President Bush told the New York Post yesterday that Syria (search) must pull all of its troops out of Lebanon (search) by May so that the now-occupied nation can have free elections.

"The subject that is most on my mind right now is getting Syria out of Lebanon, and I don't mean just the troops out of Lebanon, I mean all of them out of Lebanon, particularly the secret service out of Lebanon — the intelligence services," he said.

"This is non-negotiable. It is time to get out . . . I think we've got a good chance to achieve that objective and to make sure that the May elections [in Lebanon] are fair. I don't think you can have fair elections with Syrian troops there," the president said in a wide-ranging Oval Office interview with The Post's editorial board.

Asked if there is a threat of military action as an "or else" if they don't, Bush replied, "No. The 'or else' is further isolation from the world. You know, the president should never take any options off the table, [but] my last choice is military."

Bush, looking relaxed, sat in a blue-striped chair during the 35-minute interview. He pointed with pride to the gold-colored rug designed by his wife, Laura, saying it showed "an optimistic" person came to work in that office every day.

He also showed off his desk — used by John F. Kennedy — saying it makes him feel part of history. "Any president that thinks he's larger than history will fail," Bush remarked.

He'd just come from giving a pep talk at the CIA, and afterward met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

In the interview, Bush also said he'd like to go back to Iraq sometime "to see the free country" — he made a surprise Thanksgiving visit to troops there in 2003 — but probably not right now.

"I would like to sometime," he said. "On the other hand, there are still people there that can kill, and, therefore, I wouldn't feel comfortable with a big announced trip. When the president goes, it's a big deal.

"But some day, I'd like to go back to see the free country. It would have been fantastic to have been there when over 8 million people voted."

The president said change is coming so fast to the Middle East that he has to stop himself from getting "completely swept up in the rapidity of things right now" and remember that substantive change takes time.

Bush — whose presidency changed in an instant on 9/11 — also said he's paying close attention to plans for rebuilding at Ground Zero, and is certain that New York is bouncing back.

"New York is a fabulous place. It is a resilient, brave city, and I'm confident that what will be built there will be a fitting tribute to freedom and to the lost lives," the president said.

Bush said he keeps tabs on Ground Zero rebuilding via frequent chats with his longtime pal Roland Betts, who's a director of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp.

Bush recalled the day that he stood atop a crumpled firetruck just three days after 9/11 and had rescue workers cheering when he vowed, "The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon."

"It was just one of those things that just popped right out. It wasn't something [where] somebody handed me a nice little note and said, 'Get up there on top of that thing and read it,' " he said. "It was just one of those moments, it just flowed out. And maybe — that's probably why it had the impact it had, because it wasn't viewed as scripted, because it wasn't."

Bush, who'll be in Westfield, N.J., today to keep pushing for Social Security reform, seemed undaunted by polls that show Americans are turning thumbs-down on his plan.

"I need more time. I'm going to take more time," he said, adding his goal is to convince Americans that there is a problem with the financial health of the system and that his plan won't impact older citizens.

"Once that's clear, the politician that stands in the way of fixing the system for younger Americans will pay a price in the ballot box, in my judgment," the president insisted.

On the foreign front, Bush ticked off all the sudden steps toward freedom in the Middle East. He spoke almost in amazement at the idea of "street demonstrations in Beirut demanding the removal of Syrian troops."

He stressed that time has run out for Syria to play its old game of haggling over which troops will get pulled out or how far they will go.

"When the United States says something, it must mean it. That's what I meant when I said, 'Remove all your troops,' not remove 94 percent of them," the president said.

"Totally out of Lebanon — and that's very important for [Syrian] President Assad to hear. And it's more than just troops. I keep emphasizing this, but it's important for the world to understand that a Lebanon that is able to express itself freely at the ballot box needs to have no Syrian secret service."

Looking back to 9/11, Bush said his first thought was to prevent another attack, and he didn't envision the policy of spreading freedom throughout the world that has become the central theme of his presidency.

"It took me a while to fully understand what it meant to say that out of this evil will come some good," he said. "But it was hard to envision at that point in time the tremendous changes that take place as a result of democracy taking hold in a place like Afghanistan."

Bush said that what began to convince him that dramatic change was possible was meeting people like Afghan President Hamid Karzai (search) and Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search), who once woke up in exile to find axes at his throat as Saddam Hussein's thugs tried to kill him.

"Imagine what it was like — everyone's worst nightmare, a living horror movie," Bush said, adding that people like Karzai and Allawi show what courage and leadership can do.

"I believe that individuals can help shape the course of events. Leadership matters. Courage matters. And I began to get a sense of that courage when I met these people who love freedom," Bush said.

Now that freedom and hope seem to be racing across the Middle East, Bush said he sometimes has to remind himself to be patient.

"Certain countries can't move as fast as we would like. But, nevertheless, it is easier to imagine now that maybe things will happen quicker than I thought," he said. "But I'm not going to allow myself to get too enthusiastic."