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Bush's legacy defined by war in Iraq?

If he has doubts, he does not voice them. If he has regrets about his decision, he does not show them. More than five years into an Iraq war that has been longer, bloodier and costlier than the country expected, President Bush never wavers: The battle is just, the victory assured.
APTOPIX Bush Medal of Honor
Tears run down Bush's face as he takes part in a Medal of Honor ceremony, Tuesday, April 8, 2008, for Petty Officer 2nd Class Navy SEAL Michael Monsoor.Ron Edmonds / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

If he has doubts, he does not voice them. If he has regrets about his decision, he does not show them. More than five years into an Iraq war that has been longer, bloodier and costlier than the country expected, President Bush never wavers: The battle is just, the victory assured.

Along the way, he has locked in another certitude. The pre-emptive war in Iraq will define how he is remembered.

"Let history be the judge," Bush responds as legacy questions creep into his final months in office.

But the American people tend to live in the moment and evaluate their leaders in real time. Their disapproval is clear.

The majority of people think the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. Bush's public approval, at 90 percent after the Sept. 11 attacks and 71 percent at the onset of the war in 2003, has fallen steadily through his second term. His approval now hovers in the dismal range of 30 percent, in no small part due to the war.

Bush says an accurate analysis of his legacy, and the war's role in it, is impossible now. He suggests it might take decades.

"There's no such thing as an accurate history of an administration until time has lapsed — unless you're doing little-bitty things," he says. And there's nothing small, the president says, about liberating people from tyranny or trying to create a democracy in a place where terrorists still roam.

Meantime, as another round of testimony on Capitol Hill consumes Washington's attention, the war goes on.

On Thursday, in comments to the nation, Bush is expected to embrace his top Iraq commander's recommendation for a suspension of U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq. The White House is not confirming that message, but Bush has been telegraphing it through his own speeches for weeks.

Bush's unequivocal war language has not precluded him from adjusting tactics, or even admitting missteps. When violence in Iraq overwhelmed the country in 2006, he called the situation unacceptable and ordered in 30,000 more troops. "Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me," he said.

Critics say the toll of those mistakes is wrenching — more than 4,000 American lives lost, hundreds of billions of dollars spent, a damaged international reputation — and no end in sight. The rationale for the war itself shifted over time. The war has so dominated Bush's time in office that the entire foreign policy debate has been reduced to Iraq, said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., one of his party's top strategists.

"There's China to debate. There's the overall Middle East. There's the relationship in Europe as it relates to Russia," he said. "Every major issue as it relates to foreign policy has been pushed aside or not even discussed. There are so many financial, human and reputational costs that this has drained from America."

The political debate has not seemed to alter Bush's views a bit. The early talk of working with a Democratic Congress remained just that, as both sides engaged in challenge and confrontation. Democrats never were able to outflank Bush's veto on the direction of the war.

What Bush does take personally is the individual toll of the war. On Tuesday, at the White House, he had tears streaming down his face during a military tribute to a Navy SEAL who was killed when he threw himself on a grenade in Iraq to save his comrades.

Bush says he is driven to make sure that such lives were not lost in vain, that America will end up being safer, that the "outcome that will merit the sacrifice."

This is what presidents do — speak with certainty once they've made up their mind. If they second-guess themselves in public, the country follows.

The trouble with Bush's approach is not that he sticks to what he believes, said political science professor Cal Jillson. It's the results.

"If they're good, then consistency is a sign of being resolute," said Jillson, who teaches at Southern Methodist University, the home of Bush's planned presidential library. "If the results are bad, then it's pigheadedness. And in general, the results have not been good, so he does not get the benefit of the doubt."

Presidencies are enormously diverse and complex, so the idea that Bush's legacy would be reduced to war is not one the White House supports.

There are other hallmarks of Bush's time, from a landmark education law to tax cuts to a widely hailed disease-prevention program in Africa. Of course, there are also the slumping economy, the failed federal response to Hurricane Katrina and the unsuccessful attempts to overhaul immigration and Social Security.

White House aides decline to engage in talk about Bush's legacy, just as their boss does. The president is still plenty busy running the country, they say.

The White House, however, does fight against the perception that Bush only hears what he wants — and that he dismisses Congress' views on the war. Leading House and Senate lawmakers of both parties were invited to the White House on Wednesday to talk to Bush about the war.

"The president listens to their input," White House press secretary Dana Perino said. "We'll see what they have to say."

It won't be a surprise. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday that the "Iraqi government is not worthy of the sacrifice of our troops." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said: "It is time for the president to be honest with the American people: What does victory look like to him? How does all this end?"

For nine more months, at least, it appears it will end — or not — as Bush sees fit. After that, history will judge.

As Bush himself put it earlier this year: "Iraq is important for our security. I will be making decisions based upon success in Iraq. The temptation, of course, is for people to say, `Well, make sure you do the politically right thing.' That's not my nature."