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Ari Fleischer Reflects on 9/11

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," September 11, 2006, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Our special "Big Story" coverage of the fifth anniversary of 9/11 continues now. We have been talking throughout the hour with members of President Bush's staff at the time of the 2001 attacks, getting their memories of that day.

We're joined now by another one, the president's former spokesman, former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.

So, Ari, tonight we're going to hear the president address the nation. We have gotten some excerpts of the speech. He says: "We face an enemy determined to bring death and suffering into our homes. America did not ask for this war and every American wished it were over. So do I."

A lot of people think he doesn't.

ARI FLEISCHER, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Oh, for heaven's sake. I have been with him when he met with the families of those who were wounded or relatives of those who were killed. There is not a soul in this country who wishes it was over more than him.

GIBSON: When people say that about him, what do you think of that kind of criticism that paints him as nothing more than a warmonger?

FLEISCHER: Well, listen, I think that throughout our history, we've had times where our nation has been divided and the thing to do when there is a division is to leave on the basis of principle and fight for what you believe. And I think that's what he's doing.

He'll also say in that speech tonight that it's not a clash of civilizations, it's a clash for civilizations. And when you look at the Middle East and you look at what we need to do to bring peace to that region, I think he's right.

GIBSON: He says: "Also by standing with Democratic leaders and reformers by giving voice to the hopes of decent men and women we are offering a path away from radicalism and we are enlisting the most powerful force for peace and moderation in the Middle East, the desire of millions to be free."

Are those millions who desire to be free backing him up enough by showing support for what the United States is doing in Iraq?

FLEISCHER: Some are, some aren't. And like history has often shown with the Arab world, they'll follow the winner, they'll wait, they'll see, and at the last minute, they'll throw in their lot with whoever is going to prevail. And that's a lesson he understands. It's part of the real politics of the Middle East.

And I think that if we show signs of weakness, if we start to back out, it means al-Zawahiri has said the first phase for Al Qaeda is U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. If we do what they call phase one and we withdraw, the rest of the Arab world will look, watch and say the United States is weak and nobody can count on them when they give their word.

GIBSON: Is the Bush legacy forever for better or worse going to be this War on Terror?

FLEISCHER: I think so. I think presidents largely are known for their foreign policies. If it's a domestic issue, largely it's smaller boar type issues.

But presidents who serve at momentous times and I think FDR it was true, it was true of World War I, Lincoln. This is what you are known for, for better or worse. The judgment, the verdict is still out on George Bush. And I think we're going to know in 10 or 15 years how successful we really are in Iraq.

GIBSON: Do you have a clear understanding of why the president's approval has plummeted and why the American people who apparently by 60 percent to 30 now think that the war in Iraq was a mistake?

FLEISCHER: Well, John, I think we're an impatient country. We're used to getting things done quickly and done and then behind us. And World War II took four years. If today we had to fight a World War II against the very same Nazis with communications we have, the live, the Internet, I'm not sure the American people would have the patience for that either. It's part of the problem our society has of grappling with worst and the most difficult news and that especially is going to be true in the age of terror.

GIBSON: You have been retired now for a little while. You look rested, well. Do you miss it?

FLEISCHER: You know, I miss the president. I keep in touch with him, but I miss seeing him on a daily basis. I don't miss the hours. I don't miss the pace. I miss reporters one on one. I don't miss them in that briefing room.

GIBSON: Ari Fleischer, thanks very much for coming in. It's good to see you.

FLEISCHER: Thanks, John.

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