Entering the West Wing reception area for my last interview with President George W. Bush is a surreal experience. There is no one there, other than two Secret Service agents, a White House police officer and a receptionist. The place used to teem with people eager for a moment with the commander in chief, now people speak in hushed tones. A small TV set in the coatroom is tuned to Fox News. That will soon change. The news anchor is talking only about President-elect Obama. With two weeks to go in the Bush administration, it's all about the "O," not the "W."
Inside the Oval Office, I sit in the chair opposite the president's desk, the one reserved for visiting heads of state, the one, no doubt familiar to television viewers.
President Bush compares the fighting between Hamas and Israel in Gaza to what occurred in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein: "As this young democracy (Iraq) was taking hold, terrorists, suiciders, killers did what they thought was necessary to shake the will of the people ... to stop the advance of a free society. And yet, over time the Iraqi situation has gotten better and democracy is beginning to take hold."
The president remains optimistic that a Palestinian state can be created that will live in peace with Israel: "The definition of a state was being negotiated by (Israeli) Prime Minister (Ehud) Olmert and (Palestinian) President (Mahmoud) Abbas."
I ask him if the Palestinians in Gaza did not express their will by electing Hamas to lead them? He acknowledges they did, "in a relatively close election. But just remember, that vote wasn't on whether or not it was going to be war or peace. That vote was on who best can provide health and education. And I view that vote as a repudiation of the previous Fatah leadership, as well as a vote that said we are sick and tired of corruption, non-transparency, and we expect to be treated better."
The president is convinced that the way to defeat the "propaganda" coming from the extremists is to create free societies and "better efforts on our part to clarify what our position is." I still think this ignores a fundamental and doctrinal difference between the West and Islam. They believe we are prisoners of secularism and hedonism and that they are truly free within the bonds of Islam. But we move on.
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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