Later policy reversals may help Bush's Iraq legacy, but his invasion destroyed a nation and unleashed internal conflict
Iraq will be a cornerstone of Bush's presidential legacy. A large building block of this legacy will appear in 2013 when the George W Bush library opens on the campus of the Southern Methodist University. On display inside will be the 9mm Glock pistol taken from Saddam Hussein when he was dragged out of his spider hole north of Baghdad in December 2003. The memento is evidence of how a legacy is shaped rather than objectively told. So perhaps Bush was right: history will prove him correct, as only few can open libraries in which their own narrative is told.
Mark Langdale, the president of the George W Bush Foundation, admitted that Bush's Iraq story was still being shaped. He told the New York Times how "the gun is an interesting artefact, and it tells you that the United States captured Saddam Hussein and disarmed him literally. How we fit that into the decision to go to war, we haven't gotten to that point yet." Cherry-picking a convenient history to whitewash what Madeleine Albright described as the "greatest disaster in American foreign policy" will take some skilled propaganda. Worryingly, Karl Rove told Fox News in 2008: "History, though, is going to be kind to him at the end. I'm absolutely confident of that".
Certainly Bush's rewriting of his Iraq legacy will be helped by his decision to reverse his earlier policies, abandoning the idealism of the top-down reinvention of Iraq symbolised by Paul Bremer's approach and bringing on board the reality-based pragmatism of David Petraeus, now head of Central Command, Robert Gates, the defence secretary, and Ryan Crocker, US ambassador to Iraq. The success of the "surge" in reducing levels of violence, the election of Barack Obama and the upping of the ante in Afghanistan have led to a general perception of success in Iraq. The former vice-president Dick Cheney in a recent interview proclaimed that in Iraq "we've accomplished nearly everything we set out to do".
Robert McNamara's death provides an interesting contrast into the construction of history around the great events of our time. His appearance in the remarkable documentary Fog of War was a grasp at redemption from a man somewhat haunted by his past actions. In the film he asks, "What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?" Saddam may have lost both his grasp on Iraq and his life, but he may continue to haunt Bush from the grave.
Indeed, earlier this month it was revealed that FBI special agents carried out 20 formal interviews and at least five "casual conversations" with the former dictator after his arrest in 2003, according to secret FBI reports released as the result of Freedom of Information Act requests by the National Security Archive.
In "casual conversation (pdf)" with Arabic-speaking supervisory special agent George Piro, Saddam called Osama bin Laden a "zealot", stated his belief in the separation of religion and state and explained that he was not against the US but rather its policies. Curiously the interview about Saddam's use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in the 1980s was totally redacted (pdf).
It is easy to dismiss Saddam's words out of hand as the lies of a madman anxious to deny his role in Iraq's bloody history, indeed although we were denied information about his actions towards the Kurds we learn that he justified the draining of the southern marshes to protect the "national interest".
However, the interviews are further evidence that Saddam was more of a brutal pragmatist fixated on keeping power rather than an ideologue hellbent on attacking the US. This was the opinion of the mainstream expertise on Iraq at the time, with only suspect intelligence suggesting otherwise (later Bush admitted that "most of the intelligence turned out to be wrong").
Everybody involved with Iraq and aware of its history can only hope for a better future for its beleaguered citizenry. But does hope for a better future allow for the rewriting of a disastrous past? Saddam eventually paid for his past in a dingy execution room; Bush's legacy is still a work in progress. McNamara once said that, "any military commander who is honest with himself, or with those he's speaking to, will admit that he has made mistakes in the application of military power. He's killed people unnecessarily -- his own troops or other troops -- through mistakes, through errors of judgment. A hundred, or thousands, or tens of thousands, maybe even a hundred thousand. But he hasn't destroyed nations."
Bush's 2003 invasion destroyed what was left of the Iraq state, and his mismanagement of the postwar phase unleashed a conflict between a deeply divided nation. The jury of history is still out.