traveling reporters. The interview was on the record, so we are posting MP3 audio recordings of the whole hour. I think you'll find it compelling listening. It's the closest thing many people will get to spending an hour or so in the Oval Office with the 43rd president. We've also posted the full text transcript.
I'll just make a few observations here.
First of all, Bush started off with a lengthy monologue, trying to put a historical perspective on where we are now. He clearly sees his primary mission as protecting the American people from the terrorists who want to do everything they can to hurt and destroy us and our civilization. He makes the point that we ought to listen to their words when they threaten to kill useven though our first instinct is to flinch and turn away from threats that, if taken seriously, are extremely disturbing. Later he returned to this theme. The September 11 attacks made it clear, he said, that we're at war, and we're still at war. These terrorists want to kill us and destroy our civilization, and they will use any excuse that comes to mindIsrael, the Crusades, and if not the Crusades then the cartoons.
"If this country lets down its guard, it will be a fatal mistake."
He then argued that we have severely hurt the terroristsbut that as long as we see victory as the absence of strife, the terrorists can convince us that we're not winning by random killing.
"If absence of violence is victory," he said, then nobody can ever make a claim of winning. He made the point he repeated over and over in his press conference this morning that in Iraq our troops are constantly changing tactics even as they persevere in opposing those who are trying to strangle democracy there. He said that he does not pick targets aspointing to the other end of the Oval OfficeLyndon Johnson once did during the Vietnam War but that he does keep in touch with his commanders daily.
He quoted Gen. John Abizaid as saying that victory in Iraq will have a lot of positive effects in the Middle East. He notes that the military does not compile body counts of the enemy and that that makes it hard to quantify progress. In response to questioning, he said he might reconsider that decision.
Bush described his approach to diplomacy, trying to persuade the leaders of other countries to do what America believes is the right thing. It is a slow process, he said, and he understands that peopleincluding some in the roomare impatient with it. He argued that Hezbollah's attack on Israel this summer changed the minds of many of the leaders in the region and that they regarded Iran as a greater threat than they had before.
We're now in the process of trying to convince them and others outside the region that Iran's possession of nuclear weapons is of greater importance than other concerns they have (he mentioned Hu Jintao's concern that China develop 25 million new jobs every year). And we're trying to persuade others to convince Syria that it should stop supporting terrorists and destabilizing Lebanon. On North Korea, he noted that its announcement of its nuclear test has prompted some Japanese leaders to suggest that that country might develop nuclear weapons. He argued that if we negotiated with North Korea alone, the world would tend to urge us to make any concessions. I asked about the dangers of North Korea's proliferating nuclear weapons (citing a recent Rand study showing the effects of a 10-kiloton nuclear explosion in Los Angeles harbor) and biological weapons (citing a Popular Mechanics article on North Korea's efforts to weaponize anthrax, botulism, and plague), both referred to in my most recent U.S. News column. He responded by describing the 70-nation Proliferation Security Initiativea huge multilateral initiative by this administration that is largely ignored by mainstream media.
I also asked his opinion on the proposal, which I have long backed, for an Alaska-style oil fund that would distribute parts of oil royalties in equal annual dividends to every Iraqi. (Here's my most recent mention, and here's a column from April 2003.) He said he has raised the issue with Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and said it could be one of two institutions that could unify the country, the other being the Army. But he added that the Iraqis have to come up with their own solutions.
Bush is certainly grayer than he was when he took office, and though he is still obviously in fine shape for a man of 60, he, like Bill Clinton, has visibly aged in his years as president. I found him energetic, focused, articulate, and in command of his thoughts, and I think you will too if you listen to the audio. He said, after the interview was over, that he was happy and contented in his work, and there was no note of distress in his voice. But even as he is under heavy attack in this campaign season and his job approval sags below 40 percent, he seems to take solace and gain strength from taking a long view. He began the interview by looking ahead to what the Middle East will be in 25 yearsand arguing that it will be in better shape than it might be because of what we are doing now.
On the way out the door, I asked him what he had been reading lately. The answer: Andrew Roberts's A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 (an advance copy, apparently). Roberts is a friend of mine (and of Mark Steyn), a British history writer who has written the definitive biography of the 3rd Marquis of Salisbury (prime minister 1885, 188692, 18951902) and a delightful volume of essays on Winston Churchill's opponents, Eminent Churchillians. Roberts's English-Speaking Peoples is an extension of Churchill's multicentury history that ends around 1900, and I expect that it will take Churchill's view: that the English-speaking peoples have over the centuries taken up the responsibility of expanding freedom and spreading democracy and the rule of law around the world.
That is Bush's view as well, as I was reminded when I noticed the bust of Churchill as I was leaving the Oval Office.