WASHINGTON (AFP) – George W. Bush Monday passionately denied his turbulent presidency had damaged America's moral standing in the world, in a defiant defense of his record in a farewell White House news conference.
The unpopular Republican president next week bequeaths Democrat Barack Obama a nation locked in two foreign wars, traumatized by the worst economic slump since the 1930s and with the budget deficit heading towards a trillion dollars.
But Bush, in a valedictory appearance in the White House briefing room, was largely unrepentant, arguing he had acted to keep America safe and to spread freedom rather than worry about his rock-bottom approval ratings.
He lashed out at "elites" from Europe and elsewhere, who frowned on his policies and warned "axis of evil" foes Iran and North Korea were still dangerous.
He also warned Obama would face the grave threat of a terror attack on the US homeland and summed up his eight years in power as a "good, strong record."
Bush was most impassioned when confronted with claims he had tarnished America's global reputation.
"I strongly disagree with the assessment that our moral standing has been damaged," Bush said.
"It may be damaged amongst some of the elite -- but people still understand America stands for freedom; that America is a country that provides such great hope.
"You go to Africa, you ask Africans about America's generosity and compassion -- go to India ... go to China and ask."
Bush argued that he could have been popular in Europe for blaming Israel for all the problems in the Middle East, or by signing the Kyoto climate change accord, or by joining the International Criminal Court.
"I wouldn't worry about popularity. What I would worry about is the constitution of the United States and putting plans in place that make it easier to find out what the enemy is thinking."
Bush, who opponents argue insulated himself from a broad spectrum of advice, was also dismissive of critics who have savaged his presidency.
"I don't see how I can go back home in Texas and look in the mirror and be proud of what I see if I allowed the loud voices, the loud critics, to prevent me from doing what I thought was necessary to protect the country."
The president also signaled a fight for his legacy.
"Thank you for giving me a chance to defend a record that I am going to continue to defend because I think it is a good, strong record."
Bush warned Obama will shoulder a heavy responsibility for US security.
"The most urgent threat that he'll have to deal with and other presidents after him will have to deal with is an attack on our homeland."
Bush said history should remember his unpopular Iraq war policy for the surge of troops he ordered when violence multiplied.
"I decided to do something about it, and to send 30,000 troops in as opposed to withdrawing. That part of history is certain and the situation did change."
Bush, who will deliver a formal farewell address to Americans on Thursday, warned Hamas it must halt rocket fire on Israel if there is to be a durable ceasefire in Gaza.
He also noted historians will examine the fact that the US economy slumped into recession at the end of his two terms and later asked Congress for a second 350 billion dollar tranche of a finance industry bailout package at Obama's request.
Bush also said he was looking forward to a "front row seat" during the inauguration at the moment in front of the US Capitol on January 20 that Obama becomes the first black US president.
"President-elect Obama's election does speak volumes about how far this country has come when it comes to racial relations."
"I wish him all the best ... it's not a throwaway line, the stakes are high, there is an enemy that still is out there."
Bush admitted to a series of mistakes in his presidency, including the decision to give a speech under a "Mission Accomplished" banner on a US aircraft carrier after the Iraq war.
He defended his decision not to land Air Force One in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a monster storm which saw his administration accused of deserting thousands of people in inundated New Orleans.
"Could things have been done better? Absolutely. Absolutely."
And with one week left in office, the famously fit president offered a glimpse of a vigorous retirement.
"I just can't envision myself, you know, with the big straw hat and a Hawaiian shirt sitting on some beach."
"Particularly since I quit drinking."