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.
"Afghanistan was an arguably necessary war," said Bruce Buchanan, a government professor specializing in presidential studies at the University of Texas in Austin. "It was the decision to go into Iraq that 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 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 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.
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 Iraq troops withdrew from Kuwait, ultimately triggering the Persian Gulf War that ended after Iraqis left Kuwait and a cease-fire was agreed to by both sides. 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 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.
"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."
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."
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 on Thursday, pointing out aspects of the former president's tenure he believes shouldn't be ignored.
"This was a disastrous strategy error in invading Iraq," Jawad said. "There was a terrible toll on human life — 5,000 American soldiers dead, a million Iraqis dead and 4 million displaced.
"This is a profoundly horrifying legacy of the Bush era," he said. "Inevitably, the dedication will glamorize George W. Bush and his administration. We want to point out the ugly aspects of what these folks did while they were in power."
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 the 9/11 attacks 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 that country. While in Baghdad, he was struck by gun fire — one round shattered his left knee, the other severed his spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down.
Young, who is expected to participate in this week's protests through Skype, said earlier 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 his letter. "I hope you will be put on trial. 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."
In Bush's presidential center — beyond exhibits about Bush's presidential campaign, the election, his efforts on education reform and economic growth and the 9/11 terrorist attacks — is an exhibit that presents details about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Timelines detail terror attacks at home, threat assessments are listed and details are posted about presidential actions — and their outcome by the time Bush left office.
Visitors can use an interactive table there to gain more information and read original source materials, news clips and White House documents.
They may weigh in on the issues through a Decisions Point Theater that lets them review scenarios Bush faced in office — from the decision to go into Iraq to the financial crisis — and see some of the advice and data he received. Visitors vote on what they would have done, then a video of Bush tells what he actually did.
"It's certainly a pivotal point in President Bush's presidency," said Brendan Miniter, senior editorial director at the George W. Bush Institute, who has been managing the development of the presidential museum. "Its treatment in the museum is reflective of that."
For many, these wars are not issues that will fade or heal in time.
"To those lost, survivors, and all who will be paying the bill for decades to come, we are left with the question, 'What did we really accomplish?'" said Victoria Farrar-Myers, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.
For Bush, the wars will help define his presidency — for better or worse — because they were a "defining shift" in his presidency, she and others say.
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 tenure as a president with an ambitious domestic program, but after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 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 and given the information and intelligence he had at the time," former Bush adviser Mark McKinnon said.