- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 18, 2009

ERIE, Pa.| Former President George W. Bush fired a salvo at President Obama on Wednesday, asserting his administration’s interrogation policies were within the law, declaring the private sector — not government — will fix the economy and rejecting the nationalization of health care.

“I know it’s going to be the private sector that leads this country out of the current economic times we’re in,” the former president said to applause from members of a local business group. “You can spend your money better than the government can spend your money.”

Repeatedly in his hourlong speech and question-and-answer session, Mr. Bush said he would not directly criticize the new president, who has moved to take over financial institutions and several large corporations. Several times, however, he took direct aim at Obama policies as he defended his own during eight years in office.

“Government does not create wealth. The major role for the government is to create an environment where people take risks to expand the job rate in the United States,” he said to huge cheers.

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Mr. Bush weighed in on some of the most pressing issues of the day: the election in Iran, the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba, and his administration’s interrogation policies of terrorists held there and elsewhere. The former president has not commented on Mr. Obama’s decision to ban “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding, which the current president has called “off course” and “based on fear.”

“The way I decided to address the problem was twofold: One, use every technique and tool within the law to bring terrorists to justice before they strike again,” he said, adding that the country needs to stay on offense, not defense. On Guantanamo, which while in office Mr. Bush said he wanted to close, the former president was diplomatic.

“I told you I’m not going to criticize my successor,” he said. “I’ll just tell you that there are people at Gitmo that will kill American people at a drop of a hat and I don’t believe that — persuasion isn’t going to work. Therapy isn’t going to cause terrorists to change their mind.”

The Obama administration has started to clear out some of the more than 200 detainees at the facility.

Repeating a mantra from his presidency, he called the current war against terrorism an “ideological conflict,” asserting that in the long term, the United States needs to press freedom and democracy in corners across the world.

Mr. Bush did not directly address Mr. Obama’s response to the election in Iran, which some critics have called tepid, but he did make clear that the outcome is very much in dispute. For a fifth straight day, as the Obama administration walks a tightrope by issuing little criticism, protesters gathered in Tehran to demand a new election.

“Clearly, there’s a level of frustration on the Iranian streets,” Mr. Bush said. “It looks like it’s not a very fair election.”

Mr. Bush returned again and again to the economy, and sought to defend his own actions after the financial meltdown in the waning days of his second term — Mr. Obama repeatedly has said he inherited that mess.

“I am told, ‘If you do not move strongly, Mr. President, you will be a president overseeing a depression that will ultimately be greater than the Great Depression,’” Mr. Bush said. “I firmly believe it was necessary to put money in our banks to make sure our financial system did not collapse. … I did not want there to be bread lines, to be a great depression.”

He said his administration sought to address the “housing bubble” before the system broke down. “We tried to reform” mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, “but couldn’t get it through the vested interests on Capitol Hill.”

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