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George W. Bush Administration: Interview on Situation in the Middle East

(January 3, 2008)

The following is a transcript of an interview with President George W. Bush conducted at the Oval Office on January 3, 2008 at 10:51 A.M. EST:

THE PRESIDENT: First of all, let me talk about the Middle East trip. You know, kind of one of the interesting myths is I haven't been to the Middle East -- I have been to a lot of the Middle East. I've been to Iraq a couple of times, I've been to Qatar and Aqaba, Jordan and Sharm el-Sheikh. So I'm looking forward to going back.

The purpose is threefold. One is to advance the progress made in Annapolis, to help the parties stay focused on the big opportunity, which is the definition of a Palestinian state, the implementation of which will be subject to the road map. Secondly is to remind our Arab friends and allies, one, they can count on U.S. -- the United States to provide security in the region; but also remind them that they have a great opportunity to help advance the process and to recognize the important role that Israel will play in helping to establish a Palestinian state, that they can be constructive in the process.

And so I'm really looking forward to it. It's going to be a pretty extensive trip, but one that is going to I think be good for the country.

Okay? You didn't even listen to what I said. It was, like, a brilliant introduction. (Laughter.)

Q We were listening. We're just plotting.

THE PRESIDENT: I see, you've got your -- you mean I answered one of your questions already? Let me see if I can answer some more -- (laughter.)

Q No. (Laughter.)

Q Just before we turn to the Middle East, I'd just like to ask you about Kenya and what you think the United States can do to help stem the violence, which seems to bear all the hallmarks of another round of genocide?

THE PRESIDENT: First thing is Secretary Rice has been on the phone with the leaders, urging them to come to a political accommodation that will help deal with the tensions that now exist in the country. It's very important for the people of Kenya to not resort to violence. It is essential for them to understand that the international community and the United States will help their country, but it's going to be hard to help a country if it gets wracked by violence.

But the truth of the matter is, it's going to be up to these two leaders to help deal with the nearly evenly divided electorate and convince the country that they are capable of working together to advance reconciliation. So Condi has been on the phone quite frequently with not only the two leaders, themselves, but also other African leaders that could have some influence in the region. We're hopeful that the leaders will show up and do what leaders do, which is to make hard decisions.

Q Do you think they should share power?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I believe that they have an opportunity to come together in some kind of arrangement that will help heal the wounds of a closely divided election.

Q Mr. President, turning back to the Middle East, what would you consider a successful Mideast trip, with regards to the Israel and Palestinian peace process? And are there any breakthroughs likely to come from your efforts?

THE PRESIDENT: An important part of the trip is to remind the Palestinians and the Israelis that in order for there to be peace that there has to be a vision of what a state will look like. So part of the purpose of the trip is to explain the rationale behind the Annapolis meeting. And the rationale behind the necessity for the leaders to come together and lay out what a state will look like, and assure people of a couple of things:

One, that the state will not become a terrorist safe haven, but in fact a state based upon the institutions of democracy; that there is a road map process that will -- the state will be implemented, I say, subject to the road map. So the vision is set out, something around which people can rally -- in other words people in the Palestinian Territories can say, I'm for this, this is what I want to have happen, and therefore we reject those who espouse terror.

Secondly, the state won't come into being unless the conditions in the road map are met, and therefore, we have set up a road map implementation process. So in other words, there's a dual track that parallels the negotiations on what the state would look like; but actually there's a third track as well, which is helping the Palestinians develop the institutions necessary for the state to be a state that meets the needs of its people. I've been meeting with Tony Blair, for example, who is very much involved with that. As you know, Condi named Jim Jones. In other words, there's a series of steps we're taking -- General Dayton is helping the Palestinians develop a security force that will respond to President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad's directions in an orderly way to provide security for the people.

And so it's really to advance the process, is to give confidence to the people on both sides of the issue that the process will lead to peace, and is to remind the leaders that there are ways to -- they can easily stay mired in the issue of the moment, and that they have a responsibility, it seems to me, is to make sure that as they deal with problems, but to think about what a definition of a state will mean to their own security and for peace.

And this is going to take a while. This is an ongoing process. People have to gain confidence in what a two-state solution would mean. And a U.S. President can help provide that confidence that this is the right decision, and that there's going to be hard work to be done. And we will help. And as I say, we're helping on a variety of fronts.

The other thing that's important in the trip is to remind the Arab leaders that they, too, can have a constructive role. And to follow up on the success of Annapolis, which -- it was an amazing moment when the Israeli Prime Minister and the President of the Palestinian Authority gave a speech to a room that had high-ranking officials from most of the Arab world there. That in itself was a pretty significant breakthrough. It was part of the commitment of the region to support the vision.

And so a lot of it is to -- a lot of the trip is to make sure that the leaders feel -- gain the confidence necessary to do the hard work; it's to remind them about the importance of defining what the state would look like, and assuring the public on both sides of the issue that this is in their interests, and that the United States will be engaged and involved.

Q Will you hold three-way talks? And are you ready to push for specific deadlines, or concrete steps, such as stopping the Israeli settlement expansion?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, well, first of all, I will talk about Israeli settlement expansion, about how that is -- that can be an impediment to success. The unauthorized outposts, for example, need to be dismantled, like the Israelis said they would do. But a lot of these issues on the settlement issues will be discussed and dealt with at this -- the committee that we'll be chairing to deal with the implementation of the road map. That's all part of the road map. And so we have got a procedure in place that will help deal with these issues.

My recommendation, of course, will be, yes, they got to deal with those, and yes, it creates problems. But the leaders need to keep focused on the big issue, and the big issue is the definition of a state. And the reason why that's important is that moderate, peaceful people need something around which to rally.

Q So will there be three-way talks?

THE PRESIDENT: Oh, you mean three-way talks between me, Abbas and Olmert? I don't know. It's not on the calendar now, but there will definitely be substantial talks with the Israelis and the Palestinians. And there have been talks between me, bilateral talks, and there have been constructive talks with Olmert and Abbas. And I'm interested in hearing how those talks went.

Q And are you worried that the latest violence over there is going to undermine your efforts? 

THE PRESIDENT: Am I worried about violence undermining --

Q The latest violence over there --

THE PRESIDENT: I'm worried about violence everywhere in the world undermining the efforts of free societies to emerge. That's what we're watching. We're watching this great ideological conflict between people who use violence to stop the advance of freedom, whether it be in Pakistan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. In other words, people use violence to stop the emergence of a free society. That's the conflict we're in. And so I am always concerned about violence.

Q How do you respond to those who doubt your commitment to Middle East peacemaking? For the first seven years of your administration, you haven't wanted to take on the hands-on role that you're taking on now.

THE PRESIDENT: I would say that they have not followed my administration very closely. They haven't seen or listened or paid attention to the fact that not only have I been involved in the Middle Eastern peace process throughout my presidency, we have made great advancements in the vision of two states living side by side in peace. That's how I'd respond. I'd say, you don't know the facts.

Q How confident are you that you can get a deal by the end of 2008?

THE PRESIDENT: I feel good about it. I think it's going to be important for the President to understand -- any President to understand -- that his calendar may not be a comfortable calendar for the two parties that actually have to negotiate the deal. On the other hand, in this case, both leaders know me well, and both leaders understand this is a great opportunity to define a state. And the fact that I'll be leaving office 12 months from now serves as a backstop. So the job is really to -- is to convince them now is the time to make the hard decisions, and that the United States will help.

But I want to remind everybody that a truly lasting peace will occur when the leaders from both sides make that commitment. And so it's going to be up to them to make the deal. It's going to be up to me to help them. And when I say "me," it's just not me, there's a lot of other people in this administration helping as well.

Q Will it be part of -- will part of your trip be focused on containing -- looking to contain Iran's influence in the region, especially your trip to the other -- 

THE PRESIDENT: Absolutely. The Iranian issue is going to be predominant on a lot of people's minds. It will be -- the Israelis will want to talk about Iran. After all, the leader of Iran has announced intentions to destroy the country. Iran is -- a lot of people in the region are concerned about Lebanon. Iranian influence through Hezbollah has not been helpful in Lebanon, for that young democracy. There is deep concern in other countries in the region about Iran, and I will speak very clearly to them.

There are questions about the NIE, and how I interpret the NIE and what the NIE means. And I will clarify to them that the NIE means that Iran is still a danger. And I will tell them that the NIE said that, yes, they had a military sic program, which they suspended in 2003 -- but I will remind them that a country that can suspend a program can easily start a program.

And secondly, the key component of any nuclear program is the ability to enrich uranium, or at least a weapons program based upon uranium obviously requires the capacity to make -- learn how to enrich in order to make enough uranium to have a bomb. And yes, Iran claims that this is for civilian purposes, but what's to say they wouldn't transfer that knowledge from the civilian sector to the military sector and restart the program?

So I say that the report still shows Iran is a danger, and remind them that the report also says that international pressure caused them to suspend, and that we will continue to work actively to pressure the Iranians to come up with a different way forward. They can accept isolation and economic deprivation, or their people can realize a better life. And it's up to their leaders to make that decision.

Q Mr. President, I wanted to switch to Pakistan.

THE PRESIDENT: Sure. You know anything about it? (Laughter.)

Q What does the upheaval in Pakistan in the aftermath of Bhutto's assassination mean for the U.S. war against terrorism, and what do you think of Bhutto's --

THE PRESIDENT: Well, it should heighten our concerns and desires to continue to battle extremists. After all, this brave woman was killed by terrorists with a terrorist act. And it is yet another wake-up signal to the realities of the world in which we live. Now our concerns are heightened. We are very active in parts of Pakistan, from an intelligence perspective, trying to gain enough intelligence to understand the intentions of and the desires of those who would do harm to America. It also turns out that there are those very same type of actors who'd do harm to Pakistani citizens. And so we have a common interest to deal with these extremists. And in order to do that, it requires good intelligence cooperation, Pak military action on actionable intelligence.

It also requires the Paks to make sure that there is an alternative to the vision of the haters -- which is one based upon freedom and that, you know, these elections -- agreed to, by the way, by the major political parties -- need to go forward in a transparent way to earn the confidence of the people; that after the elections there's got be a government that comes together and helps unify this important country, particularly against the extremists who murder.

And there is no more vivid example of what these extremists want to do. They want to, in this case, derail democracy, create confusion and chaos, kill a brave woman in order to advance their agenda. And it's in the interests of the world to help Pakistan recover from this terrible incident and have a strong democracy. That's exactly what the position of the U.S. government is.

Q What do you think of Bhutto's 19-year-old son and her husband and also Nawaz Sharif, in terms of being allies for the United States?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I'm more focused on the political parties engaging in a political process, and after the process is over, coming together to provide stability and unity for Pakistan. That's where my focus is.

Q So you think the United States could work with any of them or all of them?

THE PRESIDENT: Oh, I think that whoever wins the election is somebody with whom President Musharraf should work, and of course we will be a strong ally of Pakistan.

Q How strong is your support for President Musharraf in the aftermath of Bhutto's assassination?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I've always been a supporter of President Musharraf -- one, because I believe he is strong in the war on terror. He understands clearly the risks of dealing with extremists and terrorists. After all, they've tried to kill him. And, two, I appreciate the fact that he kept his pledge. He told me he was going to take off his uniform, and did. He told me there would be a day certain for elections, and there was -- now they've been suspended for the sake of making sure that the elections are fair and that the parties have a chance to recover from this blow. But nevertheless, he has a firm date, he set a firm date, which the parties agreed to, which is positive. He also has called for the involvement of Scotland Yard to help get to the bottom of the facts on the killing. And so I'm -- he's an ally.

Q Are you convinced that Al-Qaeda was behind the assassination?

THE PRESIDENT: I will withhold judgment until we know the facts -- but it has all the hallmarks of how they operate, and that is to kill innocent people, to murder. It was cold-blooded murder, and they did that -- they've done that -- or people like them, or people affiliated with them, or people who think they're -- you know, people who are trying to copy them murder innocent people for political objectives. And so I can't make an accusation in this case as to who did it until -- I'm sure we'll find out. 

Q There are some theories out there that the government, at a minimum, didn't provide enough security.

THE PRESIDENT: This will all be investigated.

Q Was it a slap in the face for the United States not to be asked to take a lead in this investigation?

THE PRESIDENT: If they wanted us in we would be glad to help, but Scotland Yard is plenty capable. What matters is getting to the bottom of it, find out exactly what happened.

Q Today the opposition parties have again called for Musharraf to step down, saying that the country will regress into civil war if he's doesn't. Why shouldn't he step down?

THE PRESIDENT: I think what they need to do is have their elections and go forward with the democratic process.

Q Shifting gears a little bit to the economy, how worried are you about $100 a barrel oil?

THE PRESIDENT: I'm concerned about people losing their homes and paying a lot for gasoline. I've been warning this country -- our country for a while about high oil, and that we had to develop alternatives. And I was glad that I was to be able to sign a bill that promotes alternative fuels. I also strongly believe that we need to be allowing for lands to be explored in environmentally friendly ways so we end up with more crude oil on the marketplace, particularly crude oil produced by the United States. I think we need to expand refinery capacity and have been calling for people to do so. We'll be in a transition away from dependency on oil, but I emphasize "transition." It just doesn't happen overnight. Therefore, you know, enhancing the supply of oil, enhancing the supply of gasoline is all in our national interests to do so.

I'm also concerned, as I mentioned, about people feeling the pinch in their homes. We want people living in their homes, and that's why we've got a very aggressive plan to help lenders, note-holders and homeowners to be able to be in a position to renegotiate home loans so that they can stay in their homes. It's the HOPE NOW project. Congress has passed bills that will help out of both bodies; they need just to get together quickly when they get back and pass an FHA modernization bill, which will give the government more leeway in helping people stay in their homes. 

We passed some -- Congress passed good tax legislation that enables somebody to more likely stay in their home. And there is another piece of tax legislation which they ought to approve, which is the capacity for local governments to be able to use some of their municipal bonding authorities to be able to help people stay in homes. Most of that bonding authority is for people to purchase a home; now they need to be able to broaden that use of that bonding authority to help people stay in their homes. So the focus is, during this adjustment, housing adjustment, is to help people stay in homes; those who are credit-worthy, and we've got an aggressive plan to do it.

Q Do you have any plans to do anything more? I mean, do you think the Fed and the Treasury should do more to help with the subprime rate?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, on the Fed, that's an independent organization that I will -- and I do have all the confidence in Chairman Bernanke's ability to analyze the situation. I know he's paying very close attention to it, and his response will be independent from the White House.

In terms of any stimulus package, we're considering all options and probably won't make up my mind as to whether or not I lay one out until the State of the Union. But we are listening to a lot of good ideas from different people and we've got our people out there carefully not only monitoring the situation, but listening to ways -- possible remedies.

Q On the oil crisis, one short-term idea that's been suggested is that you stop doing oil deliveries to the SPR, just temporarily. Is that an option?

THE PRESIDENT: I'm not exactly sure where we are on filling up the SPR, but I do think filling up the SPR is in the national interest. I need to find out where we are, whether it's been completed or not. I'm not sure that's going to have much of an effect anyway, when you think of the total supply of crude oil consumed on a daily basis and the rate at which the SPR is being filled up.

Look, what matters is whether or not these fast-growing economies continue to grow, and whether or not oil-producing countries are able to modernize their fields to keep the production going. And there's -- what you're watching is a significant tightening of the relationship between supply and demand.

Q So you wouldn't tap the SPR?

THE PRESIDENT: No, I would tap it for emergency purposes. As you might remember, this was an issue in the 2000 campaign, where I clearly said we would not tap the SPR for political purposes, that the SPR is available for emergencies: terrorist attacks, massive dislocations. And that's what it's there for. 

Q Hundred dollars a barrel is not an emergency?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, it's certainly an emergency for -- it certainly creates difficulty, but no, it's not the kind of emergency that would define the use of the SPR, as far as I'm concerned. Actually, $100 oil is a reflection of supply and demand.

Q Just shifting gears again, then, sir, do you have any concern of the Justice Department opening a criminal probe of the CIA --

THE PRESIDENT: No, I strongly support it. And we will participate.

Q But do you have any concern about that probe may raise some questions about your counterterrorism policy?

THE PRESIDENT: See what it says. See what the investigation leads to. But no -- and speaking about that, the Congress needs to pass FISA, and they need to do it quickly. The line I've been using, which is the truth, is, is that FISA expires, but the threat to America doesn't. And if it was good enough for Congress last August, it ought to be good enough for them this -- when they get back into town, and get it passed. Nothing has changed: the threat still exists, and they need to get a good bill to my desk.

Q I'm not going to ask you to be prognosticator-in-chief --

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, you are. (Laughter.)

Q No, I'm not. But do you feel a little wistful about this process starting tonight? And will you watch it? I mean, how do you feel about it? I mean, you were honest about the campaign in 2000 at the top of the interview here, I think -- 

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, it's on my mind. Look, it's -- I was reminiscing with Laura about the anticipation of caucus night. And I can remember going through the snows and last-minute rallies, and just kind of giving it my all coming down the stretch, and then getting on the airplane and heading to New Hampshire. We had like a -- if I remember correctly, it was like a 11:30 p.m. or 12:00 midnight deal in New Hampshire -- starting that all over again. I can just remember the exhilaration and then the -- of victory, the pain of defeat, the grueling test that they're going through -- which is good for the country, to see what these individuals are made out of. And it's good for the individual to find out what they're made out of.

Q You sound like you miss it.

THE PRESIDENT: I don't -- only because it's unrealistic.

Q You wax nostalgic. (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I am nostalgic about the process, if you're somebody who is running for office and you understand the ups and downs, and the highs and lows. And it was really living life to its fullest when you're out campaigning like that.

I was reminiscing with some friends about 2004 campaigns. We had massive rallies that were just full of energy -- and somebody who has run for office misses that. On the other hand, it's good for the country that there be a new President, and that we have a peaceful transfer of power, and that somebody will come in this office with new ideas and new energies.

And my challenge is to remind the American people that while they're paying attention to these primaries there is a President actively engaged solving problems. And we had a very successful end of last year because I was able to work with Mitch McConnell and John Boehner and Roy Blunt and Trent Lott. We sustained some early vetoes, and then the White House and the members of the minority in the Congress became relevant, to the point where we helped shape the agenda. And I intend to do the same thing this year. And so I told my people that we're going to sprint to the finish, and the last couple of weeks before the session ended, people saw what I meant.

And so there will be a lot of focus on the politics and during the press conferences and all this -- I'll be asked all kinds of questions about it. I understand that. But for me, it is a -- I like politics, I enjoy all the speculation, no question -- you know, I got buddies calling in, giving me this piece of tidbit and that gossip. But on the other hand, I've got a job to do and I'm going to do it.

There's a lot of foreign travel this year, as you know, and it's a good chance to advance agendas. I will work hard to make sure that there's procedures in place and process in place and institutional reform in place, so whoever sits in this office will be able to deal with the true threats and the true problems facing the country. 

Sources: Reuters