In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Washington correspondent on 18 November, U.S. President George W. Bush said Russia has nothing to fear from NATO enlargement and weighed in on a host of other issues, including Chechnya, Iraq, human rights, and Central Asia.
RFE/RL: Mr. President, this week NATO will be celebrating an historic expansion, as well as focusing on transforming the alliance to meet new threats, such as Iraq. You have spoken about the possibility of leading a coalition of the willing against Iraq. Why not speak about using NATO forces against Iraq, since under NATO's charter all members are supposed to come to the aid of any member under direct threat?
Bush: First of all, I hope we can do this peacefully, and by doing it peacefully that means I hope [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein disarms. Of course, we've hoped that for 11 years, we've hoped that for 16 [United Nations] resolutions. We now have a 17th resolution, and this time I intend to work with nations that love freedom and love peace and make sure the resolution stands. And if he doesn't disarm, you're right, I'll lead a coalition of the willing to disarm him, and there's all kinds of ways for that coalition to be formed. It could be formed with NATO, if they chose. I have said to the UN Security Council, we'll go back and discuss the matter with you. But Mr. Saddam Hussein must understand he will be disarmed, one way or the other. I hope it's done peacefully.
RFE/RL: The new members of NATO are quite small. Do you see them as contributing something significant militarily?
Bush: I was hoping you would ask: Do I see them contributing something to the alliance? So I'm going to answer it that way. First of all, I'll answer it militarily. I do believe they can contribute something really important, and that is, they can contribute their love for freedom. These are countries which have lived in totalitarian states. They haven't been free. And now they love freedom, just like America loves freedom. And that's going to be really important -- it'll add some vigor to the relationship in NATO. I think it's so healthy and wholesome. And I think they will -- I think they will help militarily. The key is to change the military strategy of NATO. [NATO Secretary-General] Lord [George] Robertson understands this. It starts with understanding that Russia is not our enemy. NATO doesn't need to be constructed to prevent the Warsaw Pact from invading Europe. After all, the Warsaw Pact doesn't exist. As a matter of fact, the Warsaw Pact is becoming NATO, slowly but surely. We don't need that type of mentality. And we've got to have a military strategy that addresses the true threats: The threats we face are global terrorist attacks -- that's the threat. And the more you like freedom, the more likely it is you'll be attacked. And therefore, the Article 5 that you referred to for NATO becomes very relevant in this war against terror. The war against terror...the terrorists will not only be defeated militarily, but the terrorists will be defeated as we share intelligence, and as we cut off money, and as we deny access, and as we stiffen up border requirements in order to make sure that people can't go from one spot to another with plots and messages to attack. And so it's a different kind of war, and it's going to be an interesting meeting, because not only is the meeting going to expand, but the meeting's going to address how best to achieve this common objective. I'm absolutely convinced that the so-called military gap between America and all countries can be addressed with a good strategy. And that'll be interesting for observers to watch. I think it's going to happen. I know that Lord Robertson, who runs NATO, is committed to developing a relevant strategy and one that will work.
RFE/RL: Russian President Vladimir Putin has equated his war in Chechnya with the U.S. war on terrorism. Do you agree with that equation, or do you still feel -- as was stated during your election campaign -- that Russian forces are committing brutalities against innocent Chechen civilians?
Bush: I think that, or hope that, Russia should be able to solve their issue with Chechnya peacefully. That is not to say that Vladimir [Putin] shouldn't do what it takes to protect his people from individual terrorist attacks. This is a different kind of war that we face. This is a war where we're dealing with people who hide in caves and kind of shadowy corners of the world and send people to their suicidal deaths. It's a war that I believe can lend itself to chasing those people down and at the same time solving issues in a peaceful way with respect to the human rights of minorities within countries. I said that in the campaign, and I also say it to Mr. Putin every time that I see him.
RFE/RL: Do you envision Russia ever becoming a full-fledged member of NATO?
Bush: I think the partnership between NATO and Russia is going to be a very constructive partnership. We'll see -- time will tell. The key thing is to make sure the relationship works the way it should, which really says to Russia that an expanded NATO on your border is not a threat to you or your future; as a matter of fact, it should enable you to grow peacefully. I'm going from Prague to St. Petersburg precisely to deliver that message to the Russian people, that, even though NATO will have been expanded on your border, particularly in sensitive areas like the Baltics, you should not fear expansion. You should welcome expansion because you've now got a neighborhood that is much more peaceful in which to realize your vast potential. And that's important for Russia to hear.
RFERL: Central Asia: Many experts say that the authoritarian regimes in that region are actually fueling terrorism because their people feel helpless and unable to effect change. Do you see any dangers in the U.S. allying itself closely with those governments?
Bush: I think any time the United States allies itself with a government that we never forget the basic premises of our existence, and that is, freedom is important, the human condition for all is important. We value every life; everybody counts. And in my judgment, the more people relate to the United States, and work with the United States, the more likely it is they will work to improve the human condition. That's what we spend a lot of the time doing. That's one of the great things about our country, is that we embrace freedom, first and foremost. This is one of my concerns about Iraq. Listen, we've got people living in Iraq that are tortured, brutalized, in order to keep this man in power. I weep for those who suffer. And so the great cause of the United States is freedom. I tell these countries -- they talk about freedom -- I say: Freedom is not America's gift to the world. It's God-given. Everybody counts. And it is with that spirit of recognizing the values of freedom, I think will help improve people, no matter where. And you're right, there are some leaders there that [we] need [to] work with. We're prepared to work with them. But I will tell you, poverty is a tool for recruitment amongst these global terrorists. It's a way for them to recruit -- perhaps. But poverty doesn't cause killers to exist, and it's an important distinction to make. These global terrorists, some of them are rich monetarily; they're obviously poor in spirit. They have no regard for human life. They claim they're religious, and they kill in the name of religion. And there are some breeding grounds, no question about it. And therefore, we hope that prosperity spreads out from central government to help people. But I hope people don't confuse the mentality of the terrorist leaders and economic plight, because these people are plenty comfortable. They just kill. And we're going to get them before they get us. And that's what the world needs to know about the United States.
RFE/RL: Osama bin Laden still seems to be alive...
Bush: ...could be.
RFE/RL: ...are you worried that he's plotting another major attack on the United States?
Bush: Whether it's him or somebody else, they're plotting an attack, no question about it. That's why we got to get him. But this issue is bigger than one person. If the war on terrorists is a group of fanatics, they hate America because of what we stand for, just because we love freedom. And that's why we're on the hunt, and slowly but surely we're dismantling them. I told the people of this country it's going to take a while. I said it's going [take] patience. The farther we get away from September 11, 2001, the more people are going to tend to forget what took place in this country. And that's normal reaction for people who are trying to settle back and hope that something doesn't exist. But my job is to remind people of the threats we face based on facts, and to find these killers. And that's exactly what we're going to do. I tell people in America, there's no cave dark enough to hide from the justice of America and our friends. And in my speech I'm going to give in Prague to the youngsters there, I'm going to remind them there is a coalition of the willing in place right now, chasing down terror. We've got 90 nations, 90 different nations all teamed up doing everything we can to bring these people to justice. And we'll prevail, make no mistake about it. We'll prevail.