President Bush, holding his final White House press conference on Monday, delivered a long list of mistakes he made during his two terms in office, ticking off everything from the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to the his decisions after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans.
“Clearly putting a “Mission Accomplished” banner on an aircraft carrier was a mistake,” the president said, referring to his 2003 speech on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln as it returned home from its mission in Iraq. “It sent the wrong message; we were trying to say something differently but nevertheless it conveyed a different message.”
“Obviously some of my rhetoric has been a mistake,” Mr. Bush said, who in recent days of reflective interview before he leaves office Jan. 20 has criticized his own choice of words, such as the time he demanded Osama bin Laden “dead or alive” or taunted al Qaeda by saying, “Bring it on.”
On Katrina, Mr. Bush defended his decision to fly over a devastated New Orleans the day after the levees broke, as he returned from California.
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“I’ve thought long and hard about Katrina, you know, could I have done something differently, like, land Air Force One, either in New Orleans or Baton Rouge. The problem with that is that law enforcement would have been pulled away from the mission and then your questions would have been, ‘How could you possibly have flown Air Force One into Baton Rouge and police officers that were needed to expedite traffic out of New Orleans were taken off the task to look after you?’”
Mr. Bush also regretted the first policy initiative he pushed after winning re-election in 2004, when he declared “I have capital and I’m going to spend it.”
“I believe that running the Social Security idea right after the ‘04 election was a mistake. I should have argued for immigration reform. … The crisis was not imminent as far as members of Congress were concerned.”
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But the president defended his decisions — and those of all past and future presidents. “One thing about the presidency is that you can only make decisions based on the information at hand. You don’t get to have information after you make the decision — that’s not the way it works. And you stand by your decisions and you explain why you made the decisions you made.”
Mr. Bush also said Abu Graib was “a huge disappointment” and that “not having weapons of mass destruction was a significant disappointment.”
“I don’t know if you want to call those mistakes or not, but things didn’t go as planned, let’s put it that way. Anyway, I think historians will look back and they’ll be able to have a better look at mistakes after some time has passed. … There is no such thing as short-term history. I don’t think you can possibly get the full breadth of an administration until time has passed.”
Mr. Bush also said Monday that North Korea and Iran, whom he once dubbed part of an “Axis of Evil,” remained dangerous and called on Pyongyang to honor promises made in nuclear disarmament talks.
“In order to advance our relations with Korea, the North Korean government must honor the commitments it made to allow for strong verification measures to be in place to ensure that they do not develop a highly enriched uranium program,” he said.