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Bush defends Iraq war, economic record

'I don't intend to lose' election

NBC's Tim Russert interviews Bush on Saturday in the White House Oval Office.
NBC's Tim Russert interviews Bush on Saturday in the White House Oval Office.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Though conceding that Iraq apparently did not possess weapons of mass destruction, President Bush defended his decision to go to war in an interview that aired Sunday, saying, "Saddam Hussein was dangerous, and I'm not just going to leave him in power and trust a madman."

In an interview with NBC's "Meet The Press" taped Saturday in the Oval Office, Bush also said he's confident he will win a second term in November.

"I don't intend to lose," he said. "I want to lead this world to more peace and freedom."

Addressing the controversy over the fact that no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, Bush said, "I expected to find the weapons."

"I'm sitting behind this desk, making a very difficult decision of war and peace, and I based my decision on the best intelligence possible, intelligence that had been gathered over the years, intelligence that not only our analysts thought was valid but analysts from other countries thought were valid."

Bush was asked by moderator Tim Russert whether his statement on the night the U.S. began the war in Iraq that intelligence "leaves no doubt" that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was "apparently, not the case." The president responded, "Correct."

But Bush said Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein "had the ability to make weapons at the very minimum."

The president signed an executive order Friday creating a commission to review U.S. intelligence-gathering, including an evaluation of prewar intelligence. Bush gave the commission until March 2005 to finish its work.

Bush said he'd be glad to visit, but not testify before the commission.

Bush's opponents have criticized his decision to delay that deadline until after November's presidential election. But Sunday, the president said he wanted to give the commission enough time to complete a thorough assessment of U.S. intelligence gathering.

"We're in a political season, but there will be ample time for the American people to judge whether I made good calls," he said.

Bush also stood firm behind CIA Director George Tenet, denying that Tenet's job is in jeopardy. "Not at all, not at all," Bush said. "I strongly believe the CIA is ably led by George Tenet."

Bush was asked whether Congress would have authorized the war if he had gone to them and explained that Saddam should be removed because he was a threat to his people, but that it was unclear whether he had weapons of mass destruction.

"I went to Congress with the same intelligence Congress saw -- the same intelligence I had, and they looked at exactly what I looked at, and they made an informed judgment based upon the information that I had," he said. "The same information, by the way, that my predecessor had. And all of us, you know, made this judgment that Saddam Hussein needed to be removed."

But Sunday, two of Bush's Democratic rivals for president took issue with that assertion.

Speaking on "Fox News Sunday," Sen. John Edwards said Bush's statement that Congress saw the same intelligence information as the president was a "big leap."

"I'm not certain that's true," he said. "I know the president of the United States receives a different set of information than we receive on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and he receives more information, which he should."

Democratic front-runner Sen. John Kerry accused Bush on Sunday of backpedaling on the messages he gave Americans to justify going to war.

"George Bush needs to take responsibility for his actions and set the record straight. That's the very least that Americans should be able to expect," Kerry said.

"Either he believed Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons, or he didn't. Americans need to be able to trust their president, and they deserve the truth," Kerry said. (Full story)

Defends military record

On the topic of Bush's military service during the Vietnam War, Bush bristled at attacks suggesting he didn't fulfill his National Guard service.

"Political season is here. I served in the National Guard. I flew F-102 aircraft. I got an honorable discharge. I've heard this, I've heard this ever since I started running for office. I put in my time, proudly so," Bush said.

In 1972, Bush, a pilot in the Texas Air National Guard, got permission to continue his guard service in Alabama, where he was working on a Senate campaign. Reports surfaced during the 2000 presidential campaign that Bush did not report for duty during that time; Bush, honorably discharged from the guard, insisted he did.

Last week, Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, accused Bush of being "AWOL," which led Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie to brand McAuliffe as the "John Wilkes Booth of presidential character assassination."

Bush did leave the guard eight months early. Asked why by Russert, the president said, "I was going to Harvard Business School and worked it out with the military."

Vietnam 'a political war'

Bush said he supported his country during the Vietnam War, but called the conflict "a political war."

"I supported my government," he said. "I did. And would have gone had my unit been called up, by the way."

"The thing about the Vietnam War that troubles me as I look back was it was a political war," he said. "We had politicians making military decisions, and it is lessons that any president must learn, and that is to the set the goal and the objective and allow the military to come up with the plans to achieve that objective."

Defends his handling of economy

Bush also defended his handling of the economy, despite the loss of 2.2 million jobs so far in his term and a $521 billion budget deficit.

"I have been the president during a time of tremendous stress on our economy and made the decisions necessary to lead that would enhance recovery," Bush said. "The stock market started to decline in March of 2000. That was the first sign that things were troubled. The recession started upon my arrival."

He also said the criticism of his administration's spending by conservatives, such as radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh and the Heritage Foundation, are "wrong."

"If you look at the appropriations bills that were passed under my watch, in the last year of President Clinton, discretionary spending was up 15 percent, and ours have steadily declined," he said.

"The other thing that I think it's important for people who watch the expenditures side of the equation is to understand we are at war ... and any time you commit your troops into harm's way, they must have the best equipment, the best training and the best possible pay."

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