FORT WORTH, Texas -History is far from settled over the Iraq War as former President George W. Bush readies 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 already are lining up to criticize his eight years in office, saying he began what they call an unjust, politicized war built on the belief that Iraqis were developing weapons of mass destruction — a belief officials now say they were wrong about.
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.
Historians, however, say there’s a long way to go before the ink is dry on the 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 in 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 to the world, 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 Dallas.
Critics and protesters plan to gather on the outskirts of campus to make their voices heard.
“This war-monger 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 still believes he made the right decisions
“I’m comfortable with what I did,” Bush said. “I’m comfortable with who I am.”
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks rocked the nation in 2001, then-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 the George W. Bush 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-Qaida, 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 earlier 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.”
In 2002, George W. Bush asked Congress to authorize military force against Iraq because of concerns that Saddam Hussein 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 power to use force and by the next year, U.S. military troops were in Iraq.
Skeptics questioned whether George W. Bush was making the right decision to move forward.
One of those skeptics was Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who served as his father’s national security adviser during the Gulf War. He wrote an op-ed that was published in The Wall Street Journal saying he feared 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 in his 2002 piece.
Some critics went further, charging that Bush simply wasn’t truthful about the existence of 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.”
Bush supporters to this day defend the president and 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 Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
“We saw them after 1990 and 1991,” said Stephen Hadley, who was national security adviser under 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.
In 2003, Hussein was captured by American troops as he hid in a spider hole near a farmhouse in Tikrit. By late 2006, he had been executed by hanging 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.
Through the years, he said mistakes were made.
“In the early years of the war, we lost our way,” he said. “It turned out to be a lot tougher than we thought. What we didn’t see is that al-Qaida would rush in and choose Iraq as the place to confront the U.S.
“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,” he said. It’s a story that goes on and will continue to be important.”