President George W. Bush, on the election campaign trail, insists that the United States must continue to push hard in the War on Terror. He says that, among other issues, this election will determine how America responds to the ongoing danger of terrorism.
"Iraq is a central commitment in the War on Terror, which requires all our resources, all our strengths," he said in Mason City, Iowa last week. "If America shows uncertainty or weakness in this decade, the world will drift toward tragedy . . . . We're staying on the offensive, we'll strike the terrorists abroad, we'll spread freedom and we will prevail . . . . as we did in Afghanistan . . . ."
Earlier, in an Oval Office interview, the President brushed off sharp criticism of his handling of terrorism, of Iraq and of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He said that he is determined to carry out his vision for the region.
President George W. Bush, during an exclusive interview in the Oval Office with our White House correspondent Trude B. Feldman, answers questions on Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his vision for a two-state solution. He also touched on anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, his road map peace plan, Saudi Arabia and oil, and Egypt and Syria.
White House photographer Paul Morse
With the satisfaction that Saddam Hussein is heading for trial, the President said ° with some insistency ° that events are moving in the direction he had originally chartered.
He was both philosophical and confident as he answered questions about the powder keg that is today's Middle East. "My vision," he told me, "is for a free and democratic Iraq, and a free and peaceful and democratic Palestinian state serving as catalysts for change in a region that has harbored resentment. The Middle East has also served as a place to recruit terrorists who have a desire to kill Americans, to drive us out of parts of the world so they can then impose their will."
But he said that there had been many difficulties in carrying out the policy in Iraq. At the outset of the war, his administration had stated that the road to Jerusalem led through Baghdad. Since then, progress towards a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the restoration of peace and order in Iraq have proven tough challenges for President Bush.
He said, however, that he has no regrets over America's role in Iraq, or his own leadership of it; and that he is not troubled by the severe criticism he is receiving.
How concerned is the President, particularly now, only days before the presidential elections, that he is so strongly opposed in his Iraq and other Mideast policies?
"I think the job of a leader is to have a vision, a vision that is hopeful and optimistic and based upon certain principles, like the rule of law and fair and equal treatment for all," he said, "and I will not abandon those and other principles no matter how strong the pressure. America needs to lead. And sometimes people don't appreciate leadership. But they will appreciate a more peaceful world as a result of America's willingness to take on Al Qaida, America's willingness to promote free societies in Iraq and in the Palestinian territories.
"I am a person who looks long-term, and I recognize the path we need to take. There will be moments when people are unhappy and disgruntled with some decision-making. Nonetheless, what matters most is to reach the destination. And my job as President is to see clearly where I want to go and be steadfast in my resolve to realize that vision."
America needs to lead. And sometimes people don't appreciate leadership. But they will appreciate a more peaceful world as a result of America's willingness to take on Al Qaida, America's willingness to promote free societies in Iraq and in the Palestinian territories.
With the continuing violence in Iraq and the lack of a resolution of issues separating Israelis and Palestinians, the President, nevertheless, recognizes that his policies have proven harder to implement than had been anticipated.
"Other nations are affected by the unrest," he said. "But what is causing violence in Iraq is the fact that Iraq is heading toward freedom. This is a mighty struggle, and I see clearly what America must do. As a leader, I'm willing to take a strong position and to call upon others to join us. Sometimes, people don't like that, nor do they like to do the hard work. But America must do the hard workĐlike we have done in the past.
"I have reminded people that after World War II we could have allowed Germany to stay in rubble. We could have said, 'Oh, this work is too hard.' Instead, we stayed the course and Europe is now free, whole and at peaceĐwhich is in America's security interest."
He continued: "After World War II in Japan, we could have said, 'Oh, the Japanese cannot be a free democratic society'. Fortunately, we had visionaries who were in office and people did not listen to the polls or the focus groups. They stood strong in their beliefs in certain value systems. Thankfully, they did, because now, Japan is a democratic country and its prime minister is close to me and I am close to him, and we are working together to make sure that the Far East is as peaceful as it can be."
During the 55-minute one-on-one interview, President Bush was expansive and showed himself in command as he discussed the subjects at hand: Iraq; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his vision for a two-state solution; anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism; his road map peace plan; Saudi Arabia and oil; Egypt and Syria and his views on leadership.
He said that he is aware of the criticism that his Mideast policies are receiving worldwide. Yet he maintains that he wants to be the American president who will bring the Israelis and Palestinians together to resolve their differences. He does not believe in imposing a settlement on them.
Asked whether he believes that every American president has an obligation to defend the State of Israel, he replied: "Yes I do, because Israel is a long-time friend and Israel is a democracy. And I think America has a responsibility to defend our friend."
President George W. Bush, on Sept. 20, 2003, at the close of his Oval Office meeting with the prime minister of Kuwait, left, converses with White House correspondent Trude B. Feldman, one of the "pool" observers.
White House photographer Paul Morse
And what does he say to those who accuse him of bias towards Israel?
"I say to those critics that I am the first American president to have stood up in front of the world ° at the United Nations ° and call for the creation of a Palestinian state that would live in peace, side by side with Israel." (In November, 2001, at the UN, the President stated: ". . . . We're working toward a day when two states ° Israel and Palestine ° live peacefully within secure and recognized borders as called for by the Security Council Resolutions. We will do all in our power to bring both parties back into negotiations. But peace will only come when all have sworn off ° forever ° violence and terror.")
Does the president still foresee a two-state solution by the end of year 2005?
"I see the emergence of a Palestinian state," he responded. "Obviously when I spoke about 2005, I was hoping that the target date would be met. But we hit a setback with all the violence and with the replacement of Abu Mazen (former Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority).
So it is possible we won't make the deadline. But in order for a Palestinian state to be created, there must be Palestinian leaders who are reform-minded and dedicated to their people and will step up and lead."
President Bush went on to say that he does not deal with Yasser Arafat (President of the Palestinian Authority) because he (Bush) believes that Mr. Arafat "had let down" former President Bill Clinton after their numerous, lengthy meetings in an attempt to reach a solution to the festering problem.
"I think Yasser Arafat has not helped to lead his people towards getting a Palestinian state," the President said. "They need to have their own state and they need the type of leadership that is committed to freedom and democracy; and leadership which would totally reject any kind of terrorism."
I am the first American president to have stood up in front of the world ° at the United Nations ° and call for the creation of a Palestinian state that would live in peace, side by side with Israel.
The President believes that with the emergence of an independent Palestinian state, the West Bank and Gaza will be governed by Palestinians, and that the final border is up for negotiations between the two parties.
He does not agree with his critics that the friction between Israel and her neighbors is connected to, or intertwined with, his policy in Iraq. "The problem with the Palestinians is territory," he said. "They don't have a state to call their own and they don't have leadership. I think that those Palestinians who want a change ought to ask for help to build the security apparatus.
"I also think that the major roadblock to moving forward is for leadership to emerge and say, 'Help us develop a state, and we will fight terror and will respond to the desires of the Palestinian people'. And, I'm not so sure that lack of leadership at this point in history has anything to do with the situation in Iraq."
Concerning reports that the Quartet (The U.S., the United Nations, The European Union, Russia) may be willing to help to police the Gaza Strip if Israel withdraws from the territory, the President said: "I believe there is a better way to achieve that objective and that is to work to stand up a Palestinian security force which has its peoples' interest in mind, and for Israel and Egypt to continue a dialogue, to figure out the best way to make sure that everybody's interest is represented, particularly when it comes to security."
The President added that some of his frustration was recently alleviated when the Quartet stated that there is a possibility that the World Bank may also be involved with the economic development of Gaza. He said, however, that reform-minded Palestinians must agree to accept the institutions necessary for a state to emerge.
He also said that Egypt has an important role in making certain that there is security in Gaza as the civil structure is put in place. He believes that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, with whom he often speaks and has a candid relationship, has been a leader in bringing security to the region.
And in condemning the terrorist attacks on Oct. 7 in the resorts of Egypt, he said: "By targeting Muslims, Jews, Egyptians, Israelis, women and children, the terrorists have shown their total contempt for all human life and values. These acts show, yet again, why the civilized world must stand together against the forces of terror and defeat this evil."
The President was asked whether recent developments have eclipsed the relevance of the road map peace plan he announced on April 30, 2003.
President George W. Bush, during a 55-minute one-on-one interview in the Oval Office with White House correspondent Trude B. Feldman, was expansive with his views on leadership and showed himself in command as he fielded questions.
White House photographer Paul Morse
"No," he asserted. "The roadmap is an important part of the process. It is a way forward and a way to engage the international community. It is an important part of making sure that a fledgling state of Palestine receives the support it needs to grow. That would be economic and political support, and most important, at this stage in history, support to build security forces necessary to fight off the terrorists who want to stop progress.
"I think that when a peaceful and independent Palestinian state emerges, it will help to do two things. It will help to quiet the streets. But more importantly, it will show that democracy and freedom are possible in the broader Middle East."
He added: "I also believe that Iraq and a Palestinian state will serve as catalysts for change. And, by the way, the Iraqi state will emerge. The challenge there is to fight off Al Qaida-associated foreign fighters like Abu musab al-Zarqawi and disgruntled elements, and not allow them to stop progress. As Iraq heads toward a democracy, they are going to try to prevent that from happening because they cannot stand the thought of a free society in Iraq."
Does the President believe that the global rise in anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism stem from the March 2003 invasion of Iraq?
"As the leader of the free world, I will, and the United States will, continue to speak out against the anti-Semitic trends we clearly see in various parts of the world," he responded. "You know, in April I sent an excellent delegation, led by Secretary (of State) Colin Powell, to Berlin for the Conference on anti-Semitism (sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). So we are calling attention to the problem."
Concurrent with the Palestinian uprising that began in September, 2000, the global scourge of anti-Semitism has soared. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan recently joined the President, Secretary Powell and the European Union in their efforts to resist it by convening a first-ever UN Conference on anti-Semitism.
"Let us acknowledge that the UN's record on anti-Semitism has, at times, fallen short of our ideals," Kofi Annan told the conference. "The fight against anti-Semitism must be our fight, and Jews everywhere must feel that the United Nations is their home."
Kofi Annan called for a General Assembly resolution blasting anti-Semitism and for UN human rights advisers to "actively explore ways of combating anti-Semitism more effectively in the future."
During our interview, the President also spoke about the 30th annual Group of Eight summit which he hosted in June at Sea Island, Georgia. There, the leaders of the world's major industrial democracies endorsed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, and called for progress on Middle East peace.
By the way, the Iraqi state will emerge. The challenge there is to fight off Al Qaida-associated foreign fighters like Abu musab al-Zarqawi and disgruntled elements, and not allow them to stop progress. As Iraq heads toward a democracy, they are going to try to prevent that from happening because they cannot stand the thought of a free society in Iraq.
In an effort to advance Mr. Bush's initiative of promoting democracy in the region, this year's summit included leaders from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Yemen and Turkey.
"These leaders were also interested in discussing a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," the President recalled. "They were concerned as to how best we can work together to achieve that goal. And they were appreciative of the fact that we laid out a plan for a two-state solution. It is important for us to work together to help the Palestinians put institutions in place that will provide a stable form of government, one where the institutions are bigger than the people who occupy the offices.
"The support of those leaders for reform in the region will go hand in hand with our support for a just, comprehensive and lasting settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict. When there is a reform-minded modern leadership structure in place, there will be ample help for the Palestinians in the form of education and health grants and grants to help start an economy. That is all in Israel's interest. It is in Israel's interest that there be a peaceful state on her border and where the Palestinians have some hope. They don't have any hope now. The reason, in my judgment, is that they have not had proper leadership to help them."
How can President Bush help them realize that hope?
"Their hope is to have a state of their own where they can fly their own flag," he stated. "But they must come up with the necessary leadership. I cannot do that for them."
Pointing to the Rose Garden from the Oval Office, the President referred to his June 24, 2002 speech in which he said the United States would support a Palestinian state once the Palestinian people have new leaders, new institutions and new security arrangements with their neighbors.
"Out there," he told me, "I gave a well-thought-out speech with an important strategy, and I am going to see it through."
Regarding terrorism against American oil workers in Saudi Arabia, the President said he is very concerned about the attacks. "I'm deeply angered to see Americans or anyone else killed," he said. "I think the work force has become diversified over time. The Saudis have been educating a lot of professionals, other than American workers, to run their facilities. I believe the biggest challenge is to continue to work with Saudi Arabia to fight off Al Qaida, which has made Saudi Arabia a front in this war. And that's why cooperation on all fronts with the Saudi government is necessary to help fight those people. We'd rather fight those killers in foreign lands than fight them here at home."
Turning to Syria, which has been accused of harboring terrorists, the President said he imposed sanctions on May 11 because its leadership refuses to join in the fight against terror.
Asked whether he thought the sanctions would create other problems in the region, he said that people need to understand what commitment means. "There is no need to harbor people who express hatred," he said, "and if others would join together to rout out terrorist organizations that kill innocent people, we would have a better world. Civilized people ought not allow the killing. Some kill even for the sake of trying to create fear and shake our collective will."
I will continue to lead as long as I am sitting in this office because I believe in my leadership. I believe in what we are doing and I believe in what America stands for. We stand for treating all peoples with respect and human dignity. And we recognize the differences and honor those differences.
He maintains that, in Iraq, there are many peaceful citizens who need protection and the United States wants to help them to become self-governing. "This is a war against evil people who want to kill innocent people," he said, citing specifically the Egyptian radicals who, in October 1981, assassinated President Anwar Sadat in Cairo. ". . .In Sadat, they killed a great man. . ."
President Bush acknowledged that the United States is having a difficult time now in the Middle East because people do not understand his intentions. "Times are tough for America and the Mideast today," he noted. "There are some who believe that my administration and the American people have bad motives. But the opposite is true. My intention is to work for free and peaceful societies while protecting security in the United States. Americans want peace and prosperity in that region now.
"You know, in my position, in this office, it is essential that I stay focused on a better tomorrow. Sure, I listen to critics, but I do not allow criticism to drive the policy here in the Oval Office. Part of this job is to take the heat and I am totally prepared to take the heat."
He went on to say that he understands that not everybody will agree with everything he does. "But," he added, "I will continue to lead as long as I am sitting in this office because I believe in my leadership. I believe in what we are doing and I believe in what America stands for. We stand for treating all peoples with respect and human dignity. And we recognize the differences and honor those differences."
The President concluded: "Let me tell you something about me. I answer my critics by saying that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein. We have been in Iraq for some 19 months, and a free Iraq is now emerging and society will be better off. But, you know, the true history of my administration will be written 50 years from now, and you and I will not be around to see it╔."
Trude B. Feldman is a veteran White House and State Department correspondent. On Middle East issues, she has interviewed every American President since Lyndon B. Johnson (including Harry S Truman, in l972) and every Israeli prime minister since its first. She has also interviewed Egyptian President Sadat, Jordan's King Hussein, Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Sha-ath, and other Arab and Israeli officials.