President Bush confronted growing doubts yesterday about his decision to take the nation to war with Iraq, acknowledging that the weapons of mass destruction he said posed a grave danger to the United States have not been found, but insisting that Saddam Hussein could one day have threatened Americans if not forced from power.
In a nearly hourlong interview aired yesterday on NBC's Meet the Press, Bush was asked whether he had ordered the invasion of Iraq and risked American lives under false pretenses.
"I expected to find the weapons," the president responded in a session taped Saturday in the Oval Office. "Sitting behind this desk, making a very difficult decision of war and peace, I based my decision on the best intelligence possible. Intelligence that had been gathered over the years, intelligence that not only our analysts thought was valid, but analysts from other countries thought were valid."
In defending the decision, Bush was mostly unruffled as interviewer Tim Russert asked one question after another on Iraq for almost 25 minutes.
"I'm a war president," Bush said. "I make decisions here in the Oval Office in foreign policy matters with war on my mind. Again, I wish it wasn't true, but it is true."
The Sept. 11 attacks, the president said, made him begin to weigh threats against America differently and to view all intelligence "in the context of this war on terror." Bush said Hussein had a history of using weapons of mass destruction on his own people, the capacity to produce such weapons and that the Iraqi dictator supported terrorism.
Members of Congress, as well as President Bill Clinton, Bush said, had looked at the same intelligence he saw and believed that Hussein "had to be removed."
Bush never disputed that his primary reason for going to war -- the reported existence of stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and a nuclear weapons program in Iraq -- is now widely questioned, even though last March, days before the invasion, he said he had "no doubt" that Iraq possessed "some of the most lethal weapons ever devised."
Asked whether he had exaggerated intelligence information, Bush said he had always used "grave and gathering" danger to describe Iraq, and has always been determined to confront such threats "before they become imminent."
"Inaction in Iraq would have emboldened Saddam Hussein," Bush said. "He could have developed a nuclear weapon over time -- I'm not saying immediately, but over time -- which would then have put us in what position? We would have been in a position of blackmail."
The interview covered other issues, from the economy to the presidential campaign. Bush insisted that the country has lost several million jobs and amassed an enormous deficit under his watch mostly because he had inherited a recession and because the Sept. 11 attacks and subsequent war on terror have been a drain on the economy.
'The political season'
He defended himself against attacks by Democrats vying for his job, declaring, after months of refusing to engage in overt campaigning, that "the political season is here." Bush said he would welcome a review of federal records to determine whether he reported for duty as a National Guard pilot in Alabama in 1972. News reports have pointed out that he was suspended from flight status for failing to take a required physical and that there is no record of Bush showing up for his duties during parts of that year.
"They're just wrong," the president said of allegations that he missed training sessions. "There may be no evidence, but I did report. Otherwise, I wouldn't have been honorably discharged."
He added, "I put my time in, proudly so. It is fine to go after me, which I expect the other side to do. I would not denigrate service to the Guard, though. And the reason I wouldn't is because there are a lot of fine people who served in the National Guard and who are serving in the National Guard today in Iraq."
In Richmond, Va., Democratic front-runner John Kerry said the question was not whether Bush had received an honorable discharge but whether he had performed his Guard duties in Alabama. The Massachusetts senator said he did not know the answer.
The president has seen his poll numbers slide after statements made in recent weeks by David Kay, who stepped down last month as the chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq. Kay has said that it is unlikely that banned weapons will be found there and noted flaws in U.S. intelligence on Hussein's arms programs.
In an Associated Press poll released Friday, Bush's job approval rating fell to 47 percent, from 56 percent last month. His approval rating on foreign policy issues and the war on terrorism fell to 53 percent, from 60 percent last month.
Bush said yesterday that he remains convinced that going to war was not a choice but a "necessity" to protect the United States; however, he said he is determined to get to the bottom of any intelligence failures. He expressed confidence in the CIA and its director, George J. Tenet, but noted that he established a commission last week to examine the intelligence community in part to determine "what went right or what went wrong with the Iraqi intelligence."
Noting that a similar panel set up by British Prime Minister Tony Blair is to report its findings this summer, Russert asked Bush if he gave his until March 2005 to avoid having its conclusions made public before the November election.
"The reason why we gave it time is because we didn't want it to be rushed," Bush said. "Look, we are in a political season. I fully understand people [will suggest the president] is trying to avoid responsibility. There is going to be ample time for the American people to assess whether or not I made good calls, whether or not I used good judgment, whether or not I made the right decision in removing Saddam Hussein from power. And I look forward to that debate."
Bush said he would not testify before the panel. "I don't testify," he said. "But I will be glad to visit with them. I will be glad to share with them knowledge."
'No doubt in my mind'
Russert, considered among Washington's toughest questioners, was perhaps more deferential to the president than to his other guests. When Bush said curtly that he would like to finish an answer, Russert gave him leeway. Still, he challenged Bush with pointed questions.
The newsman asked Bush why he had said he had "no doubt" that Iraq had the banned weapons if CIA intelligence reports included "caveats" and "qualifiers."
"There was no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a danger to America," Bush said. "He had the capacity to have a weapon, make a weapon. We thought he had weapons."
Asked if removing Hussein, in the absence of weapons, was worth the loss of 530 American lives and 3,000 other casualties, the president said: "It is essential that I explain this properly to the parents of those who lost their lives.
"We are in a war against terrorists who will bring great harm to America, and I've asked these young ones to sacrifice for that," he said. "A free Iraq will change the world. It's historic times. A free Iraq will make it easier for other children in our own country to grow up in a safer world, because in the Middle East is where you find the hatred and violence that enables the enemy to recruit its killers."
On the domestic front, Bush was asked why Americans should re-elect him when 2.2 million jobs have been lost and a $281 billion deficit has grown into a projected $521 billion deficit in his first term.
The economy had been hard hit by forces outside his control, Bush said, including a recession that was beginning when he took office, the Sept. 11 attacks and the war on terror. He said the tax cuts he pushed through last year are beginning to help the economy return to sustained growth, and that new jobs are being created.
"This economy is coming around just right, frankly," Bush said.