George W. Bush Interview: 'My Job Is to Set Priorities'

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Another unsatisfying compromise: Bush

President Bush discussed a range of issues in an interview with TIME aboard Air Force One Wednesday. He defended his position on U.S. relations with China and Taiwan; said that providing treatment to drug addicts was a key to winning the war on drugs; suggested, but did not promise, that he might not sign the education bill now working its way through Congress if opponents of testing block a requirement that states administer a national performance assessment test; insisted his administration was playing an aggressive role in the Middle East peace process; and disputed the notion that he has an environmental image problem.

The 15-minute interview took place in Bush's office aboard Air Force One as we flew from Andrews Air Force Base to New Orleans. Bush was seated at his wooden desk, which is shaped like a boomerang. The President seemed relaxed during the interview; it was obvious that he had been giving a lot of interviews lately and was in a kind of groove. He leaned over the desk while he answered questions, absent-mindedly fiddling with a cellophane candy wrapper as he spoke, and finally tearing it into little pieces.

Q: The war on drugs: We saw what happened in Peru — the missionaries shot down. Are you comfortable with the U.S. military's role and the CIA's role in South America in the war on drugs?

THE PRESIDENT: We have got a full investigation going on to find out all the facts to make sure that my administration is fully aware of what has gone on and what is recommended to go on from this point forward. I do think it's important for us to continue to cooperate with friendly nations in terms of interdiction, and — but this investigation — I mean, this incident has prompted an investigation that is ongoing right now.

Q: So you think it's possible that there could be changes in the way we —

THE PRESIDENT: I just want to make sure I understand before I speculate one way or the other. But in general, in terms of cooperating with friendly nations and nations that are concerned about drug traffic and drug movement, we've got to figure out ways to cooperate and to help in their efforts to interdict drugs.

Q: Would that ever include introduction of U.S. forces?

THE PRESIDENT: Into South America? No.

Q: So, under no circumstances?

THE PRESIDENT: Let me put it — we have troops there.

Q: As advisors.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, as advisors and trainers. Beyond that, no.

Q: Okay. What about the war on drugs? Is it winnable at all? We've got two million people in American jails, a lot of them for drugs.

THE PRESIDENT: It's winnable. It is a battle that is going to require a lot of education of parents and children. Education that says to baby boomer parents the drug scene has changed; be very careful. This is not the '60s and '70s. There is a much more sophisticated, insidious marketing of drugs.

Secondly, a lot of the consumption in America is done by addicts, and we've got to do a better job of helping people rid themselves of their habits. One of my visions for the faith-based initiative is to encourage faith-based programs to become more actively involved in helping people kick the drug habit.

I don't have the statistics handy and I think we can get them for you, but I think you would be amazed at the amount — the rejection of the amount of drugs consumed by a few number of people. In other words, experimentation obviously goes on. But it doesn't take hold. What really is affecting the usage in America is a relatively small number of people.

Q: And, therefore, addiction requires treatment?

THE PRESIDENT: Therefore, addiction does require treatment, and I think we ought to look at all sentencing laws, just to make sure that we've achieving what we want to achieve, which is winning the battle on the war on drugs.

Q: In the Congress, as you know, your top priority, the education bill, is making its way through. There's a big battle over testing. A lot of conservatives, or some conservatives, don't like the NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Performance] test. Are you willing to compromise on that?

THE PRESIDENT: First of all, we're saying Texas, Jersey, Florida, any state can develop their own accountability system. But in order to determine how one state is doing related to the next, you need NAEP. It becomes a way to measure success amongst states. It is how you justify having a locally devised accountability system with a kind of national agenda.

Q: Right

THE PRESIDENT: And so, NAEP is important to determine how one state does relative to the next.

Q: So it's got to be in a bill that you sign.

THE PRESIDENT: I think it's very important that it is in the bill. That's why I campaigned on it.

Q: So you will not sign a bill without it?

THE PRESIDENT: You're asking me the great classic hypothetical. I would hope, strongly urge that it be in the bill. But I will review all bills, all options when I see the final product.

Q: Also, on education, there's a fight over money.

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, there is.

Q: Democrats —

THE PRESIDENT: There's always a fight over money.

Q: Democrats want a lot more. They've come down from their original proposal to $8.8 billion; you're at $2.2 billion. There are some complaints on the Hill that even though you brought them down initially, you don't want to talk, you're not ready to —

THE PRESIDENT: This is — I think — I just strongly disagree. We've made some offers. The facts are not — the facts are just not that — those are not the facts. I think a thorough investigation will see that from that point in time, the Bush administration has made several offers.

Q: Of more money?


Q: Higher money? How high are you willing to go?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I — you know, look —

Q: It's the number one priority.

THE PRESIDENT: A couple of things — of course, it's a priority. And we increased money dramatically in the budget. This will be a perpetual debate. Whether it's on education or any other — the Congress wants to spend money. And my job is to set priorities, focus on the priorities, and bring some fiscal sanity to Washington.

Q: The energy crisis.


Q: If there is a crisis.


Q: The gas prices —

THE PRESIDENT: Did you say 'if there was a crisis?'

Q: Well, yes. I don't want to define it for you. I know, obviously you think there is

THE PRESIDENT: I believe there is one. There is a major energy problem.

Q: Prices are going up, retail gas prices. Obviously, refineries and capacity issues are part of the problem. But OPEC is also part of the problem.

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, I think the main problem on refined product is that we haven't built any refineries. And the bottleneck is really not enough refined product on the market — although OPEC pricing does matter. And I would strongly hope that OPEC does not hurt the huge market called The United States of America by running up the price of crude oil.

Q: During the campaign, you criticized the then-incumbent administration for not doing a good job of leaning on our friends in the region to bring prices down.

THE PRESIDENT: As well as criticizing them for not having an energy policy.

Q: But have you — I guess OPEC has cut back on production again since you've come into office. Are you —

THE PRESIDENT: Well, but remember the relative prices for where we were. I don't have —

Q: Is there more work to be done for you —

THE PRESIDENT: I think we need to — let me get to the Middle East. We've got a lot of work to do in the Middle East. The Middle East is — you hear the words "foundation of peace in the Middle East" — when you have peace in the Middle East [it] requires strong diplomacy, not only with those countries bordering on the Middle East, but Saudi Arabia and other nations that have got a huge interest in what goes on in the Middle East.

And so, our country's first foray was in the Middle East and the Gulf region. So the Secretary of State went, working to build relations — for a couple of reasons. One is for energy security; two is to provide a platform for peace if we can ever get the parties back to the table, which starts with making sure we break the cycle of violence that seems to be spinning in the Middle East right now.

And we're making some progress there, Jay. Our administration and government started the security talks. There's been four or five such talks since we initiated them, and this — security talks, I mean, between our own agencies as well as the security officials from the Palestinians and the Israelis.

As violence begins to deescalate and slow down, you then have an opportunity to begin some political discussions. In order to make sure that peace can get people to the table and a deal — in order to make sure it works, there's got to be kind of unanimity in the region.

Q: Do you foresee a point when you or the Secretary of State will insert yourself more aggressively, when there's —

THE PRESIDENT: We're very aggressive right now. Our administration is involved. I mean, I'm on the phone a lot, the Secretary of State's on the phone a lot. We are very much involved. And, first things first — stop the violence. And it has to happen before any meaningful discussions will take place.

In the meantime, I mean, I'm answering your question in a roundabout way because I want to put it in an overall context. What happens in the Middle East affects relations with, obviously now, more so than ever, with other nations in the region, and that includes places like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Those countries are very anxious about what's taking place in the Middle East.

But that also affects the Iraqi policy. And one of the first things we did, as you well know, was begin to redefine the sanctions on Iraq so that we get a more effective policy and isolating Saddam and making it harder for him to develop the weaponry that we fear he might want to develop. And at the same time, send a clear message that we're not interested in — we're interested in the Iraqi people. We don't want the children and women to suffer in Iraq.

Q: On the environment, last week you spent a lot of time in a high-profile way making announcements about positions on the environment. That was widely seen as an acknowledgement by the White House that you had an environmental image problem. Is that true?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I've got a very clear strategy, and hopefully, the American people are beginning to listen to it — is the strategy to protect our environment and at the same time, bring common sense and science in all my deliberations.

And we've made some very strong statements, I think. The arsenic issue is one in which our EPA Administrator said we're going to reduce the arsenic in water. And she said, I want to make sure that the level to which we reduce it is scientifically-based. And somehow, that was [taken] to be that we're for arsenic in water.

Q: But it created an image problem. Would you —

THE PRESIDENT: Well, it maybe created a filter problem, you know? But I think America is beginning to really realize that we're serious about good environmental quality. We had wetlands, lead and diesel — all these regulations that are sending a clear signal. Now, I also said loud and clear that we can do a better job reducing greenhouse gases, a more scientifically-based job. And I'll come forth with an initiative that I think will say to Americans, yes, we care about greenhouse gases, we'll have a scientifically-based program, and I'll then go work with others around the world to see if we can't all come together and agree.

I will tell you that the treaty that I was left with was not going to be ratified in the United States Senate. And so, rather than holding up hope that it would be, we told our European allies, for example, that this is not going to happen and, therefore, let's work on a new approach.

ARI FLIEISCHER: Last question.

Q: On China, while you agreed to sell a large number of weapons to Taiwan, some conservatives thought that on the politically sensitive items, not just the Aegis, but HARM and Harpoon missiles, the JDAMs, you decided not to, which was a sign to Beijing that we didn't have the courage to take them on, or to cross those red lines.

THE PRESIDENT: My job is to uphold the spirit of the Taiwan Relations Act, and I did so — with a very robust package. It appeared to me the Taiwanese were very grateful.

Secondly, I recognize the relationship between China is going to be very complex, but [it's] in our nation's interest for us to find areas where we can agree and to work on areas where we disagree. And I'm going to do so. It's in our interest to trade. We had this debate in the primary. I mean, there were a lot of folks saying, well, we shouldn't trade with China. I disagree; I think we ought to trade with China. It's in our economic interest, but it's also more likely to cause freedom to occur in China. And, Lord knows, we need freedom. After all, Catholic bishops were just hauled in the other day — a Catholic bishop as well as other Catholic hierarchy were arrested, which is not right.

So we need to have the ability to say to China, you know, this is wrong. And at the same time say, let's work together on trade. And I'm convinced that my administration will take a realistic approach to what is a very important and complex relationship.

ARI FLEISCHER: Last question.

Q: In Texas, you were known for not campaigning against Democrats who have helped you. Will you do that again? (laughter)

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, no, maybe.