New Delhi: George W. Bush had one of the most controversial stints as president of the US. He also played a key role in significantly enhancing the bilateral relationship between India and the US. On his second visit to India, as a private citizen, to participate in the annual Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, he spoke to Mint on Friday on a range of issues, including the future of the bilateral relationship that he had fostered, dealing with the vexing issue of Pakistan and the direction of a new climate change treaty. Edited excerpts:
During your first visit to India you set the stage for the bilateral relationship between India and the US. Now you return as a private citizen. What are your thoughts?
Old friend: Former US president George W. Bush. Ken Cedeno / Bloomberg
First of all, the bilateral relationship forged with previous prime ministers is important for America and I believe it is good for the region and good for the world. India is an important country and it is one with which America shares values.
Secondly, its importance is becoming more relevant as the world recovers from the economic downturn. I think historians will look back and say that isn’t it interesting that one of the reasons behind the recovery is India and other emerging countries like her. That would not have been said 20 or 30 years ago. So, India is a country of vital importance. It is important for peace and prosperity.
By far you are one of the most popular US presidents in India. That is primarily because of the initiatives you undertook to take the relationship between the two countries to an entirely new level. Do you think this intensity can be sustained?
I do. President (Barack) Obama has made this clear in some of his comments. I believe that US-India relations will be based upon mutual respect and we will find areas that we can move forward and obviously there will be some areas of disagreement—but it will be done in a very respectful way.
Your visit also comes at a time when Pakistan is in the throes of an unprecedented internal crisis. What are your thoughts, especially since a key focus of your foreign policy was the subcontinent?
First of all, I thought it was in India’s interests that she have a good bilateral relationship with the United States and that the United States also had a good bilateral relationship with Pakistan. In other words, the era of where you can’t be friends with some or zero-sum is gone.
Secondly, it is very important for the United States to help Pakistan deal with the extremists within its border; those who can be extremely dangerous outside the border and also within Pakistan itself. And, Afghanistan is an important part of making sure that there is regional stability and it is important for the United States to help that democracy succeed.
Do you believe the Taliban problem has spilled over into India?
I think I would speak in a broader sense. Extremists, people who murder innocent people to further their ideology, are not only dangerous in this region but also worldwide. Because I believe that we are involved in an ideological conflict. That is why India is so important to the world stage; because it is an example of where people of different religions can live peacefully. And, I believe democracies yield peace as well and India is a great democracy. I believe extremist movements to be dangerous to societies that embrace a different ideology, one based upon human rights and dignity and freedom.
You did touch upon the need to stabilize Afghanistan. Even in your own country there is a big ongoing debate on whether you need more boots-on-the-ground as it were. Your thoughts?
First of all, I can only tell you as to what I did as president. At the end of the liberation—and, I view it as liberation—America doesn’t seek territory; in the sense that we delivered an ultimatum to people who provide safe haven to people who killed 3,000 of our (United States) citizens; and, the Taliban chose to ignore us. So we liberated 25 million people with about 9,000 troops at the end of 2001. By the time I left office, the troop levels had significantly increased, not only by ourselves but also by Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). I did believe that more troops were necessary.
The President (Barack Obama) will have to weigh the decisions and I understand that. He is weighing the alternatives. I believe the United States will continue to help the Afghan democracy. Obviously Afghanistan will have to help itself and show the world that it is capable of self-government. I think most people in Afghanistan want democracy to succeed. It is obviously a difficult period; it takes a while...freedom is difficult. Particularly when you have people murdering to stop the advance of democracy. It is in our interests, all our interests, that we help Afghanistan succeed.
Do you believe there is a bigger role for India in Afghanistan?
I applaud India’s help in Afghanistan. It has been very admirable that the Indian people have helped this young government stabilize and succeed.
But it is also a source of tension for Pakistan?
Well, it shouldn’t be a source of tension. Because I believe that a stable Afghanistan is in Pakistan’s interests.
Going back to the issue of Pakistan, especially since it was mentioned as a large part of the foreign policy focus, in your own experience what is the way out of this logjam?
I think the way out is for the United States to help the Pakistan government in dealing with these extremists. Not only to help them militarily but also develop a more hopeful future for people living in the remote regions of Pakistan; to help with jobs, education. It is a very difficult period. I know the Pak government knows that these extremists target them as well as others; so, it is in their interest to deal with these extremists. I think it is very difficult to negotiate with people who want to murder innocent people to advance an ideology that is opposite of democracy.
But isn’t it tricky? You have a democratically elected government and at the same time the military wields a lot of influence. How do you deal with this dual power structure?
It will just take a lot of diplomacy and work with the elected government. As you say, there is an elected government. And, during my presidency I had respect for president (Pervez) Musharraf, but reminded him that the United States supports democracy in Pakistan. There was a constitutional crisis (in Pakistan) during the end of my presidency, but I was always reminding him that we support democracy. I believe democracies yield peace. And, this democracy is being challenged. It is in the US interest that it help Pakistan democracy succeed; it will be a more stabilizing influence within the region.
On hindsight, was it a mistake to repose so much faith in General Musharraf?
He was the elected person of Pakistan and at the same time I reminded him that he either be the president or take off his uniform. By the way, right after 9/11, remember that there were three countries that had recognized Taliban, one of which was Pakistan; and, right after the attack our secretary of state Colin Powell had a heart to heart conversation with president Musharraf who asked “who he was with” and he said “with the United States”. It was a breakthrough in dealing with the extremists. He had made a commitment and we made a commitment to help him.
In the period that you have left office, global issues have become more testier and complex. One of them is climate change. You do have strong views on that. Do you believe there is an impending need to forge a new deal on climate change?
I think it is very important for people to understand that technology will help deal with the issue of climate change. I took it seriously as the president. But, I also wanted to make sure that whatever policies we have in place will enable us to continue our economic growth; because it involves a large amount of money to come up with the technologies. That is why I was one of the big supporters of civil nuclear deal with India; because I believe in nuclear power. I believe the United States needs more nuclear power and I believe India can use more nuclear power.
To me, nuclear power symbolizes where we ought to go on the issue of climate change—that is, generate economic vitality with power plants that do not generate greenhouse gases. That is what nuclear power does. This is an issue we all take seriously. And whatever agreements are made should recognize that the engines for growth are not diminished.
In the last decade or so, the US had a primacy that has got challenged. Do you believe that this can be restored and, if not, what is the implication for global polity?
First of all, I was the one who made the decision during the economic problems to include countries like India at the table. So we expanded from the G8 to the G20 because I believe that all nations in dealing with common problems—as the economic crisis—big economies need their voices heard.
In appreciation: Bush says it has been admirable that the Indian people have helped Afghanistan’s young government stabilize and succeed. Paul J. Richards / AFP
I welcomed India and China to the table because we were more globalized than before. I felt that these economies will be helping the world out of the recession and we need to hear from them. So, I welcome the new voices at the table and it is good for the world.
Looking back at the eight years of your presidency, is there something that you would have like to do differently?
I probably would have liked to have gotten social security reform. It is a big balance sheet liability, but I was not able to convince the (US) Congress to fix it. I hope the US President is in a position to get it done. It is a system, which young people are paying into, that is not economically viable.