Wars on terror, in Iraq help define Bush's legacy

Posted Sunday, Apr. 21, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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History is far from settled over the Iraq war as former President George W. Bush prepares to open his presidential center Thursday before an all-star crowd of thousands and present his side of the story.

More than four years after Bush left office, protesters are lining up to criticize his eight years in office, saying he began an unjust, politicized war built on the belief that Iraqis were developing weapons of mass destruction - a belief officials now say were wrong.

Supporters of Bush, beloved by many in Texas and beyond, say the former president faced extraordinary situations, rose to meet challenges and made just decisions.

But historians say there's a long way to go before the ink is dry on history books that are still being written.

"War is a substantial part of his legacy," said Bruce Buchanan, a government professor specializing in presidential studies at the University of Texas at Austin. "Where Afghanistan was an arguably necessary war, the decision to go into Iraq was controversial ... and in some minds oversold, if not worse.

"People who are starting to pull together the history books wonder why and if it's worth the investment," he said. "The real test is how Bush's historical reputation might be impacted. At the moment, he's taking hits on cost and necessity. Down the road, the best hope for redemption is if it's seen as altering things in a way for world peace and best world interest."

On Thursday, the George W. Bush Presidential Center will officially be unveiled, as officials and leaders nationwide mark the completion of the library, museum and political institute commemorating the 43rd president's eight years in the White House.

Thousands of dignitaries, including all five living presidents, are expected at the invitation-only dedication of the 226,565-square-foot, $250 million center on the edge of the Southern Methodist University campus in University Park.

Critics and protesters plan to gather on the outskirts of campus to make their voices heard.

"This warmonger started two wars," said state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, an outspoken critic of the former president who will participate in a weeklong protest this week in Dallas called The People's Response. "Five years in, most people have not forgotten. He is a war criminal and he should be tried for those war crimes."

Bush told The Dallas Morning News in a recent interview that more than 10 years after the first war began, he believes he made the right decisions

"I'm comfortable with what I did," Bush said. "I'm comfortable with who I am."

War on terror

After the 9-11 attacks rocked the nation, President Bush launched a war on terror.

"The legacy of George W. Bush will always be shaped by 9-11 and all that followed," said Tom Schieffer, a Fort Worth attorney who spent eight years as an ambassador in Bush's administration. "It was literally a day that changed the world. ... Nothing would ever be quite the same again.

"He was determined to do everything he could to see that it never happened again."

Operation Enduring Freedom began with the goal of dismantling al Qaeda, ending the use of Afghanistan as its base and removing from power the Taliban regime believed to harbor Osama bin Laden.

Bin Laden was killed May 2, 2011. President Barack Obama said this year that about 34,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan will be home by early next year.

"Afghanistan was an arguably necessary war," Buchanan said. "It was the decision to go into Iraq that was controversial."

Bush's father, former President George H.W. Bush, battled Iraq in the early 1990s after dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, a major supplier of oil to the United States.

U.S. troops joined a coalition to ensure that Iraq troops withdrew from Kuwait, ultimately triggering the Persian Gulf War, which ended after Iraqis left Kuwait and both sides agreed to a cease-fire. Bush's decision to end the war without removing Saddam from power became controversial.

In 2002, George W. Bush asked Congress to authorize military force against Iraq because of concerns that Saddam was developing weapons of mass destruction that could threaten American lives. None had been used - and ultimately none were found - but Congress gave Bush the authority to use force, and by the next year, U.S. troops were in Iraq.

Skeptics questioning Bush's decision included retired Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, Bush's father's national security adviser during the Persian Gulf War.

Scowcroft wrote an op-ed piece that was published in 2002 in The Wall Street Journal, saying he feared that George W. Bush may have "overreacted" to threats and that his administration may have exaggerated concerns about weapons of mass destruction.

"The central point is that any campaign against Iraq, whatever the strategy, cost and risks, is certain to divert us for some indefinite period from our war on terrorism," Scowcroft wrote.

Some critics went further, accusing Bush of being untruthful about WMDs.

Others said he was trying to finish the job his dad started.

"Bush and [Vice President Dick] Cheney created war crimes - they lied the country into a war," said Hadi Jawad, an activist with the Dallas Peace Center, who will be among the protesters at the presidential center this week. "They must be held accountable. We are a nation where laws must apply equally to all. We hope our fellow Americans will consider the devastating effects of the Bush-Cheney administration."

No do-overs in war

Bush's supporters to this day defend his decision.

"Every intelligence agency in the world believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction," Schieffer said. "He had built and used them in the past. ... President Bush was worried that Hussein would sell or distribute those weapons to terrorists that would use them to strike our homeland again. He was haunted by the thought of facing more families and having to say to them, 'I knew it could happen, but I thought we could contain him.'

"The intelligence was wrong, but you don't get a chance for do-overs in war."

Former presidential advisers said they knew that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

"We saw them after 1990 and 1991," said Stephen Hadley, a former national security adviser to President George W. Bush. "Saddam committed to the U.N. that he would reveal them and destroy them, which he never showed us he had done. ... The entire intelligence ... thought he had weapons of mass destruction.

"We were just wrong," he said. "But the problem would have been there if Saddam had stayed. He would have been back in the weapons of mass destruction big time and Saddam would be making real problems for the Middle East in the post-awakening. It's good that he's gone. The Middle East is better and the Iraqi people are better off."

'War of last resort'

In 2003, Saddam was captured by American troops as he hid in a "spider hole" near a farmhouse in Tikrit. By late 2006, he had been hanged in Iraq after being convicted of crimes against humanity.

The final U.S. troops left Iraqi territory in late 2011.

"This was a war of last resort," Hadley said. "The U.S. government and the international community tried to deal with this problem of a guy who had weapons of mass destruction, ... oppressed his people and went to war with his neighbors. The U.S. tried to deal with it every way possible short of war."

But ultimately, he said Bush had to take action and move forward. There's no question mistakes were made along the way.

"In the early years of the war, we lost our way," he said. "It turned out to be a lot tougher than we thought. ... We lost our way, things surprised us and then the president made the courageous decision on the surge to add troops and things got better."

But the future of Iraq is yet to be seen.

"It is part of the changing Middle East," Hadley said. "It's a story that goes on and will continue to be important."

Critics abound

Jawad has been protesting U.S. involvement in Iraq since the mid-1990s.

And he'll be as close to the Bush presidential center as he can get Thursday, pointing out aspects of Bush's presidency he believes shouldn't be ignored.

"This was a disastrous strategy error in invading Iraq," Jawad said. On the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war, Tomas Young, an Iraq veteran paralyzed during his service, wrote an open letter to Bush and Cheney on behalf of military men and women who died during the war.

"You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans -- my fellow veterans -- whose future you stole," he wrote.

Young said he joined the Army after 9-11 because he wanted to "strike back at those who had killed some 3,000 of my fellow citizens," not to help liberate Iraqis or rebuild their country. Wounds suffered in Baghdad paralyzed him from the chest down.

Young, who is expected to participate in this week's protests through Skype, said this year that he had decided to stop taking his medication and feeding tube.

"My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come," he wrote in the letter. "... But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live."

The wars will help define Bush's presidency - for better or worse - because they were a "defining shift" in his presidency, said Victoria Farrar-Myers, a political science professor at UT Arlington.

But they aren't the only actions that will define his legacy.

The country's 43rd president will be remembered as a compassionate conservative who fought AIDS in Africa, was an "unabashed proponent of democracy" which led to the use of force in Iraq and Afghanistan and "as a conservative Republican who oversaw the growth of government and whose policies and approaches sent reverberations that created lasting fissures within the Republican Party," Farrar-Myers said.

Bush began his presidency with an ambitious domestic program, but after 9-11, he had to deal with the war on terror.

"I believe President Bush will be viewed ultimately as a principled leader who faced extraordinary crises and challenges and responded the best he could under the circumstances," former Bush adviser Mark McKinnon said.

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

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