Bush’s Legacy: Waging Preventive War in Iraq

His decision to go to war is one of the most controversial of his term.

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He is one of the most controversial figures in American life. And as he approaches the end of his presidency, George W. Bush has finally joined the raging national debate about his legacy. In recent interviews and public statements, Bush has been more contemplative and revealing than ever as he assesses his eight years in office, attempts to lift his public image out of the trough, and shapes perceptions of his era. In this series, U.S. News reviews the Bush presidency from the beginning in 2001with a special focus on five of his most fateful decisions, including going to war in Iraq and, more recently, approving a huge bailout of the financial industry.

The war in Iraq. Bush's decision to wage a preventive war in Iraq was perhaps his most controversial move of all. That conflict has now continued for nearly six years—longer than U.S. involvement in World War II—with considerable improvement but no end in sight. "A lot of people put their reputations on the line and said the weapons of mass destruction is a reason to remove Saddam Hussein," Bush told ABC News recently. "It wasn't just people in my administration. A lot of members in Congress, prior to my arrival in Washington, D.C., during the debate on Iraq, a lot of leaders of nations around the world were all looking at the same intelligence. I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess." WMD were never found. Bush declined to speculate on whether he would still have gone to war if he knew Hussein didn't have weapons of mass destruction. "That is a do-over that I can't do," Bush said.

"The war in Iraq basically consumed his presidency," says Dowd. "It broke the bond with the American people," who because of the WMD issue and other factors no longer trusted him.

Bush's choice to escalate troop levels in 2007 reveals much about his commitment to victory, which he said was vital as a way to prove that America would fulfill its obligations. In the spring of 2006, the war was going badly, with U.S. officials estimating that there were 1,000 attacks a week on U.S. and coalition forces. That fall, the Democrats scored big in the midterm elections partly because of public opposition to the war. But Bush defied public opinion and sent extra troops to the war zone. That increase has helped to stabilize the country, but the long-term prospects for a democratic, secure, self-governing Iraq remain uncertain.

As of December 2, the Iraq war has cost 4,209 American lives since the start of combat in 2003, tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, and $657 billion.