Before he headed to the Republican National Convention in New York City, President George W. Bush sat down for an extensive interview with “Today” host Matt Lauer. In this second excerpt from their talk, President Bush addressed critical issues of foreign policy, including the situation in Iraq, when U.S. troops would come home and the nuclear threat posed by Iran. He talked about the costs of the Iraq war — both financial and human. With nearly 1,000 troops killed and more than 6,000 wounded, did he expect the costs to be so high?
President Bush: You know, Matt, it — I knew war was a — ugly — would have ugly consequences. And that's why war was the last resort for me. That's why I tried diplomacy first to deal with Saddam Hussein. And it's tough. It's hard. And it's really hard on the loved ones. I spend a lot of time consoling best as I possibly can loved ones. And so it's been an amazing experience talking to moms and dads and the wives and husbands of those who've lost their life. And it's hard.
Matt Lauer: People around the country who have loved ones in the service, they want to ask you a simple question. They want to say, "When are they coming home?"
President Bush: It's when they finish the job. And — it's a — and the job is a free and democratic Afghanistan and Iraq. We're allies in the war on terror. And we're getting closer. And we're not going to stay a day longer than necessary. We're more secure when those countries become free. This is a historic time — that we have an opportunity to change the world. Liberty transforms societies. And we're watching that happen right now.
Lauer: Are we safer because Saddam is no longer in power?
President Bush: I think we are. Yeah.
Lauer: Explain that to me. How?
President Bush: Well, because Saddam Hussein had terrorist ties. And he had the capacity at the minimum to make weapons of mass destruction. And he could've passed that capacity onto enemies.
Lauer: What about cost? When we first talked about going to war, a $60 billion price tag was attached. We've spent $150 billion.
President Bush: That's just an interesting question. I mean what is the cost of the attacks on the World Trade Center? What's the cost of defending the homeland? And I said I would pay what is necessary to defend our country. And I think the Congress agreed, because we had strong bipartisan support in funding the cost of this war. These were both Republicans and Democrats stepping up and saying, "We will spend what is necessary to defend us."
Lauer: I've heard people say at gatherings, dinner parties, whatever — they say, "You know what I'm missing? I'm missing that massive demonstration by the Iraqi people in Baghdad. I want to see a million people on the streets of Baghdad protesting against the insurgents saying, 'You're messing up our future.' "
President Bush: Yeah.
Lauer: "And supporting the Americans." And some Americans are saying, "If I'm going to pay for this, and my son or daughter or husband or wife is going to go there to fight for this, why aren't they willing to stand up in the streets and say this is what they want?"
President Bush: There's a certain expectation that we're not going to hold the course. And that — not willing to risk the freedom —
Lauer: Wouldn't that protest make us hold the course?
President Bush: No. Let me finish for a minute. I'm — you know you asked me about the Iraqi people? And I said there's a certain expectation that we're not going to be true to our word? And therefore some are not willing to take a risk until they're certain a free society's coming, and the return of the tyrants have been denied forever. You know it's a very interesting question you asked. We're doing that in Afghanistan. And for about the first 15 months or 17 months in Afghanistan, there was uncertainty about whether or not a democracy would emerge. Today, over 10 million people have registered to vote. That's not exactly a million people coming out in the street, but 10 million people said, "We want to be free." And now Iraq is headed toward elections. And we'll see this political process unfold. And I think — I suspect you're going to find the Iraqi citizens are thrilled with the idea of being able to determine their own fate at the ballot box.
Lauer and the president continued their conversation at a farm in Columbus Grove, Ohio, where the “Today” host asked him about the comments of retiring congressman Doug Bereuter, a Republican from Nebraska who strongly supported the president's decision to go to war in Iraq but who has now taken a dramatic stand against it.
Lauer: He's written a letter to his constituents and he's basically said, “I'm leaving. I want to tell you what I feel now.” And he said this:
Based on intelligence relating to Saddam and weapons of mass destruction, quote, "I believe that launching a preemptive military action was not justified. As a result of that work, our country's reputation around the world has never been lower and our alliances are weakened."
President Bush: Yeah. I strongly disagree. I mean, we’ve got 30 nations involved in Iraq. And it's not easy work. But it's necessary work. And, you know, as I tell the crowds, we all thought we were going to find stockpiles. But I would have made the same decision knowing what I know today. Saddam had the capability of making weapons, and he could have passed that capability on to an enemy. And so —
Lauer: Does it bother you that the guy is the vice chair of the House Intelligence Committee?
President Bush: No, it doesn't bother me at all that he made a statement like that. I can understand people not agreeing. I just disagree — strongly disagree. The world is better off with Saddam Hussein in a prison cell.
Lauer: I want to ask you about Iran.
President Bush: Sure.
Lauer: They have basically said recently that they can produce a nuclear bomb in about three years. They're saying this publicly. We know from the 9/11 Commission report that they allowed certain Al-Qaeda operatives to pass through their country prior to the 9/11 attacks, including some of the hijackers, without having their passports stamped. We know they funded international terror organizations including Hezbollah.
President Bush: Hezbollah, right.
Lauer: And they've repressed their own people. So if the policy of preemption is to take out a country before they create an imminent threat to us, if they're saying these things and doing these things, why aren't they a great candidate for that?
President Bush: Matt, the military option is always the last option of a president, not the first. And we had tried diplomacy with Saddam Hussein. Like over a decade's worth of diplomacy. I mean, I don't know how many resolutions were passed. But 17 resolutions, or some number of resolutions, that he just totally ignored. And we tried again to give him a chance to disarm peacefully. In Iran, we're just starting a diplomatic effort.
Lauer: Do you think that—
President Bush: In Iran—
Lauer: — diplomacy can work there where it didn't work in Iraq?
President Bush: Absolutely. I hope so. I hope so. I hope it works everywhere. I mean, the idea of committing troops into combat, you know, is a tough decision. You asked me, you know, basically what it's like to be the commander in chief. And know that people have died because of a decision I made. It's hard. It's hard for the loved ones. It's hard for the country. And so, therefore, the use of military is the last choice. And so now we've got a focused effort on Iran, trying to convince them to get rid of their nuclear ambitions.
Lauer: Under what circumstances could you envision having to conduct a military operation against them?
President Bush: Well, we hope we can solve it diplomatically. Let me put it to you that way: We've sanctioned them. I mean we — we've had a long policy of sanctions. But we can't sanction them anymore. But we can work with others to continue sending a message. We expect them to give up their nuclear ambitions.
Lauer: They were part of your axis of evil. Are they evil? Is Iran evil?
President Bush: Well, I think a country that suppresses their people is not good. And they do. They're not listening to the demands of their people. And we're deeply concerned about a country, as you said, that, you know, is developing a nuclear weapon and that has supported terrorist groups. And we made our position very clear. And are working with others. This — that's what we always must do — is always try to work with others to solve a problem before it becomes acute.
Lauer: You said four years ago you wanted to be a uniter, not a divider. By your own admission, we're still a very divided country. So what can you say on Thursday night in your speech, and what can you do over these next four years, that can help bring this country together?
President Bush: Yeah. There's no question there is — you know that going to war is — is the visage. I mean, we've done some hard things. I've always said my job is to confront problems. Not to pass them on. Best thing I know to do is to continue to explain to people why the decisions I have made are going to make the world a more peaceful place.