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American columnist Cal Thomas met with President George W. Bush on Tuesday afternoon in the Oval Office. Below are edited excerpts of that interview. — Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels

Q: Iraq's interim president said he doesn't foresee American troops leaving until the country's security forces are built up and pockets of resistance are destroyed. He said, by the end of year we could see the number of foreign troops decreasing. But you seem to have a goal in mind: when the goal is achieved, then the troops will come back, not the reverse.

A: I think timetables are a mistake. The enemies can wait out timetables. The enemy anticipates a time — the arrival of a date. They will lie low until the date arrives, then they strike.

I have a different view. I believe we ought to achieve the goal, and the goal is to help this country realize its dreams. And what the American people saw (in the elections last weekend) was a country that has dreams. People defied the terrorists and went to the polls in amazing numbers. Exciting moment.

Q:The night before, did you have any doubts, any fears that it would come off differently?

A: Any time there's uncertainty, you, obviously, think about all the alternatives. But in the end, I had great faith. And I believe truly that, if given a chance, people will vote, people want to be free. And the first confirmation of this belief — of just giving people a chance to express themselves, like the people in our country — happened in Afghanistan. That vote was overwhelming. And the same in Iraq.

Q: Does the low Sunni turnout bother you at all?

A: I talked to King Abdullah, in Jordan, who told me that they had a very high turnout of Sunni — of Iraqi voters in Jordan, most of whom are Sunnis — which tells me that if the situation is secure, people will vote. And that's what these polls indicated.

It is understandable in a province like al Anbar — where Fallujah is the heart, where people had been dislocated and there are camps — you can understand why the turnout may be lower there than other places. We wanted all the people to vote.

And the key now is that there be an expression of inclusiveness, that there be minority rights, that people recognize that the new government is one that will listen to their hopes. And that's why I was very heartened by (Iyad) Allawi's statements, who is a Shia, that said to the Sunnis, we want to work with you. There's an outreach program going on that is very important.

Q: Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy has called for a timetable for getting out of Iraq. Senator John Kerry has sought to minimize your election victory, called it small and cautioned against attaching too much significance to the Iraq election. How would you characterize those remarks?

A: The fact of the matter is the Iraq people, in the face of very tough odds, rejected this notion that somehow certain people don't want to be free. They said loud and clear, in the face of terror activities and beheadings and killings and bombings, "We want to be free." And that's the only thing that matters, as far as I'm concerned.

Q: Do you think those remarks encourage the terrorists? I found a quote from a retired general in the North Vietnamese army who said that the North Vietnamese counted on the antiwar movement in the United States at the time as part of their strategy.

A: Yes.

Q: Now, I wonder if you think some of these remarks —

A: I think it's different this time. I do. I think — I think that the terrorists are really watching how resolute this government is, that they — and the elections confirmed our country's desire to stay there and complete the mission. And they see not only how resolute the government is and that the Congress is willing to fund the troops, but they also see a military that knows the country backs them.

Q: A federal judge ruled Monday in Washington that the people in prison in Guantanamo Bay have a constitutional right not to be deprived of liberty without due process. The government is going to appeal it, of course. But if the government loses the appeal, do you think this will impede the war on terrorism?

A: I've always felt like the people that we detained on the battlefield who were illegal noncombatants should be treated in the spirit of the Geneva Accords, but that they were unique. It's a unique war, a different kind of war. And so we went out of our way to explain to the American people why Guantanamo was set up, and why it is a different concept. It's now obviously being litigated in our courts, and we'll see what the courts decide.

Q: Abraham Lincoln said he couldn't see how someone could be president without faith in God. Gerald Ford said his favorite Bible verse was Proverbs 3:5-6, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your understanding." Is there a Bible verse that has particularly sustained you during time of war and the great pressures of this job?

A: It's an interesting question. I have said that I don't see how anybody can be president without prayer and a belief in the Almighty, although I'm sure others were able to do so. I think that's an important qualifier, because I'm sure people sat here in this office and felt like they could be president. I recognize that, in my feebleness, I need support from the Almighty, because I believe in an Almighty. And I love the support of the people through prayer.

I can't think of a single verse. I guess many verses inspire me. Laura had the Bible opened to Isaiah 40 that tells us to "wait upon the Lord." It's a great Bible verse.

Q: "Mount up with wings as eagles..."

A: That's a great Old Testament verse. ("But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint." (Isaiah, chapter 40, verse 31; King James version) — ed.)

You know, I'm reading the Bible this year — I've got a Daily Bible, and last year I read Oswald Chambers (a Scottish Christian writer of daily devotions who died in 1917. His most famous book was "My Utmost for His Highest" — ed.). Every other year I read the Daily Bible and pick up a daily devotional guide. And then the next year I read Oswald Chambers.

I've told people I thought Oswald Chambers is an interesting gauge to determine the depths of understanding of the Word, because he's such a provocative writer, and the more clearly you understand Oswald Chambers, the more likely it is the word of God is reaching your heart.

Q: Four years from now you'll be a former president. What standard will you use to judge whether you have run the race, kept the faith and become a successful president?

A: My standard is whether or not I gave it my all, the very best I could and as honest a way as I could. The standard of history will be judged by others, not by me. I suspect that the history — the true history of any administration — won't really be known until years down the road, particularly if an administration like ours tries to do big things.

What's amazing about this period of time is that we have seen freedom evolve very quickly in places that were dark and run by tyrants. But it takes time for movements to develop and reformers to be inspired and tyrants to fall. And so I don't anticipate some of the big changes that will take place as a result of what we started to take place until down the road. I don't think you can expect cultures to shift instantly.

The only true history that can be written about a president will be with the advantage of time, to determine whether or not big goals were set and results were achieved.

You can (now) see short-term legislative successes. (When we came in to the White House) we were confronted with a recession, taxes were cut and the economy is now growing. That's easy to measure. But peace, the culture of life, personal responsibility, respect for your neighbor, compassion for the less fortunate — those are all values and accomplishments that take a while. And I don't expect one administration to be "the answer." Administrations help propel movements and sometimes start movements.

What Ronald Reagan started, for example, in cultural change. Both Bush administrations will be a part of advancing respect for human life and human dignity.

My only point is that — just rambling here — a president shouldn't worry about history.