WASHINGTON – President Bush said Wednesday that not everything in Iraq went the way pre-war planners prepared, but that's no surprise since assumptions always change once the ground war begins.
In a wide-ranging interview with FOX News' Brit Hume, Bush said that military planners prepared to help prevent starvation among Iraqis and mass movements of people, but those consequences of war did not occur. He added that historians will look back and debate whether it was a good idea or not to disband Saddam Hussein's army when coalition forces moved into the country.
"No question we made some, I would call them, tactical mistakes," the president said.
In a speech earlier in the day on Wednesday, the president said he knows now that some of the intelligence was faulty and took responsiblity for the decision to go into battle based on that intelligence. He said, however, that most of the international intelligence services also believed Saddam was a threat, and the former dictator defied a dozen U.N. resolutions seeking cooperation in investigating Iraq's weapons program.
The report of U.S. weapons inspectors post-liberation also showed that Saddam was trying to reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction program. The inspections even led to the uncovering of the massive U.N. Oil-for-Food scandal, Bush said.
With all that in mind, Bush said he made the right decision to go into Iraq and topple the former Iraqi dictator.
"I said it today and I said it at the last speech I gave ... I made the right decision. Knowing what I know today, I would have still made that decision," Bush said.
The president spoke with FOX News' Hume on the eve of the Iraqi election for a 275-member Parliament, the first election of its kind since before Saddam and his allies grabbed power through a Ba'ath Party coup in 1968.
The president said that even as tactics have changed over time, "strategy has been the same. Remove Saddam Hussein, remove the threat and establish a democracy."
Bush said that as long as he is president, the United States will not lose its nerve and desert the Iraqis before it's the right time for U.S. forces to leave.
"We can't be defeated militarily ... The enemy has got the capacity to and the wherewithal to kill innocent people and those pictures get on our TV screens. And Americans say, 'We'll we're not making any progress. We can't get there. Let's get the boys out before we complete the mission.' It's not what will happen so long as I'm the president. But that's what worries me the most, that we forget the stakes of the War on Terror and that we lose our nerve," Bush said.
The president added that terrorists in Iraq seek to kill innocent people because they want a safe haven from which to launch attacks. That goal is responsible for the estimated 30,000 deaths of Iraqi citizens since the start of the war in March 2003, he said, adding that he's not certain of the number of casualties because no agency keeps track.
While the number of Iraqi civilians killed is a sad consequence of war, other problems could also have been dealt with differently, Bush said. Training of Iraqi forces to face up to internal threats could have been conducted more rapidly; large reconstruction projects could have been substituted by regional goals that would have impacted Iraqis more quickly; and sovereignty could have been handed over sooner.
Here and Now
Bush said he wanted to remind Americans over the summer why the United States is in Iraq, but Hurricane Katrina derailed a series of speeches he was prepared to make at the time.
Afterward, the president said, he wanted to come out and push back against Democratic criticism "to remind people about the stakes and the strategy to achieve victory."
Democrats have launched a barrage of assaults that appeared to be taking hold among the American people. Bush's poll numbers this week are at 42 percent, but that's several points higher than his low a few weeks ago, after Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., and other Democrats started claiming that U.S. forces have worn out their welcome and have become the target for insurgents. Murtha and other said Iraqis want Americans out.
But Bush said he wanted to lay out "the case as clearly as possible, not only in a series of speeches, but punching back when we're being treated unfairly," for instance, when he was accused of deliberately misusing intelligence.
The president added that he wanted to bring people together to get through "the name-calling and the finger-pointing and the blaming.
"We took a blasting and have begun recently to make the case in a more forceful way to the American people, first of all, rejecting this notion that, you know, we lied about intelligence," he said.
The president said he thought it was a good time to speak once the debate turned to setting a timetable for withdrawal.
"I think [that] was wrong. And to me, it's been a very useful policy, a debate of honest difference," he said.
Bush said since the entry into war, other problems could have also been dealt with differently. For instance, training of Iraqi forces for internal threats could have been conducted more rapidly; large reconstruction projects could have been substituted by regional goals that would have impacted Iraqis more quickly; and sovereignty could have been handed over sooner.
The Domestic Front
In matters closer to home, Bush also told FOX News that he believes Rep. Tom DeLay is innocent of conspiracy and money laundering charges and he hopes the former House majority leader will return to his post soon.
The president said he doesn't think that incidents like the bribery scandal involving disgraced former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., and allegations of pay-offs from lobbyist Jack Abramoff represent a pervasive problem with Washington's elected officials.
"It’s really important for all of us in public life to have the highest of ethics so that we can earn the trust of the American people," Bush said. But, he added, "Duke Cunningham was wrong and should be punished for what he did. And I think that anybody who does what he did should be punished, Republican or Democrat."
Saying that he's not "all that familiar" with the charges regarding lobbying pay-offs, Bush said it appears Abramoff was giving out money for favors with equal ardor toward Republicans and Democrats.
As for his own relationships, Bush said he has no intention of removing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from his post, and Rumsfeld could stay until the end of the president's current term.
"He’s done a heck of a job. He’s conducted two wars and at the same time has helped transform our military from a military that was constructed for, you know, the post-Cold War to one that is going to be constructed to fight terrorism," the president said during a one-on-one with Hume in the Treaty Room of the White House.
Bush also said he remains close to his embattled Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove.
"We’re still as close as we’ve ever been. We’ve been through a lot. You know, when we look back at the presidency and my time in politics, no question that Karl had a lot to do with me getting here, and I value his friendship. We’re very close," the president said.
Bush is trying to wrap up the year with several wins on sensitive legislative matters on Capitol Hill. He said he misses DeLay's role in the House because the former majority leader, who was forced to step down in September after being indicted on charges of conspiracy and money laundering relating to the election of Texas state lawmakers who then redistricted the state map, enabling Republicans to pick up six House seats in the U.S. Congress.
The Supreme Court has agreed to hear whether the new map violates rules on the timing of redistricting.
One of DeLay's conspiracy charges was dropped by a state district judge last week. On Tuesday, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle said he would appeal the charge. The president said Wednesday he thinks DeLay is innocent.
"Yes I do," he said. He added that he'd like to see DeLay return to the House as majority leader.
"I don’t know whether I can expect that. I hope that he will, 'cause I like him, and plus, when he’s over there, we get our votes through the House," Bush said.
"We had a remarkable success of legislative victories, remarkable string of legislative victories. We cut the taxes, which has yielded strong economic growth and vitality. We had an energy bill that began to put America on its way to independence. ... We’ve had good legal reforms. We had strong support for our troops in combat. We’ve had a good record. We reformed Medicare. There’s a string of successes, and I give Tom a lot of credit for that," Bush said.
Bush said he also remains close to Vice President Dick Cheney, whose advice he values in part because he doesn't end up reading their conversations "in the newspaper the next day." Bush said his respect for Cheney "has grown immensely" since they came to Washington, and the relationship has "only gotten better."
He added that Cheney goes through a lot in terms of the public's perception of him.
"The vice president goes through, I guess, is what all people in Washington go through at some time or another, and that’s kind of a massive speculation about whether he’s running the government or not running the government, whether I like him or don’t like him. The truth of the matter is that our relationship hasn’t changed hardly at all. He’s a very close advisor. I view him as a good friend. I had lunch with him today. We discussed a wide variety of topics," Bush said.
When all the politics cease and the debate ends, Bush said he hopes that people will remember him "as a fellow who had his priorities straight: his faith, his family and his friends are a central part of his life."
Bush said that he still prays several times a day and particularly appreciates the prayers of fellow citizens. He said his faith plays a big role in his life and guides him through it. Despite that devotion, Bush said that he is not confused about how he got into office.
"There's a difference between a personal relationship with an almighty and kind of this notion in some quarters of the world that some have God as directing policy out of the White House," Bush said.
"I think I was chosen by the American people and I knocked on their doors an awful lot in 2000 and 2004 ... I do pray that I, to the best extent possible, that God's will shines through me as an individual, but I don't subscribe to that God picked me over somebody else," he said.
Such a notion appears contrary to the mullahs of Iran, who claim to be pursuing Allah's will on Earth. With such a "mandate", those leaders, particularly new Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are calling for the destruction of Israel and are vigorously pursuing nuclear weapons in violation of U.N. warnings to cease and desist.
Despite the increasing bellicosity, Bush said the United States will continue to work diplomatically with Iran, whom the president named in his 2002 State of the Union addrress as one of three members of the Axis of Evil.
Calling it a "real threat," Bush said he hopes the current rulers of Iran would instead "be wise enough to begin to listen to the people and allow the people to particiapte in their government."
Bush said his objective as president is to end tyranny and see a peaceful world "in which democracies live side by side."
He added that he'd like to be remember has someone who "lived life to the fullest and gave it his all," and as someone who "used American influence for the good of the world," particularly in the fights against poverty and disease.
The president told FOX News that on domestic issues, he'd like to be remembered as the president who pushed the ownership society" and who recognized that "the strength of this society is a result of the compassion of the American people."