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Bush Vows 'Firm' Response to Iran Military Action

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

JUAN WILLIAMS: If Iran escalates its military action on Iraq, how will the U.S. respond?

INSKEEP: That is one of the questions that NPR Juan Williams put to President Bush in an interview at the White House this morning, to which the president replied…

President GEORGE W. BUSH: If Iran escalates its military action in Iraq to the detriment of our troops and/or innocent Iraqi people, we will respond - firmly.

INSKEEP: President Bush at the White House this morning. Juan Williams is back from there and joins us in the studio. And Juan, do you get the sense the president is looking for a fight with Iraq?

WILLIAMS: No, Steve. I had the sense that he is defensive about this. He said that he would take action, that he thinks the American people would want him to take, that the American military want him to take to protect America interests and even to protect Iraqi interests. And then he kind of shied away from the idea that that necessarily meant an escalation in terms of American conflict with Iran, despite of course you know the presence now of two fighter carrier units in the Gulf and the president giving authority last week for American military to arrest and even target Iranian forces.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about that. If it ever did get to stronger military action against Iran, it would be dealing with allegations, allegations that Iran is interfering in Iraq, allegations about Iran's nuclear program. Does the president have the credibility to make the case on those allegations?

WILLIAMS: He feels he has the credibility. The question is whether or not he has the support of the American people. And as you know, that has been a problem, and so it's a matter of intelligence.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about another issue here. Last week Vice President Cheney was asked about U.S. progress in Iraq now, in Iraq, and he said the U.S. was having enormous success. Does the president agree?

WILLIAMS: Well, this is very interesting. Here's what the president said, Steve.

President BUSH: I think the vice president is a person reflecting a half-glass-full mentality, and that is he has been able to look at - as have I, and I hope other Americans have - the fact that that the tyrant was removed, 12 million people voted, there's an Iraqi constitution in place. It is a model for - and unique for the Middle East.

INSKEEP: So he's saying he doesn't necessarily disagree with what the vice president says, but does the president belief right now - and this is important because he's the guy determining policy - does the president believe that they're succeeding in Iraq right now?

WILLIAMS: He said to me that what he understands the vice president's position to be was, you know what, we have some issues but that the vice president was supportive of putting the additional 21,000 in and understood that changes had to be made, and so he said - you know, as you heard, that vice president is a glass-half-full kind of guy, but he understood that their problems that exist.

INSKEEP: Does the president think that they're doing well?

WILLIAMS: Well, the president does. I mean, given with the fighting over the weekend in Najaf, he said he thought that the Iraqi military was stepping up to the plate.

INSKEEP: Let's listen.

President BUSH: This fight is an indication of what is taking place, and that is the Iraqis are beginning to take the lead.

INSKEEP: The Iraqis are beginning to take the lead, is what he says. Is he saying the glass is half full at the moment?

WILLIAMS: At the moment he seems cheered by the developments over the weekend rather than fearing that it might devolve into further kind of internecine warfare, this time between various factions in the Shiite sect.

INSKEEP: I pursue this to some degree, Juan, because it's been an issue of some debate. Some people have been mystified that the president did not call for more dramatic changes in recent weeks in Iraq. They are increasing troops but not by an amount that we haven't seen before. They are making some other changes, but it's not a huge change.

And you do get the impression that the White House believes that in spite of public skepticism, they do believe that they are doing well in every department except keeping the American people behind them perhaps.

WILLIAMS: Well, I think the key here is that the president and his staff feel, Steve, that they are getting more cooperation out of Prime Minister Maliki at the moment, and for example, the effort made over the weekend in Najaf would suggest that the Iraqi military is willing to become more intensely involved and more capably involved in terms of battling people who are, as the president calls them, insurgents.

INSKEEP: Hard to gauge this from one conversation, but I know you followed the White House closely. Does the president still seem comfortable with his job and where he's taking the country?

WILLIAMS: Yeah. In fact, what's interesting, we were in the Roosevelt Room and he was very comfortable. I had the sense ever more so than watching him during State of the Union or in the address that he gave on Iraq, that he feels he's battling something that has long-term consequences. At the end I asked him about Harry Truman and his legacy, and he said he thought that he'll leave that to the historians but he's doing something that he thinks would be judged as right in generations to come.

INSKEEP: Juan, thanks very much.

That's NPR's Juan Williams. And you can hear more of that interview later today on NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. The president will respond to a question from an American soldier in Iraq. He'll talk about Hurricane Katrina and global climate change. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juan Williams
Juan Williams, one of America's leading journalists, is a news analyst, appearing regularly on NPR's Morning Edition. Knowledgeable and charismatic, Williams brings insight and depth — hallmarks of NPR programs — to a wide spectrum of issues and ideas.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.