Twenty years later, veterans are reflecting on their service and remembering fallen comrades. Iraqis are talking about how their country has changed and how it has not. American lawmakers are debating whether to finally repeal the legislation authorising the invasion.
One person not heard from in recent days: former President George W Bush.
That is how he wants it. He has no interest in being part of the debate any more. He did what he did and does not engage in second-guessing, at least not out loud. He knows the questions he would be asked if he spoke out now: Was it worth it? Does he regret it? What would he have done differently? How will history remember it? As far as he is concerned, the world is better off without Saddam Hussein, and he has told advisers he has not changed his mind about that.
In the two decades since he ordered the invasion of Iraq, Bush has been indelibly associated with the war that will define his place in history even as he has left the judgments to others. Living here in Dallas, he is most energised by his post-presidential interest in painting and his public policy institute. For years, he sponsored a 100-kilometer bicycle race with injured veterans, or “wounded warriors”, as they are called, and even published a book of paintings of some of his favourites who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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If he is exorcising demons or working through his own emotions about the war through his painting or his work with veterans, he would never say so and would surely scoff at the idea. Even as president, he always resisted efforts to “put me on a couch,” as he would put it to journalists. But lately his artistic ambitions have turned to paintings of birds and flowers – dozens of them are mounted on the walls of his Dallas office – and it seems fair to observe that scenes of nature are far removed from memories of war.
“I think Bush is an extraordinarily complex person,” said Melvyn P Leffler, a University of Virginia historian who just published Confronting Saddam Hussein, a book examining the war. “On the one hand, he appears to believe that his decision to invade Iraq was correct. On the other hand, looking at his book of paintings, you have to imagine that deep in his soul he feels a great deal of agony, of responsibility, of regret for those whose lives were scarred forever and for those who perished.”
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Those who have worked with him since he left office, however, said he never talks in such terms, at least not in their presence. He understands the war went wrong, and in his memoir, Decision Points, acknowledged two mistakes: the false intelligence on weapons of mass destruction and the failure to respond more decisively when security began to deteriorate. But he does not revisit the underlying decision or dwell on his responsibility.
“I don’t see his interest in helping veterans, especially wounded warriors, as atonement,” said James K Glassman, who served as an undersecretary of state under Bush and later was the founding executive director of the George W Bush Institute. “Never got an inkling of that. He really admires – kind of adores – these men and women. Maybe it’s their own discipline and dedication, don’t know.”
Bush’s silence at this anniversary, in the view of his critics, has hardly erased the stain of the decision he made. Opponents of the war argue that he and his administration did not simply make a good-faith error in believing faulty intelligence but distorted the case to sell a war they were predisposed to wage. A death toll that reached hundreds of thousands and the shame of the American abuses of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, they said, have not been forgotten by history.
“Bush will never wash the blood off his hands,” said Gary J Bass, a scholar of human rights at Princeton. “Twenty years after his disastrous aggression, it only looks worse. He can’t escape this.”
The invasion succeeded in toppling Saddam, by all accounts one of the world’s most brutal dictators, but touched off a virulent insurgency and relentless sectarian civil war that ultimately killed 4,600 US troops and 3,650 contractors, at least 45,000 members of the Iraqi military and police, at least 35,000 insurgents and an estimated 200,000 civilians. Today’s Iraq is far freer than it had been, but it remains haunted by the devastation and under the influence of neighbouring Iran.
Looking back, former advisers said they believe Bush would never have gone to war had he known there were no chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in Iraq, if for no other reason than it would have left him without sufficient support in Congress. But they note that many critics forget the atmosphere in the period after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, when the nation was afraid and Saddam was seen as a threat by both parties.
“It is tempting with hindsight for some to second-guess president Bush or to doubt his motivations,” said Alan Lowe, the first director of the George W Bush Presidential Library and Museum. “That is especially the case for those who have forgotten the trauma of 9/11 and the hard lesson that an attack can occur when we least expect it.” But had the intelligence been right and Bush had failed to act, Lowe said, “I believe the criticism of the president would have been immense.”
The scars remain deep and painful even after 20 years, and if anything the consensus that the war was a mistake has only hardened. In a new Axios/Ipsos poll, 61 per cent of respondents said they did not believe the United States made the right decision. Polls have found that even veterans share that view in roughly the same proportion as the general population.
“I don’t think there’s a person in their right mind who looks at the Iraq War now and says that was the right thing to do,” said Jon Soltz, who served two tours in Iraq and in 2006 helped found VoteVets, a group of former military service members who opposed the war. “I don’t think that’s even a debatable question any more.”
Indeed, some vocal proponents of the war have come to believe they were wrong. Senator John McCain, a prominent hawk, wrote shortly before his death in 2018 that the war had been “a very serious” mistake and “I have to accept my share of the blame for it.” Max Boot, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations and one-time leading neo-conservative, said this month on Twitter that he “was wildly over-optimistic about the prospects of exporting democracy by force”.
Paradoxically, former president Donald Trump helped cement the bipartisan view that Iraq was a disastrous error – while also helping to make Bush himself look better in hindsight by comparison. In running for president in 2016, Trump became the most prominent Republican to unabashedly denounce the decision to invade, making it more acceptable on the political right to disavow the war.
But Trump’s own conduct as president – his prolific prevarication, his attacks on immigrants, his efforts to overturn democracy – has softened views of Bush among those who once despised him. Even Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker who clashed with Bush over the war, came to speak of him fondly as she confronted Trump; in an interview in 2021, while noting how close she was to president George HW Bush, she added, “I love George Bush the son too.” She would not say the same of Trump.
“That’s the irony of it because Democrats view Bush as not anti-democracy and not a liar,” said Soltz, who said he still thinks about the war every day. “And sometimes I feel like people forget we invaded Iraq for frivolous or false reasons.”
But he agreed that Bush looked better by comparison, citing reports that Trump belittled top generals as “a bunch of dopes and babies” and called everyday soldiers “suckers” and “losers” for serving in war.
“Even though I think president Bush was completely wrong, even though we fought him on cable news every day for 2 ½ years, I wouldn’t tell you he is a bad American,” Soltz said. “He was wrong. He did what he thought was right even though it was an extraordinarily flawed decision.”
Some of Bush’s critics are frustrated by this line of thinking. “Today George W Bush is the target of a perverse rehabilitation campaign, rooted in the idea that his criticism of Donald Trump’s election lies makes him some kind of saviour of our democracy,” Sara Haghdoosti, the executive director of Win Without War, founded to oppose the Iraq War, wrote on the website of Jacobin magazine, which offers socialist perspectives on politics. She added that the men are “more alike than not – two presidents who used their power to inflict horrible harm around the world.”
Bush has argued that history will render its own verdict and that it may take generations. Advisers said he still believes what he wrote in his memoir, that Saddam had the capacity and desire to rebuild his unconventional weapons programme even without stockpiles and that deposing him not only freed a nation from oppression but also stopped a possible nuclear arms race with Iran.
But he hopes to be remembered for more than just Iraq. The war occupies a relatively small part of his presidential museum in Dallas, and the word “Iraq” does not appear in a pamphlet handed out to visitors. Indeed, the museum just opened a new Freedom Matters exhibit that seems an unspoken rejoinder to Trump, highlighting the history of democracy in the United States and around the world.
– This article originally appeared in The New York Times.