Bush Says Iraqi Leaders Will Want U.S. Forces to Stay to Help
By ELISABETH BUMILLER, DAVID E. SANGER and RICHARD W. STEVENSON
WASHINGTON, Jan. 27 - President Bush said in an interview on Thursday that he would withdraw American forces from Iraq if the new government that is elected on Sunday asked him to do so, but that he expected Iraq's first democratically elected leaders would want the troops to remain as helpers, not as occupiers.
"I've, you know, heard the voices of the people that presumably will be in a position of responsibility after these elections, although you never know," Mr. Bush said. "But it seems like most of the leadership there understands that there will be a need for coalition troops at least until Iraqis are able to fight."
He did not say who he expected would emerge victorious. But asked if, as a matter of principle, the United States would pull out of Iraq at the request of a new government, he said: "Absolutely. This is a sovereign government. They're on their feet."
Some members of the administration had made similar pledges, but this was the first time Mr. Bush did so.
In a 40-minute conversation in the Oval Office with correspondents from The New York Times, Mr. Bush, seated in front of a crackling fire, ranged across a number of issues that he is expected to discuss in his State of the Union address next week.
Yet Iraq was clearly foremost in his mind, and he said that with the coming election, "We're watching history being made, history that will change the world." That has been Mr. Bush's message in a series of interviews he has given in the days before and since his Inaugural Address on Jan. 20.
He later drew Iraq into a broader plan for democracy in the Middle East.
"I think two of the great ironies of history will be that there will be a Palestinian state and a democratic Iraq showing the way forward for people who desperately want to be free," the president said. He particularly praised Mahmoud Abbas, the new Palestinian leader, as a man who has "the will of the people with him, and that inspires leaders."
On domestic policy, Mr. Bush sidestepped a question on whether he agreed with a Florida law barring gay men and women from adopting children, saying he was not aware of it. But he said that while "children can receive love from gay couples," he believed that "studies have shown that the ideal is where a child is raised in a married family with a man and a woman."
He said that his plan to overhaul Social Security would be a centerpiece of his State of the Union address and acknowledged that his approach would demand politically difficult decisions of Congress.
He also suggested, three days after telling a March for Life rally that he could see the "glimmerings" of a nation in which every child is "welcomed in life and protected in law," that he was resigned for now to the continued availability of abortion and that his role would be to show moral leadership rather than advance specific anti-abortion initiatives.
"I think the goal ought to be to convince people to value life," Mr. Bush said. "But I fully understand our society is divided on the issue and that there will be abortions. That's reality. It seems like to me my job is to convince people to make right choices in life, to understand there are alternatives to abortion, like adoption, and I will continue to do so."
He brushed aside questions about his relationship with the Congressional Black Caucus, which he met with on Wednesday and invited to the White House once in his first term. Asked why the group, now composed of 43 Democratic African-American members of Congress, had received only the single first-term invitation, he responded, "That's just the way it worked out."
He said he was working "to put out policies that I think are beneficial to all people, including African-Americans, and will continue to do so."
But even while acknowledging that Iraq is at a pivotal point in its history, Mr. Bush appeared far more relaxed than he was in August, when he was last interviewed by The Times, in a changing area off a men's room, during a campaign stop in New Mexico.
He laughed when asked about his admission on Wednesday, during a news conference, that he had not read the article in the periodical Foreign Affairs written in 2000 by Condoleezza Rice, his new secretary of state, laying out his foreign policy.
"I don't know what you think the world is like, but a lot of people don't just sit around reading Foreign Affairs," he said, chuckling. "I know this is shocking to you."
The president acknowledged that many Iraqis still viewed the United States as an occupying force, though he stopped short of endorsing the view of a growing number of Republicans that the sheer size of the American presence in Iraq was worsening the violence by presenting insurgents with a large target.
"A fundamental question also that I think a lot of Iraqis understand - and I do, too - is how do we make sure the Iraqi citizens view U.S. troops as helpers, not as occupiers," he said. "And to the extent that a coalition presence is viewed as an occupying force, it enables the insurgents, the radicals, to continue to impress people that the government really is not their government, and that the government is complicit in having their country occupied.
"I view that as reasonable," he said. "I also view that as pretty hopeful that there's kind of a nationalistic sentiment that says, 'This is my country.' I mean, to me that's a positive sign."
But Mr. Bush also noted "a certain realism amongst the leadership - at least the ones I've talked to - that says, 'Look, there's much more work to do before we're ready to move out on our own.' "
He said that a recent proposal by Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain to put calmer parts of the country entirely in the hands of Iraqi troops was "certainly one option," but added that he had not yet discussed it with Mr. Blair, his close ally.
Mr. Bush was accompanied in the interview, which occurred shortly after his return from a trip earlier in the day to Ohio, by top aides who remained silent throughout. They included Dan Bartlett, the counselor to the president; Nicolle Devenish, the White House communications director; and Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary.
The president declined to talk in any detail about his plans for Social Security, but was expansive on his plans for the Middle East. About 35 minutes into the interview, when he appeared to be coming to the end of his comments about the future of the Israelis and Palestinians, Mr. McClellan jumped in and said, "Thanks," indicating the interview was over.
But Mr. Bush said firmly, "I'm not through yet," and continued to describe how the Iraqi elections would be part of an initial wave of democratization in the Middle East.
The president, who is scheduled to travel to Europe next month, rejected the suggestion that relations with Europe, particularly with Germany and France, are badly frayed after the split over the Iraq war. "I think we're working well in places like Afghanistan," he said. "We worked well together in Haiti."
He added that "obviously, we had a disagreement over Iraq," but that the relationships were good and had the potential of being better. "I look forward to working with them," he said.
In a discussion about the powers of the presidency, Mr. Bush differed from comments recently by Vice President Dick Cheney that one of the administration's goals was to restore power to the executive branch.
He said he had not heard Mr. Cheney's comments and did not know what he was referring to, but said he thought the powers of the presidency were "adequate" when he came into office in 2001.
"I can't think of any examples where I said, 'Gosh, I wish I had more power,' " Mr. Bush said. "I felt like I had plenty to do the job."
Asked if at the end of eight years he wanted to leave the presidency more powerful than the way he found it, he replied, "I don't think you want to weaken the presidency."
On whether the administration had looser standards for interrogating terrorist suspects outside the United States, he said, "Torture is never acceptable," adding, "nor do we hand over people to countries that do torture."
On his position limiting embryonic stem cell research to a handful of existing colonies, or lines, the president said he was satisfied with the way his policy was working, even as states like California promote private research that could increase the demand for additional lines.
He said that "destroying life to create life is not ethical" and that "whether it happens in the private sector or the public sector, it doesn't change the ethics."
He reflected on last week's inaugural ceremonies, saying he was "deeply moved by Chief Justice Rehnquist on the podium," at a time when he is battling a severe form of thyroid cancer.
"It was, I thought, a very powerful moment when he struggled up and read that oath with real conviction in his voice," Mr. Bush said. "I was very touched that he would even bother to do so. I also thought it was a very important signal, in terms of continuity of government."
Later he acknowledged that there was some danger whenever the president of the United States urges people to rise up against tyranny, because Americans may be unwilling or unable to step in and help an uprising against a repressive government.
"I also appreciate the fact that if people rise up in a totalitarian society, they can be killed," he said. "And so it's with that in mind that I speak. I'm aware of exactly the dangers inherent of the democracy movement testing the will of tyrants who were never held to account. And that's why it sometimes takes a while to erode the power and the tyranny."
But as president, he said, he "oftentimes doesn't get to set the timer" on democratic revolutions. What he can do, he said, is "speak clearly and be mindful that certain activities can prop up tyrants and cause tyrants to have legitimacy that they don't deserve."