“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.”
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 under secretary of state under Mr. 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.”
Mr. 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.”