Bush defends Iraq invasion

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

WASHINGTON - In the first interview of his post-presidency, George W. Bush said he was angered when US-led coalition forces failed to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but stood by the decision to invade the country to get rid of Saddam Hussein.

Bush appeared on television Monday night on the eve of the publication of his memoir, “Decision Points”, and told NBC’s Matt Lauer in a taped interview that it’s “a very hypothetical question” to ask whether he would have, knowing what he now does, proceeded with the invasion.

“I will say definitely the world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power, as are 25 million people who now have a chance to live in freedom,” Bush said. He added that as president one doesn’t have the “luxury” of looking back in time.

“Decision Points”, due in US bookstores Tuesday, reflects on his life and eight years in the White House, covering topics ranging from stopping drinking, his emotional reaction to the Sep 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Iraq, and the controversial policy to employ harsh interrogation techniques on terrorist suspects.

Bush has stayed in the shadows since he left in White House in January 2009, unpopular in the US and abroad. He has made some appearances at business conventions and teamed up with Bill Clinton to raise money for Haiti following the January earthquake.

The interview was the first of several to kick off the launch of the book. He also plans a book tour to promote the memoir.

In the book, Bush argues that he believed harsh techniques were required to coerce suspected terrorists into divulging information about potential attacks. He recalls telling the CIA “damn right” when his authorisation was sought to waterboard Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sep 11 attacks.

“I will tell you this, using those techniques saved lives,” he said, urging people to read the book and draw their own conclusions. “My job was to protect America and I did.”

Bush seemed at ease in the interview discussing his presidency and a book he considers to be a basis on which historians could use to judge his years in office. He became chocked with emotion when discussing his relationship with his father, former president George H.W. Bush, and meetings with families of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Iraq is still seen as Bush’s biggest legacy — for better or worse.

“History judges you on the decisions you make. Sometimes history doesn’t judge you on the absence of a decision,” he said. “And I believe Saddam Hussein in the Middle East today, if he were there in power he would be enriched, he’d be emboldened.”

He said he doesn’t believe he owes an apology for invading Iraq when there were not illicit weapons but instead was committed to determining why the intelligence was wrong.

“Apologising would basically say the decision was a wrong decision. And I don’t believe it was the wrong decision,” he told Lauer. “I thought the best way to handle this was to find out why. And what went wrong. And to remedy it.”

Bush said the most vivid memory of the Sep 11, 2001 terrorist attacks was when he was sitting in a Florida school with children listening to them read a book when his chief of staff, Andrew Card, whispered into his ear that a second plane had struck the World Trade Center.

“My first reaction was anger. ‘How dare they do this to America?’” he said. “And then I looked at the kids, and their innocence in contrast to the evil of the attackers became apparent to me. And I just knew that my job was to protect them.”

Bush discusses regrets in the book. High among them was the federal government’s slow reaction to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and much of the southern Gulf of Mexico coast in 2005. He said it was a “mistake” to fly over the inflicted area but added that landing would have hampered the relief effort.

“I should have recognised the deficiencies sooner and intervened faster,” Bush wrote, according to media reports. “The problem was not that I made the wrong decisions. It was that I took too long to decide.”

Bush became visibly angry when describing comments made by vocalist Kanye West as a low point of his presidency. Shortly after Katrina, West accused Bush of not caring about black people, which make up the vast majority of New Orleans’ population.

“I didn’t appreciate it then. I don’t appreciate it now,” Bush told Lauer. “It’s one thing to say, ‘I don’t appreciate the way he’s handled his business.’ It’s another thing to say, ‘This man’s a racist.’ I resent it, it’s not true, and it was one of the most disgusting moments in my presidency.”

Bush said he was sickened by the photos that emerged in 2004 showing the abuse by US soldiers of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, a scandal that tarnished the US image and prompted worldwide outrage.

“I was sick to my stomach,” Bush said of his reaction. “Not only have they mistreated prisoners, they had disgraced the US military and stained our good name.”

He writes that defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld offered to resign in the wake of the scandal, but Bush decided to keep him in his position.

Bush also offers insight into his White House in the book, including his sometimes strained relationship with then-vice president Dick Cheney, as well White House aides and members of Congress.

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