Interview with Scott Pelley of CBS News' "60 Minutes" at Camp David, Maryland
PELLEY: The war on terror, in a sense, began in this room, began in this cabin where your Cabinet meeting was held. Back then the whole country was with you. And now you seem to have lost them. Why do you think so?
THE PRESIDENT: Not to correct you, but the war on terror began on the streets of New York when an enemy attacked us. But you're right. We came here to plan a response. And, you know, I can remember thinking that it's gonna take a monumental effort to keep the country's attention on this war because it's an interesting dilemma for the president. On the one hand, you want them to understand we're at war. On the other hand, you want people to go about their daily lives. In other words, people can't be looking over their shoulder and seeing the next terrorist attack. And America has gone ahead. Our economy's good and people are, you know, helping their neighbors. And so I'm not that the danger the country felt after September 11th has slipped. Secondly, the Iraq War hadn't gone as well as I had hoped at this point in time. I mean, in my speech to the country I said we had good successes in 2005, and I truly believe we're gonna be in a position to reduce our presence. And then the situation changed on the ground. And people are, you know, people are discouraged. They don't approve of where we are. And so I think it's where the country is.
PELLEY: Most Americans at this point in time don't believe in this war in Iraq. They want you to get us out of there.
THE PRESIDENT: I would hope they'd want us to succeed before we get out there. That's the decision I had to make. You know, Scott, I thought a lot about different options. One was doing nothing, just kind of the status quo. And I didn't think that was acceptable, and I think most Americans don't think it's acceptable. Secondly, we'd get out.
PELLEY: You actually thought about that?
THE PRESIDENT: Of course I have. I think about it a lot, about different options. Listen, I've sat down with a lot of members of Congress, both parties, good decent people, who've said, "Start withdrawing now." I've thought about that, and my attitude is if we were to start withdrawing now, we'd have a crisis in our hands in Iraq. And not only in Iraq, but failure in Iraq will embolden the enemy. And the enemy is al-Qaeda and extremists. Failure in Iraq would empower Iran, which poses a significant threat to world peace. Failure in Iraq would provide safe haven, and the extremists still want to attack us. In other words, there's a lot of reasons that I know we must succeed. And so I thought long and hard about would withdrawal cause victory or cause success. And the answer is I don't believe so, and neither do a lot of experts. And so then I began to think, well, if failure's not an option and we've gotta succeed, how best to do so? And that's why I came up with the plan I did.
PELLEY: You think the whole region could be in play? Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait?
THE PRESIDENT: Absolutely. No question in my mind. And I know this is hard for some Americans to understand. The operative phrase that I thought made a lot of sense about this war is: if we fail in Iraq, the enemy will follow us here. And the point I make is that what happens in the Middle East matters to the homeland. And that's different than in some past engagements. Secondly, chaos in the Middle East will empower extremists who hate America. And failure in Iraq, defeat of America, in quotes, will then embolden these extremists. They'll be able to recruit more. They'll be able to find more suiciders. They'll have resources at their availability, like energy if they were able to topple modern governments. In other words, these people have a plan. They have a vision of the world. And they intend to use murder to enact their vision. And I fully understand that. You know, some of my buddies in Texas say, "You know, let them fight it out. What business is it of ours? You got rid of Saddam. Just let them slug it out." And that's a temptation that I know a lot of people feel. But if we do not succeed in Iraq, we will leave behind a Middle East which will endanger America in the future.
PELLEY: Instability in Iraq threatens the entire region?
THE PRESIDENT: If the government falls apart and there is sectarian enclaves and violence, it'll invite Iran into the Shia neighborhoods, Sunni extremists into the Sunni neighborhoods, Kurdish separatist movements. All of which would threaten moderate people, moderate governments, and all of which will end up creating conditions that could lead to attacks here in America.
PELLEY: But wasn't it your administration that created the instability in Iraq?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, our administration took care of a source of instability in Iraq. Envision a world in which Saddam Hussein was rushing for a nuclear weapon to compete against Iran. My decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the correct decision in my judgment. We didn't find the weapons we thought we would find or the weapons everybody thought he had. But he was a significant source of instability.
PELLEY: It's much more unstable now, Mr. President.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, no question decisions have made things unstable. But the question is can we succeed. And I believe we can. Listen, I'd like to see stability and a unified Iraq. A young democracy will provide the stability we look for. I will tell you that if we just isolate ourselves from the Middle East and hope for the best, we will not address the conditions that had led young suiciders to get on airplanes to come and attack us in the first place.
PELLEY: You mention mistakes having been made in your speech. What mistakes are you talking about?
THE PRESIDENT: You know, we've been through this before. Abu Ghraib was a mistake. Using bad language like, you know, "bring them on" was a mistake. I think history is gonna look back and see a lot of ways we could have done things better. No question about it.
PELLEY: The troop levels . . .
THE PRESIDENT: Could have been a mistake.
PELLEY: Could have been a mistake?
THE PRESIDENT: Yeah. [General] John Abizaid, one of the planners, said in front of Congress, you know, he thought we might have needed more troops. My focus is on how to succeed. And the reason I brought up the mistakes is, one, that's the job of the commander-in-chief, and, two, I don't want people blaming our military. We got a bunch of good military people out there doing what we've asked them to do. And the temptation is gonna find scapegoats. Well, if the people want a scapegoat, they got one right here in me 'cause it's my decisions.
PELLEY: Fair to say there are not enough American troops on the ground to provide security for Iraq?
THE PRESIDENT: Let's let the historians work it out. But there's not enough troops on the ground right now to provide security for Iraq, and that's why I made the decision I made.
PELLEY: Do you think you owe the Iraqi people an apology for not doing a better job?
THE PRESIDENT: That we didn't do a better job or they didn't do a better job?
PELLEY: Well, that the United States did not do a better job in providing security after the invasion.
THE PRESIDENT: Not at all. I am proud of the efforts we did. We liberated that country from a tyrant. I think the Iraqi people owe the American people a huge debt of gratitude, and I believe most Iraqis express that. I mean, the people understand that we've endured great sacrifice to help them. That's the problem here in America. They wonder whether or not there is a gratitude level that's significant enough in Iraq.
PELLEY: Americans wonder whether . . .
THE PRESIDENT: Yeah, they wonder whether or not the Iraqis are willing to do hard work necessary to get this democratic experience to survive. That's what they want.
PELLEY: You are gambling a lot, Mr. President, on the [Iraqi] Prime Minister [Nouri] al-Maliki. Why do you think that's a gamble worth making?
THE PRESIDENT: Scott, I'm actually counting on the unity government of which Maliki is the head. Prime Minister Maliki and others who I talk to in the government understand that our patience is not unlimited.
PELLEY: Let's be blunt. You're a plain speaker. Let's be blunt. What have you told Maliki he has to do?
THE PRESIDENT: I told him it's time to get going. He's got to provide the troops he said he would provide inside Baghdad and we'll help him, and that's why I've called for more troops. I said: when our guys get moving along with yours, you can't get on the phone for political reasons and stop the troops from going after killers. What they'd do is, we're going after this killer, and they say, well he's, for political reasons, don't. Killer is a killer. And we expect them to go after both Shia and Sunni murderers in order to provide the security for Baghdad. We expect them to have local elections. And I expect them to do the political work necessary to help reconcile this country. But the problem is, is that the sectarian violence in Baghdad started getting out of control so they fell behind the power curve, and we need to help them get their forces in place, embed with their forces, go alongside their forces and get control of the security situation in Baghdad. And that's why I have problems with these plans to say, well, get out of Baghdad. You know, we've got people in Congress, good people, saying need to withdraw. Now's not the time to withdraw. Now's the time to help them get a hold of the situation.
PELLEY: Is Muqtada al-Sadr an enemy of the United States?
THE PRESIDENT: Anybody who murders innocent people or frustrating the ambitions of the Iraqi people and the United States.
PELLEY: I was on the battlefield in Najaf when al-Sadr's people killed your United States Marines.
THE PRESIDENT: Right. And we killed them, as you recall.
PELLEY: Is Muqtada al-Sadr an enemy of the United States?
THE PRESIDENT: If he is ordering his people to kill Americans, he is.
PELLEY: Without al-Sadr, there's no Maliki government.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, Mr. Maliki has said publicly that militia, including Jaysh al-Mahdi, will either put down their arms or will be dealt with by Iraqi and US forces. And we're gonna hold them to it.
PELLEY: You don't fear that al-Sadr's actually running the show?
THE PRESIDENT: He may wanna be but, no, I don't think he is.
PELLEY: Did you see the video of Saddam Hussein's . . .
THE PRESIDENT: I saw some of it.
PELLEY: . . . execution?
THE PRESIDENT: Yeah.
PELLEY: What did you think when you saw that?
THE PRESIDENT: I thought it was discouraging. You know, obviously could have handled this thing a lot better. And I knew it'd be, you know, one of those incidents where it would call into doubt . . . it would create further skepticism. You know, it's important that-- that chapter of Iraqi history be closed. They could have handled it a lot better.
PELLEY: I wonder if there was also some sense of satisfaction. You've had this guy in your sights for a long time.
THE PRESIDENT: Not really. Not really. I was satisfied when we captured him. I'm just not . . .revenge isn't necessarily something that causes me to react. In other words, I'm not a revengeful person. I'm glad he received the justice that was due.
PELLEY: I'm curious. How did you see the video?
THE PRESIDENT: Internet.
PELLEY: You called it up on the internet and watched it?
THE PRESIDENT: Somebody showed me parts of it. Yeah. I didn't wanna watch the whole thing.
PELLEY: Well, you keep saying "parts of it." What do you mean you didn't wanna watch the whole thing?
THE PRESIDENT: I wasn't sure what to anticipate beyond the yelling and stuff like that. And I didn't . . .
PELLEY: You didn't wanna see him go through the trapdoor.
THE PRESIDENT: Yeah. Yes. I didn't.
PELLEY: Do you believe that the House has the constitutional authority to prevent you from the troop build-up? Can they stop you?
THE PRESIDENT: By not funding the troops I suspect is what you're referring to.
PELLEY: That would be one . . .
THE PRESIDENT: I assume that's one of their options. I will fight that, of course. 'Cause I think when you got a soldier in harm's way, they deserve a full support. I can understand why somebody doesn't agree with my plan, and there's gonna be plenty of opinions I'm sure about that in Congress, but when our troops are there, they need to be supported.
PELLEY: The Democrat leadership says, "We wanna support the troops who are on the ground. We just wanna redline the extra 20,000."
THE PRESIDENT: Yeah. I will resist that. That would mean that they're not willing to support a plan that I believe will work and solve the situation. Listen, we've got people criticizing this plan before it's had a chance to work. And I, therefore, think they have an extra responsibility to show us a plan that will work. In other words, they're saying, "We're not even gonna fund this thing." And they're not gonna give it a chance.
PELLEY: There's no Democrat plan.
THE PRESIDENT: It doesn't look like it to me. And maybe there will be one. Now, I've listened to a lot of good folks who are Democrats who have expressed their opinions. They're just as patriotic as I am. And the interesting is, Scott, a lot of people are saying, "Well, we can't afford to fail." In other words, people understand the consequences of failure. But what's deafening is those who say "we can't afford to fail and here's the plan that will cause us not to fail." Frankly, that's not their responsibility. It's my responsibility to put forward the plan that I think will succeed. I believe if they start trying to cut off funds, they better explain to the American people and the soldiers why their plan will succeed.
PELLEY: Do you believe as commander-in-chief you have the authority to put the troops in there no matter what the Congress wants to do?
THE PRESIDENT: In this situation, I do, yeah. Now, I fully understand they could try to stop me from doing it. But I made my decision, and we're going forward.
PELLEY: You know better than I do that many Americans feel that your administration has not been straight with the country, has not been honest. To those people you say what?
THE PRESIDENT: On what issue?
PELLEY: Well, sir . . .
THE PRESIDENT: Like the weapons of mass destruction?
PELLEY: No weapons of mass destruction.
THE PRESIDENT: Yeah.
PELLEY: No credible connection between 9/11 and Iraq.
THE PRESIDENT: Yeah.
PELLEY: The Office of Management and Budget said this war would cost somewhere between $50 billion and $60 billion and now we're over 400.
THE PRESIDENT: I gotcha. I gotcha. I gotcha.
PELLEY: The perception, sir, more than any one of those points, is that the administration has not been straight with . . .
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I strongly disagree with that, of course. There were a lot of people, both Republicans and Democrats, who felt there were weapons of mass destruction. Many of the leaders in the Congress spoke strongly about the fact that Saddam Hussein had weapons prior to my arrival in Washington, DC. And we're all looking at the same intelligence. So I strongly reject that this administration hasn't been straight with the American people. The minute we found out they didn't have weapons of mass destruction, I was the first to say so. Scott, all I can do is just tell the truth, tell people exactly what's on my mind, which is what I do.
PELLEY: You seem to be saying that you may have been wrong but you weren't dishonest.
THE PRESIDENT: Oh, absolutely. Everybody was wrong on weapons of mass destruction. I would ask people to go back and look at the comments of many of the Democrat leadership prior to my arrival in Washington, DC, people who'd looked at the same intelligence I looked at. I'd look at the people's comments when the run-up to the war. They had looked at the same intelligence I had looked at. It was pretty well universally thought he had weapons. And there was an intelligence failure, which we're trying to address. But I was as surprised as anybody he didn't have them.
PELLEY: When was it that you first found out or it dawned on you that, indeed, there were no weapons of mass destruction? And I wonder, did you think, "What have I done?"
THE PRESIDENT: I wondered what went wrong, because you can't conduct this war on terror unless you've got good intelligence. And so the first thing I did was I put a commission together to take a good, hard look at what did go
PELLEY: You had to be angry as hell.
THE PRESIDENT: Yeah, I wasn't happy. I don't think there was exact moment. I mean, I think when we got in there, people anticipated that we would find the weapons of mass destruction. The different reports, the different investigations, you know, those guys that went over there on behalf of the agency, they came back and made their reports pretty well, convinced me that the intelligence was wrong.
PELLEY: What should the American people look for in this war plan? When will they know whether it's working or not?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I'll know whether or not the Iraqis will do what they said they'd do here pretty quick. In other words, they said they'll commit some troops into Baghdad, more troops into Baghdad. We'll know pretty soon.
One of the interesting things is he said he would name a general to be the military governor or military commander of Baghdad. And he's done that. He, Maliki, has done that. We'll know whether or not the rules of engagement will be altered for political purposes. And so we'll have a pretty good indication pretty early.
PELLEY: We'll know in weeks?
THE PRESIDENT: I'd say months as to whether or not the will is there and whether or not they're putting in the capability they said they would do.
PELLEY: Your military officers say that Iranian agents today are killing American troops on the ground in Iraq. Is that an act of war on the part of Iran against the United States?
THE PRESIDENT: I think what they're saying is, is that the Iranians are providing equipment that is killing Americans. Either way it's unacceptable. As I said in my speech the other night, we will take measures to protect ourselves. We will interrupt supplies. We will find people that if they are, in fact, in Iraq killing Americans, they'll be brought to justice.
PELLEY: Is that an act of war against the United States on the part of the Iranian government?
THE PRESIDENT: I'm not a lawyer. So act of war is kind of a . . . I'm not exactly sure how you define that. Let me just say it's unacceptable.
PELLEY: What would you say right now in this interview to the Iranian president about the meddling in Iraq?
THE PRESIDENT: I'd say, first of all, to him, "You've made terrible choices for your people. You've isolated your nation. You've taken a nation of proud and honorable people, and you've made your country the pariah of the world. You've threatened countries with nuclear weapons. You've said you want a nuclear weapon. You've defied international accord. And you're slowly but surely isolating yourself." And secondly, that "it's in your interest to have a unified nation on your border. It's in your interest that there be a flourishing democracy." And thirdly, you know, "If we catch your people inside the country harming US citizens or Iraqi citizens, you know, we will deal with them."
PELLEY: I wonder if you feel like you've been ill-served by your Cabinet members, [Defense Secretary] Mr. [Donald] Rumsfeld, perhaps even Vice-President [Dick] Cheney. Wrong on WMD. Wrong on the connection between 9/11 and Iraq. And now you're in a fix. And I wonder if you look back and wonder who let you down.
THE PRESIDENT: Let me correct something on this connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. That was never the case in this administration. You know, I always said we never had evidence that Saddam Hussein ordered the attacks on 9/11. And so I don't know who continues to say that.
PELLEY: The vice-president suggested there was a connection, not necessarily 9/11, but certainly to al-Qaeda.
THE PRESIDENT: [Al Qaeda's Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi was in Iraq. But rather than debating the past, let me get back to the question.
PELLEY: Yes, sir.
THE PRESIDENT: The vice-president's been a great vice-president. And Don Rumsfeld did a really find job as Secretary of Defense. Quite the contrary, I feel like this country is blessed to have those kind of people serving.
PELLEY: Vice-president involved in these war plans?
THE PRESIDENT: Absolutely.
PELLEY: As much as he ever has been?
THE PRESIDENT: Oh, yeah, sure. I mean, I rely upon my National Security Council, and I expect everybody to make contributions, and I expect to hear everybody's opinions. And when I make up my mind, I expect them to salute and say, "Yes, sir, Mr. President."
PELLEY: Final question. How can you escalate the war when so many people in this country seem to be against it?
THE PRESIDENT: I'm gonna have to keep explaining. That's why I'm doing this interview with you. And I gotta keep explaining, one, the consequences of failure, that failure in Iraq will affect the security of the people here in the United States. And secondly, that we can succeed. And the best way to succeed at this point in time is to increase troops in Baghdad to stop the sectarian violence so that a political process, an economic process . . . so that the will of the 12 million people that voted in Iraq can be realized. Scott, sometimes you're the commander-in-chief, sometimes you're the educator-in-chief, and a lot of times you're both when it comes to war. And I've just gotta continue to take my message to the people and to explain to them this is a well-thought-out decision that is in the interests of the today's generation of Americans and tomorrow's generation of Americans. What happens in the Middle East matters to the security of this country. We learned that lesson on September the 11th. The stakes are very high, and we have got not only to stay engaged diplomatically, but we've gotta succeed in chasing down terrorists as well as helping young democracies survive. What's interesting is that you got a young democracy in Lebanon being challenged. I believe there ought to be a Palestinian democracy. It is being challenged by militants. A young democracy in Afghanistan and a young democracy in Iraq, all being challenged by radicals and extremists. And they may seem like disparate elements, but they share the same vision and same philosophy, and they have the same desire to inflict damage, particularly on the United States of America. I think it's interesting that in the midst of all the troubles, that there are people who are actively fighting a form of government which is beneficial to people, and that's democracy. We are in an ideological struggle, and it's a really classic ideological struggle, and Iraq is part of it. And it's very important for me to not only continue to explain why I believe we can be successful in Iraq but explain to people that what happens in the Middle East will affect the future of this country.
George W. Bush, Interview with Scott Pelley of CBS News' "60 Minutes" at Camp David, Maryland Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/278138