It is a privilege to spend 90 minutes with the president of the United States. It is frustrating, though, when 90 percent of those minutes are declared off the record.
President Bush likes it that way, because he gets to speak "frankly" without worrying about how his remarks will be interpreted. Monday, in the on-the-record part of an interview with a small group of newspaper and magazine columnists, the president spoke of progress in Iraq: "I am pleased that the initial skepticism is beginning to fade, to the point where (the) king of Jordan is going to Iraq; Prime Minister Maliki is going to Abu Dhabi; ambassadors are soon to be exchanged, hopefully."
The president thinks his commitment to stabilizing Iraq has boosted confidence in other countries: "the region is beginning to recognize, after a period of uncertainty, that a free Iraq is going to be important to their futures - economic future and political future, because a free and successful Iraq will end up serving as a pushback to Iranian movements in the Middle East."
He is clearly pleased that funding for the war, which congressional Democrats repeatedly tried to halt, has been approved and will last six months into the new administration, which will allow the next president time to assess progress and make his own decisions. He is equally pleased the House has passed legislation protecting private phone companies who aid the government in eavesdropping on calls to or from suspected terrorists overseas. "Ša very important tool (in the war against terrorism) is to listen," he said. He called on the Senate to pass it "expeditiously."
The president also reiterated his core philosophy since Sept. 11, 2001: "This is a war that requires the United States to not wait to get attacked, and therefore arrest people after the attack. It is a war that requires us to be proactive and to prevent attacks." While he refuses to discuss domestic politics, this sounded like a criticism of Barack Obama, who wants to negotiate with America's terrorist enemies and thinks the legal system can better handle terrorists after they have killed Americans.
Also on the record were the president's comments about the escalating cost of gasoline. In an apparent jab at Congress, whose Democratic leaders promised to do something about gas prices if given a majority, but have not, the president said, "I would ask people to look at the report Vice President Cheney did early on in this administration about our view of how we should have dealt with this problem in a comprehensive way." That report included references to the new technologies that allow for oil and gas exploration on American territory and offshore that minimize any threats to the environment.
The rest is conjecture and opinion based on impressions and not on what the president actually said.
While the war in Iraq is going better, the war in Afghanistan is not, causing more people to focus on the problem country rather than the better country. That is understandable to a point, but given the heat the president has taken over Iraq, one might expect him to get more credit now that things have substantially improved from where they were before the troop surge.
Some historians, most of whom are liberal, have already declared President Bush the worst president in history. We talked about this in previous meetings. He has said the worst time to judge a president is when he is in office and that perspectives often change years later when policies have had time to prove themselves (or not) and the political heat generated by partisanship has subsided.
This president still believes freedom can be established in the Arab and Muslim world. I am not as sure of this as he is, especially in nations that believe their brand of Islam is real freedom and our concept of freedom is a license for immoral behavior.
We will have to wait on the outcome to know if he's right. That outcome will most definitely be on the historical record for future generations to judge.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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