Meeting in the Oval Office with President Bush

If there is one thing about President Bush that is different in private from his public persona, it is probably intensity. Before big crowds he is folksy and self-deprecating. Before the hostile press, he is a bit wary. But in our setting — a meeting with half a dozen conservative columnists in the Oval Office on Sept. 12 — he was intense.

The president called the meeting to let us know directly how he views the war on terror. Some of what he said was a reprise of his televised speech of the evening before — that our struggle against the extremists is the ideological war of the 21st century, and that only two outcomes are possible, either we will be victorious or what the president calls the "Islamoradicals" will.

Busts of Winston Churchill, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Abraham Lincoln adorn the Oval Office — the president notes that he put them there before 9/11 but finds them even more inspiring now that he himself is a wartime leader. He mentioned that he has just read three biographies of George Washington (whose picture hangs over the fireplace).

President Bush was at his most passionate on the subject of democracy. He reiterated his belief that policies of previous administrations toward Middle Eastern autocracies helped give rise to the fever that now convulses the Arab world. "I understand why they did it," he adds, "concerns about oil or the Cold War with the Soviet Union. But while the surface may have looked calm or stable, we’ve seen what was happening beneath the surface." This administration is determined that the only way to break the fever is to change the conditions that give rise to extremism. "You can call it draining the swamp. I call it advancing democracy." Acknowledging that he wasn’t thrilled when Hamas won the election in the Palestinian territories, he nonetheless believes that the election itself was a blow to centuries of absolutism.

As for the progress of democracy in Iraq, the president is basically optimistic and impatient with the nation’s impatience. "We live in a world where there has to be instant success. ‘Why is there no democracy in Iraq yet?’ Because there are people willing to kill to stop it." (Would the Second World War have been won if we’d had daily body counts in places like Normandy and Iwo Jima?) "We must be steadfast in our deep belief in liberty and stand with those who are committed to freedom." Does Nouri al-Maliki have the right stuff? President Bush thinks he is willing to seek the reconciliation that is so urgently necessary in that abused nation.

The questions posed by the journalists in attendance kept circling back to one issue: Why not send more troops to Iraq? The first time the matter arose, the president gave his standard reply to the effect that he has always assured his commanders on the ground that they will have whatever they need to win. They haven’t requested more troops. Yet, a questioner probed, didn’t the extra troops deployed recently to Baghdad improve matters? Well, yes. But the president is determined not to make the mistake Lyndon Johnson made in Vietnam by micromanaging the war from the Oval Office. A journalist asked, "Is it possible that just as Lincoln’s general [George B. McClellan] asked for too many troops, Casey and Abizaid may be asking for too few?" The president responded that the administration wants more Iraqi troops for the job. Another questioner wanted to know if the president had considered that the generals could be reluctant to ask for more troops out of concern that political considerations might affect the response. The president shook his head at that one. "They know me too well." He said the politics wouldn’t affect his decision one iota. "I’d charge through that door right now and do it."

Again and again President Bush stressed that he has to trust the commanders on the ground ("otherwise you get bogged down in details") and that Gen. Casey has a terrific grasp of the strategic and political situation. But yes, he acknowledged, he might just ask Gen. Casey whether another division or two would help pacify Baghdad. While he’s at it, he can ask anyone. As president, he can get the benefit of the finest military minds in the world for the asking (assuming they’re on our side).

President Bush demonstrated his historical understanding and his strategic vision in our conversation. He also stressed patience. Perhaps he has shown a bit too much of that in Iraq. As Canadian journalist Peter Worthington reminds us: "There has never been an unpopular winning war or a popular losing one."