Interview with Bob Schieffer of CBS News
SCHIEFFER: Mr. President, there is certainly no shortage of questions to ask you today, and I guess I had better start with this thunderbolt from the Middle East that happened yesterday. We had a democratic election that the United States and others in the West encouraged, and, of all things, the party that has sworn to destroy Israel wins the majority of the seats in the Palestinian parliament. You said yesterday that unless they renounce violence, we can't deal with them.
THE PRESIDENT: Um-hmm.
SCHIEFFER: What if they don't renounce violence?
THE PRESIDENT: I--I said two things. One, they've got to get rid of that arm of their party which is armed and violent, and secondly, they have got to get rid of that part of their platform that says they want to destroy Israel. And if they don't, we won't deal with them.
SCHIEFFER: Well, what--
THE PRESIDENT: Aid packages won't go forward. Well, that's their decision to make. It's--first of all, the government is beginning to form. They're trying to work through all the–as you said, it was a lightning bowler, and it was--caught everybody's surprise, I suspect, including--I know that the Fatah was caught by surprise, maybe Hamas, and they have yet to work out how they are going to form their government. But we won't be providing help to a government that wants to destroy our ally and friend. I don't see how you can be a partner in peace if you--if you don't renounce violent aims. The--the other thing that's interesting about the elections, though, that I found fascinating is that it reminded me that the elections are window panes into the actual condition of society.
THE PRESIDENT: In other words, a lot of us were assuming that maybe life was this way or that way, and all of a sudden the people showed up to vote and said we want something different, we want good, honest government; we want people to listen to our needs; we want people to provide services so our families can, you know, be--grow up and be prosperous.
SCHIEFFER: Let me just ask you this question. You say you can't deal with them, but would it be beneficial to try to talk to them, to talk to them about moderating their stance, or is there just simply nothing to talk about?
THE PRESIDENT: Well--well, in essence I am talking to them now.
THE PRESIDENT: I'm confident they're listening to what you've asked me and what I'm answering.
THE PRESIDENT: And that is for them to, you know, have support from the United States and the United States Congress, and from this administration they must renounce their policies, stated policy that they want to destroy Israel.
SCHIEFFER: While we're in the neighborhood, let's talk about somebody close by there: Iran.
THE PRESIDENT: Yeah.
SCHIEFFER: Can the United States allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon?
THE PRESIDENT: The Free World cannot allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon, not just the United States, but those of us who value freedom, and that is why our strategy is to present and--and–and hold together a united front to say to the Iranians your designs to have a nuclear weapon or your desire to have the capability of making a nuclear weapon is unacceptable. It's very important that we speak to two groups: One is the government, and also the people. And in speaking to the people, my message is this: You know, we're not going to tell you how to live your life, but we would like you to be free. We would like you to be able to express yourselves in the--in the market--in the--in the open--in open, so without fear of reprisal. We want you to be able to vote and elect. And--but to the government, our message is, is that if you want to be a part of the family of nations, give up your nuclear weapons ambitions. Now, one of the things we have done is they have said they want to be able to have a civilian nuclear capacity, we want to be able to have our own nuclear power plant, and we've said we understand that. But because you're a nontransparent government, because you've openly stated your desire to destroy one of our allies, that you should be able to have a plant, but the--the--the uranium for running that plant will come from Russia, and Russia will provide the--provide the fuel, you will burn the fuel, and Russia will collect the fuel under IAEA safeguards.
SCHIEFFER: Well, let me ask you: If they continue to insist that they're going to do it in their country, Senator Clinton, for example, who seems closer to your policy on Iraq than to some in her own party, is already saying sanctions now. Do you think sanctions would work against Iran?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, we have already sanctioned Iran. The United States Government has got sanctions in place on Iran. I think probably what she is referring to is whether or not we should refer Iran to the United Nations Security Council. I have said that is certainly a very--a real possibility, and that once we are in the Security Council, of course, that's one of the options, but we are going to work with our friends and allies to make sure that when we get in the Security Council, we will have an effective response.
SCHIEFFER: But as some would say, that you put sanctions on Iran, it will drive the price of oil sky high and that will hurt everybody's economy.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, that's certainly one of the considerations that--that we will take into account as we work with the Perm Five, other members of the Perm Five on the United Nations Security Council.
SCHIEFFER: Let me--let me ask you, everyone in the government says the nuke–the military option can never be taken off the table. Have you actually reviewed plans, if it came to exercising the military option?
THE PRESIDENT: I think it's best I just leave it that all options should be on the table, and the last option is the military option. We have got to work hard to exhaust all diplomacy and that's what you're--that's what the country is seeing happen.
SCHIEFFER: But is that possible? Some people say with our forces stretched thin in Iraq already, we might not be able to launch an attack on anybody.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I--I--I--I would disagree with that. I think we've got plenty of capability, but I--it--it--it--the first option, of course, is to--is to solve this problem diplomatically, and that's where we are working to do.
SCHIEFFER: Let's talk about Iraq. You say we're going to stay there until we get the job done, but last summer it seems to me, Mr. President, that public support for the war began to erode.
THE PRESIDENT: Um-hmm.
SCHIEFFER: Why do you think that happened?
THE PRESIDENT: I think--I think that people saw death on the TV screens without a sense that we are making progress. That's why I started giving these speeches. You--you might remember that--obviously you remember Katrina hit.
THE PRESIDENT: And it made it a little difficult to go out and talk about the way forward in Iraq, but after my foreign trips to the Far East and--and to Argentina, I came back and started a series of dialogues with the American people. My job is not only Commander-In-Chief but educator-in-chief. And I needed to say to the people, you bet it's tough. And the enemy has–and the enemy is using their own weapon effectively, which is the destruction of innocent life.
SCHIEFFER: Well, do you think–you brought up Katrina--do you think the fact that the government kind of got off to a slow start, at the least, in dealing with Katrina that people lost confidence in the Federal Government and that might have had something to do with the loss of confidence in what was going on in Iraq?
THE PRESIDENT: That's an interesting question. I don't know. I haven't analyzed that. No question we could have done a better job on Katrina and no question that the pictures coming out of New Orleans were, you know, affected our conscience and hit our conscience and affected--affected things. I mean, people were wondering, this great country of ours, how come we couldn't have responded better, and that's why we're taking a look at lessons learned so it won't happen again. But I--you know, it's hard for me to connect response to Katrina to--to people's concerns about our troops overseas. The other thing is, is that I think–back to Iraq: I think a lot of people are wondering whether or not we had a plan to win. People--a lot of people--some people say we shouldn't have been there in the first place, and I understand that. Some people said, you did the right thing going in there, but I'm not so sure you've got the desire or the plan to win, and that's what I've been trying to articulate, is we do have a plan to win, and we are winning. And--and--and progress on the–the ground is beginning to back me up. I mean, the political process has been amazing when you think about it. These elections are truly outstanding.
SCHIEFFER: Yeah, well--
THE PRESIDENT: And--
SCHIEFFER: Go ahead.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I was going to say and now the challenge, and the American people, you know, are watching very carefully, as to whether or not a unity government wouldn't be formed, the government that is able to govern under this constitution which guarantees and protects minority rights. The other thing is, you know, our troop levels are going down from about 168,000 to less than 138,000, and part of that is because our commanders on the government are confident--confident the Iraqis are going to be able to take more and more of the fight.
SCHIEFFER: Well, let's talk about that a little bit. Now, some Democrats have called for a timetable for withdrawal. You have said that that's not a good thing to do because you're just giving the enemy the message, well, hang around until next date, we'll be out of there. But can you give the American people, Mr. President, some sort of a time frame, for example, where do you think we're going to be three months from now there, and what will troop levels be, say, come the fall?
THE PRESIDENT: You see, I--I can understand you wanting to ask that question and the American people, some wanting to--want me to give the answer to that. I can't give the answer to that because I'm not the--the decider. What I can assure the American people of is that we've got a strategy to victory. We got a plan to see that the Iraqis take the fight. More and more Iraqis are taking the fight, and I'm going to listen to our commanders.
THE PRESIDENT: One of the interesting lessons from the Vietnam era was it seemed like to me that politicians all were making the decisions and not the commanders on the ground a lot of times, and I--I have vowed that the American people, and I will follow through on that--that if General Casey and the generals there in Iraq that will be making the decisions as to the troop levels.
SCHIEFFER: Well, do you–
THE PRESIDENT: I--I hope--I would hope to say that we have fewer troops there over the course of the year.
SCHIEFFER: Well, do you think that it may be possible that there will be a large number of American troops there when your successor, whoever that is, takes office in 2009?
THE PRESIDENT: I--I can't--I--I really don't want to make that prediction. It would--it--it--it--I--I am going to make my decisions for the next three years based upon what our commanders recommend. I do want to assure the American people, one, I would like to get troops home, and secondly--but I don't want to get them home without winning, and the definition of winning is a country that can govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself, and a country which will not become a safe haven for the terrorists. And I want to remind your viewers, Bob, that the terrorists have made it abundantly clear they want to drive us out of Iraq so they can have a safe haven from which to operate--that would be Mr. Zarqawi--and--and that's why it's very important for us not only to train the Iraqis, but to stay on the hunt for these people.
SCHIEFFER: Let's talk a little bit about this whole idea of eavesdropping without court orders. You said very strongly, and the strongest language I've heard you use yesterday, that you believe it is not only legal, you believe it is absolutely necessary in the War on Terrorism. The--the question I have, Mr. President, is: Do you believe that there is anything that a president cannot do, if he considers it necessary, in an emergency like this?
THE PRESIDENT: That's a--that's a great question. You know, one of the--yeah, I don't think a president can tort--get--can order torture, for example. I don't think a president can order the assassination of a leader of another country with which we're not at war. Yes, there are clear red lines, and--it--you--you--you just asked a very interesting constitutional question. The extent to which a president, during war, can exercise authorities in order to protect the American people, and that's really what the debate is about. I--I made the decision to listen to phone calls of Al Qaeda or suspected Al Qaeda from outside the country coming in or inside the country going out because the people, our operators, told me that this is one of the best ways to protect the American people. And it wasn't an easy decision to make, but as I thought through the decision-making process, I asked a couple of questions: One, do I have the authority to do it? In other words, implicit in your question is, will I just act without determining if I have authority. And so, in other words, I got--I--I was convinced by the legal department of the--of this--of this White House and the Justice Department that I did have the authority, and we looked at it very carefully. And secondly, I wanted to make sure that civil liberties were guarded. In other words, that by unleashing this program there wasn't checks and balances on--inside the NSA so that they would circumvent my order, which was listening for phone calls outside the country and in vice versa; in other words, not listening to the phone calls within the country. It is important that this program go on. I understand the debate, and I understand the need to make sure people discuss and debate whether or not I have got the authority to do it, but as I told the American people--and I can't tell you how strongly I feel about this--if somebody is talking to Al Qaeda inside the United States, we need to know why, and that's what this program is aimed to do.
SCHIEFFER: Let me ask you this, Mr. President because I just have never quite understood this, and maybe you could clear this up. As I understand the law, you had the right to wiretap or eavesdrop on anyone and have three days to tell the court about it. How does that slow you down?
THE PRESIDENT: I asked the same question to the people designing the program. I said, how come we can't use the procedures which you just described, and they said it won't work. It doesn't fit in with what Mike Hayden described as "hot pursuit." I have looked at this program from all angles, and my dilemma and my problem is I can't explain to you how it works in order to justify your question without telling the enemy what we are doing. And this debate is an interesting debate. I'm troubled by it only because the enemy listens, and they see what we are doing, and these are smart people, and they will adjust. And one of the interesting questions, Bob, about this whole debate is whether or not people think we are at war or people think this is kind of an isolated group of people that may or may not hit us, and I'm--perhaps it was because I was a sitting president when 9/11 occurred. Perhaps because I remember my words going to Congress just saying I'm not going to ever forget what took place, and I will use all the power and my authority within the Constitution to protect the American people, but I view this situation we're in as war, and therefore I must protect the American people with the tools available to me.
SCHIEFFER: Let's talk a little bit about domestic issues. It's my understanding you are going to have some things to say about healthcare in your State of the Union speech and health savings accounts that I understand you are going to propose be made more attractive through tax breaks, but I want to about ask about a law that's already on the books, and that's this prescription drug benefit for seniors.
THE PRESIDENT: Right.
SCHIEFFER: Everywhere I go, I find people who don't know what it means. Seniors are going to the drug store. They don't know what their plan is. They're all mixed up. Everybody is just having a real problem of getting their drugs. Do you think that's because of mismanagement, or is this law just so complicated that it can't be administered?
THE PRESIDENT: I think--in all due respect, I think everybody having problems getting their drugs is not exactly what's taking place. Millions have signed up to a new, reformed Medicare. Let's take a step back for a second.
THE PRESIDENT: Medicare wasn't working the way I thought it should. Lyndon Johnson, our fellow Texan, signed the bill. It hadn't been modernized for prescription drugs. I called upon Congress to modernize it, to make a prescription drug benefit available as a part of Medicare. I also said, let's give seniors more choices. Let's say we trust the consumer. Let the consumer make some choices. And so what you are seeing is two things: One, that seniors had been given options from which to choose, and I fully recognize that for many seniors the idea of making a choice is something they are just not interested in. You know, an older person just kind of liked the status quo, and so the idea of having to make choice or given options is one that I knew would be unsettling, and that's why we unleashed community groups and different groups--doctors' groups, nurses' groups--to explain to seniors if they want a different option they could choose it. What you are referring to, I think, is the issue of dual eligibles. I had talked to my little brother--Jeb, about this issue. There is about a million, I think he said 600,000 people on Medicare. About a hundred thousand of those are what they call--or hundred thousand of the million six are having some issue with their dual eligibility, whether it be Medicare, Medicare, who is going to pay for it. We are working through the glitches. I think what you are really seeing is a new law in effect for three weeks that affects a lot of people, and we are ironing out the glitches that--I shouldn't say that will inevitably will arise, but has arisen as a result of this new reform. It's a good deal for seniors. When it all settles out, seniors are going to realize that this Congress and this president have worked to modernize Medicare to make work better for them.
SCHIEFFER: Let's talk about energy independence. We remain, any way you cut it, dependent on foreign oil. I know you want to open up the Arctic wildlife preserve for drilling, but aren't we going to have to do more than that? And I just want to bring up one thing. Tom Friedman, the columnist in the New York Times, had a column today, and he said putting on a huge gas tax is the only way to really get Detroit's attention and get them to making other kinds of cars, and he said the only way to cause people to change their ways. He says you have to change the culture. What's your reaction to that?
THE PRESIDENT: First of all, I'm against a huge gas tax. Secondly, I agree with Mr. Friedman that we have got to become independent from foreign sources of oil. In other words, we have got to wean ourselves off hydrocarbons, oil. And the best way, in my judgment, to do it is to promote and actively advance new technologies so that we can drive--have different driving habits. For example, there is--I'm a little hesitant because I don't want to tell you what's in the State of the Union, let me put it to you that way.
SCHIEFFER: You are going to talk about that?
THE PRESIDENT: Big time, because I agree with Mr. Friedman, and I agree with Americans who understand being hooked on foreign oil as an economic problem and a national security problem. I couldn't agree more with him. For example, I'm convinced with more research we'll be able to develop additional ways to make ethanol. There is about 4.6 million cars in America now that are flex-fuel cars. They could either use regular gasoline or fuel derived from corn. I'd like, for example, to not only advance that technology of deriving fuel from corn, but also deriving fuel from waste materials, and I'm convinced we could do that with a good push, a technological push. In other words, I want to see different kinds of cars on our road that don't require (sic) upon crude oil from overseas, but we have got a serious problem, and now is the time to fix it, and I'm going to address it again at the State of the Union.
SCHIEFFER: I want to ask you sort of a philosophical question, and that is, Hubert Humphrey once said that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was America's most successful foreign policy initiative because it told people who we were and what we stand for. And I just wonder, when we see some of these horror stories about torture and things that have happened in some of these prisons like Abu Graib, do you worry that maybe we are losing the moral high ground in some way?
THE PRESIDENT: There is no question that Abu Graib pictures not only--we were disgraced, and it--it--it--I know it caused a lot of people that want to like us to question whether they should, and equally important it gave the enemy an incredible propaganda tool. No question. That's why it was important for us to investigate, to expose, and to hold people to account so people see there was a consequence for the behavior.
The--you know, Hubert Humphrey was right. The actions we take in our own country or elsewhere help define America to others, and that's why it's important for us to constantly remind people that are--we have got a wonderful heart and we are a compassionate nation. Our HIV/AIDS initiative on Africa is saving lives, our malaria–our anti-malaria initiative on Africa is savings lives. We feed more of the hungry in the world. I mean, we are doing marvelous things, and it's while we address and deal with issues like Abu Graib, at the same time we have always constantly got to tell people, we care about them, we're not going to impose our form of American-style democracy on you, but we want you to be free, and where you hurt we want to help. And a classic example of that is what took place in Pakistan. When the United States military, upon notification that there was a need for help as a result of the earthquake, moved choppers and aid and equipment and food and tents in and saved a lot of lives, it's by far the best public relations we had in that part of the world in a long period of time. And so, you're right, we need to be consciously--conscious about our public diplomacy not only in how we behave at home but our ability to be able to sell that which we are doing around the world.
SCHIEFFER: Let's talk a little bit about politics, how you think it's shaping up. Is it too early to say who you think the people are going to be that are going to be running for the job you hold right now?
THE PRESIDENT: I think so, I do.
SCHIEFFER: Looks like Senator Clinton is running pretty hard right now for the democratic nomination.
THE PRESIDENT: She's formidable. The–I think back to our conversation, earlier conversation in the colonnade, my focus is 2006, and I told the press conference yesterday, and will continue to assure members of Congress, that I continue to be engaged.
SCHIEFFER: You are going to get out and campaign?
THE PRESIDENT: You bet. I like campaigning. I have got something to campaign on. It's the domestic policy agenda that I think the American people--
SCHIEFFER: Who would you say--I take your point. Who would you say at this point you think the leading republican candidates for president would be?
THE PRESIDENT: It's hard to tell. The minute I start speculating, you'd make all kinds of news with it, and it would interject me in the race which--I tried to figure out how to play this coming down the pike, for a political observer like yourself and a political participant like me, this is an unusual year because this is the first time there hasn't been a kind of natural successor in the party. Two wide open primaries with no sitting vice president running in either primary, so this is--I can't remember a time when it's been this open.
SCHIEFFER: No, not in my memory. Have you had time or you don't have much time in your job, and I know that, to think about what you are going to do after you're president?
THE PRESIDENT: Beginning to think it through a little bit. The first--the touchstone is going to be a Bush library or complex or where it's going to be. It's going to be in Texas. I don't know exactly where yet. We are beginning the process of listening to some of these institutes of higher education and their ideas. I would like to leave behind a legacy or a think-tank, a place for people to talk about freedom and liberty, and the de Tocqueville model--what de Tocqueville saw in America. I would like for there to be a place where young scholars to come and write and think and articulate and opine and teach, but I really haven't beyond that. Of course, it's a nice place to go to, which is the ranch.
SCHIEFFER: Has the presidency changed you, Mr. President?
THE PRESIDENT: I hope not. Well, I guess that's not the right thing to say. I know it hadn't changed my values and hadn't changed my priorities. Of course it's changed me because it's--it's--you know, I made a lot of decisions, Bob, and when you think hard and plan and make decisions, it has got to change you. 9/11 changed me. Yeah, it's changed me to--you know, I hope I'm a better person for it. I will tell you, if given a chance to do it again, I would have said "you bet." I highly recommend this job. It's been a fantastic experience. I like making decisions. I like listening to smart people. I'm surrounded by a lot of them. I like the give and take in the political front, and I truly believe we are making a difference in the world, in our country.
SCHIEFFER: What has been the worst part?
THE PRESIDENT: I think what you mentioned earlier, which is the bitterness in Washington, D.C. I came from a--I came from a climate where, oh, Bob Bullock, who you knew well, was a crusty old democrat, he could cuss me out and then turn around and say, "Let's do something good for Texas." I came from an environment where Speaker of the House, Pete Laney, a cotton farmer from Hale Center, would sit down and say, "You know, I can't understand why you're a republican, but why don't we figure out what to do for Texas." These were buddies of mine, they were political rivals in a sense, but more importantly we put all of that behind us and focused on the good for our state. I tried to get that done here in Washington, and I obviously hadn't, but that's not going to cause me to quit trying. The classic example is in dealing with these mandatory spending entitlements, the baby-boomer generation issues like Social Security and Medicare. These big issues require bipartisan solutions. You have got to have republicans and democrats sitting at the table to work out how to resolve this now because this problem is getting worse, and I'm going to continue to try to get that done, but that's been the biggest disappointment, is the tone in Washington. And, you know, our country is to great not to try to have us try to work together.
SCHIEFFER: What has been the impact on your family?
THE PRESIDENT: We are as close to them now as we have ever been. Laura and I have got a great relationship. There is nothing like some outside pressure to bring you closer together. Secondly, I'm incredibly proud of her. She's a partner in this job in many ways. The First Lady has got a big responsibility in an administration. She could help define an administration. People look at Laura, and they could learn something about me, and when they look at her and learn something about me, they have to say, "He's a pretty smart old guy to pick Laura as a wife." She is--I have got a 45-second commute home, so we spend a lot of time with each other. And our girls I'm a little hesitant to talk about them because they don't want me to bring them out in the public arena, but they're doing just great. So, I would say this has been very a positive experience on our family.
SCHIEFFER: Thank you very much, Mr. President.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you.
George W. Bush, Interview with Bob Schieffer of CBS News Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/278147