George W. Bush has defined his presidency by a war of his own choosing. Among the president’s declarations:
- Sept. 10, 2003: "The best way to protect the American people is to stay on the offensive."
- Feb. 5, 2005: "Freedom in Iraq will make America safer for generations to come."
- July 30, 2005: "The rise of a free and peaceful Iraq is critical to the stability of the Middle East."
His mission in the Middle East — built on a doctrine of pre-emption — has become the great gamble of his political capital.
"I'm spending that capital," President Bush said Tuesday, "on the war."
After 9/11, the president's vision went beyond answering the terrorists in Afghanistan.
"He is going to keep the war on terror central to what he was trying to accomplish as president," says former Bush speechwriter David Frum. "That was the real moment of decision."
Critics argue Bush had a vision with blinders — that the war in Iraq was part of a larger struggle between good and evil.
It is a war effort of biblical proportions, says Kevin Phillips, the author of “American Theocracy.” He writes that a majority of the president's supporters believe in prophecies of the apocalypse and the second coming of Jesus Christ — centered in the Middle East. The president, he adds, didn't suffer doubt.
"[What] we saw in Afghanistan and after 9/11 was, in many ways, a religiously based certitude," Phillips says. "When he was asked about the advice of his father, remember how he mentioned he took the advice of a higher father."
But three years later, in Iraq, reality has cost the president even his most reliable support, as Bush's vision of a democratic Iraq now suffers from new fears of failure.
Bush came to West Virginia on Wednesday to face critics in a state he won twice and that is known in part for its favorite daughter, former prisoner of war Jessica Lynch. Many wonder whether the sacrifice of more than 2,300 American lives has been worth it.
"Those people don't want our help,” says Wheeling, W.Va., resident and Republican Donna Neptune. "Our people's being killed over there for nothing."
Was the war a mistake? Was the mission manageable? Or is success, as the president says, still just a matter of time? These are the moments by which this president will always be judged.