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Bush claims mandate on Iraq

Jim VandeHei and Michael A. Fletcher Washington Post

WASHINGTON – President Bush says the public’s decision to re-elect him was a ratification of his approach toward Iraq and that there is no reason to hold any administration officials accountable for mistakes or misjudgments in prewar planning or in managing the violent aftermath.

“We had an accountability moment, and that’s called the 2004 elections,” Bush said in an interview with the Washington Post. “The American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates and chose me.”

With the Iraq elections two weeks away and no signs of the deadly insurgency abating, Bush set no timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops and twice declined to endorse Secretary of State Colin Powell’s recent statement that the number of Americans serving in Iraq could be reduced by year’s end. Bush said he will not ask Congress to expand the size of the National Guard or regular Army, as some lawmakers and military experts propose.

In a wide-ranging, 35-minute interview aboard Air Force One on Friday, Bush also laid out new details of his second-term plans for both foreign and domestic policy. For the first time, Bush said he will not press senators to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, the top priority for many social conservative groups. And he said he has no plans to cut benefits for the roughly 40 percent of Social Security recipients who collect monthly disability and survivors payments as he prepares his plan for partial privatization.

Bush was relaxed, often direct and occasionally expansive when discussing his second-term agenda, Iraq, and lessons he’s learned as president. Sitting at the head of a long conference table in a cabin located at the front of the presidential plane, Bush wore a blue “Air Force One” flight jacket with a red tie and crisp white shirt underneath. Three aides, including his new communications adviser Nicolle Devenish, accompanied him.

With his inauguration just days away, Bush defended the administration’s decision to force the District of Columbia to spend $12 million of its homeland security budget to provide tighter security for this week’s festivities. He also warned that the ceremony could make the city “an attractive target for terrorists.”

“By providing security, hopefully that will provide comfort to people who are coming from all around the country to come and stay in the hotels in Washington and to be able to watch the different festivities in Washington, and eat the food in Washington,” Bush said. “I think it provides them great comfort to know that all levels of government are working closely to make this event as secure as possible.”

But it will be Iraq that dominates White House deliberations off stage. Over the next few weeks, Bush will be monitoring closely Iraq’s plan to hold elections for a 275-member national assembly. He must deliver his State of the Union address with a message of resolve on Iraq, and he will need to seek congressional approval for roughly $100 billion in emergency spending, much of it for the war.

In the interview, the president urged Americans to show patience in coming months as Iraq moves slowly toward creating a democratic nation where a brutal dictatorship once stood. But the relentless optimism that dominated Bush’s speeches before the U.S. election was sometimes replaced by pragmatism and caution.

“On a complicated matter such as removing a dictator from power and trying to help achieve democracy, sometimes the unexpected will happen, both good and bad,” he said. “I am realistic about how quickly a society that has been dominated by a tyrant can become a democracy. … I am more patient than some.”

Powell last week said U.S. troop levels could be reduced this year, but Bush said it is premature to judge the number of U.S. men and women who will be needed to defeat the insurgency and plant a new and sustainable government. He also declined to pledge to significantly reduce U.S. troop levels before the end of his second term in January 2009.

“The sooner the Iraqis are … better prepared, better equipped to fight, the sooner our troops can start coming home,” he said. Bush did rule out asking Congress to increase the size of the National Guard and regular army, as many lawmakers, including the president’s 2004 opponent Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., are calling for. “What we’re going to do is make sure that the missions of the National Guard and the Reserves closely dovetail with active Army units, so that the pressure … is eased.”

A new report released last week by U.S. intelligence agencies warned that the war in Iraq has created a new training ground for terrorists. Bush called the report “somewhat speculative” but acknowledged “this could happen. And I agree. If we are not diligent and firm, there will be parts of the world that become pockets for terrorists to find safe haven and to train. And we have a duty to disrupt that.”

As for perhaps the most notorious terrorist, Osama bin Laden, the administration has so far been unsuccessful in its attempt to locate the Sept. 11 mastermind. Asked why, Bush said simply, “Because he’s hiding.” While some terrorism experts complain U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan could do more to help capture the al Qaeda leader, Bush said he could not name a single U.S. ally that is not doing everything possible to assist U.S. efforts.

“I am pleased about the hunt, and I am pleased he is isolated,” said Bush. “I will be more pleased when he’s brought to justice, and I think he will be.”

Bush acknowledged that the United States’ standing has diminished in some pockets of the world, and said he has asked Condoleezza Rice, his nominee to replace Powell at the State Department, to embark on a new public diplomacy campaign that “explains our motives and explains our intentions.”

Bush acknowledged “some of the decisions I’ve made up to now have affected our standing in parts of the world,” but predicted most Muslims will eventually see America as a beacon of freedom and democracy.

“There’s no question we’ve got to continue to do a better job of explaining what America is all about,” he said.

On the domestic front, Bush said he will not lobby the Senate to pass the constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage.

While seeking re-election, Bush voiced strong support for the ban and many political analysts credit this position for inspiring record-high turnout among evangelical Christians, who are fighting same-sex marriage at every juncture it arises. Groups such as the Family Research Council have made the gay marriage amendment their top priority for the next four years.

The president said there is no logical reason to press for the ban because so many senators are convinced the Defense of Marriage Act, which says states that outlaw same-sex unions do not have to recognize gay marriages conducted outside their borders, is sufficient. “Senators have made it clear that so long as DOMA is deemed constitutional, nothing will happen. I’d take their admonition seriously. Until that changes, nothing will happen in the Senate.” Bush’s position is likely to infuriate some of his socially conservative supporters, but congressional officials say it will be impossible to secure the 67 votes need to pass the amendment through the Senate.

Saturday morning, the day after the interview, White House spokesman Scott McClellan called to say the president wished to clarify his position, saying Bush was “willing to spend political capital” but believes it will be virtually impossible to overcome Senate resistance until the courts render a final verdict on DOMA.

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