WE NOW KNOW WHY the Bush administration hasn't made the capture of Osama bin Laden a paramount goal of the war on terror. Emphasis on bin Laden doesn't fit with the administration's strategy for combating terrorism. Here's how President Bush explained this Tuesday: "This thing about . . . let's put 100,000 of our special forces stomping through Pakistan in order to find bin Laden is just simply not the strategy that will work."
Rather, Bush says there's a better way to stay on offense against terrorists. "The way you win the war on terror," Bush said, "is to find people [who are terrorists] and get them to give you information about what their buddies are fixing to do." In a speech last week, the president explained how this had worked--starting with the arrest and interrogation of 9/11 planner Khalid Sheik Muhammad--to break up a terrorist operation that was planning post-9/11 attacks on America.
"It's really important at this stage . . . to be thinking about how to institutionalize courses of action that will enable future presidents to gain the information necessary to prevent attack," he said. This, presumably, would include the use of secret prisons, tough but legal interrogation techniques, a ban on lawsuits against interrogators, electronic eavesdropping, and monitoring of bank transfers, among other measures.
Bush talked about his strategy in the fight against Islamic jihadists in a 95-minute session in the Oval Office with seven journalists. At the outset of the interview, which occurred the morning after his speech to the nation on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, Bush declared: "I've never been more convinced that the decisions I made are the right decisions."
An unusual aspect of the session was the president's request for some of his remarks to be considered off the record. Nevertheless, several of these comments were reported anyway, including his observation that he senses a new spiritual awakening in the country. That view, he indicated, is at least partly based on the many times average citizens tell him they are praying for him.
Bush said it's difficult for many people to understand how serious the terrorist threat is. "It's impossible for someone to have grown up in the 50s and 60s to envision a conflict with people that just kill mercilessly, using techniques that are kind of foreign to modern warfare. But it's real. I'm telling you, it's real."
The president said he "can pretty well anticipate" what people will say about him and his actions. The response to his 9/11 speech "was a classic," he said. It was that he'd brought up the subject of Iraq, thus injecting politics into the address. "Well, imagine what would have been said if I didn't talk about Iraq." Bush said it would have been called a "failed policy, therefore we can't talk about it." But because he did talk about it, the complaint is "it's politics," he said. "It's just the nature of the deal."
Bush said he wouldn't deploy more American troops in Iraq unless the generals in charge asked for them--and they haven't. "Actually, our generals are saying we need more troops and we want them to be Iraqis," he added.
He said he backs Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld "100 percent" and supports Rumsfeld's "modernization" of the Army that has upset so many generals. Bush said Rumsfeld, not a band of generals, is firmly running the Pentagon and that's how it should be.
Bush dismissed as cynical the charge that he hasn't asked the American people to accept sacrifices as American soldiers fight against terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere. "You know what the definition of sacrifice is for a lot of people" who question him about the lack of sacrifice? "How come you didn't raise taxes? That's what that means as far as I'm concerned . . . If we had raised taxes to create a sense of sacrifice, it would have caused even greater sacrifice because I believe raising taxes in a recession would cause the economy to get even worse."
The president said he is not isolated in the White House. "I know exactly what's in the news," he said. "I listen to a lot of people. I've got smart people around me. And they can march right in here--this Oval Office can be slightly intimidating, but I've got people here who can fight through the aura and say, 'I think you're wrong. I think you're right.'"
In the midterm election on November 7, Bush predicted Democrats won't win either the House or the Senate. "I believe these elections will come down to two things: one, firm belief that in order to win the war on terror there must be a comprehensive strategy that recognizes this war is being fought on more than one front, and, two, the economy." Bush said the price of gasoline, which has been falling rapidly, is one of the "interesting indicators" that the press should watch carefully. "Just giving you a heads up," he added.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.