Public comments, a recently published book based on extensive interviews with the president and this year’s State of the Union address all reveal his increasing preoccupation with how he will be viewed historically. This is particularly true in relation to the Iraq war and the wider global battle against terrorism.
Arguably, the first comprehensive draft of the history of this war emerged last week and it was not pretty viewing.The two-part documentary was made by Public Broadcasting Service’s (PBS) Frontline team.
It was remarkable as a simple, straightforward narrative of the actions of the Bush administration from 9/11 to the present day.
The devil here was in the detail, with the inner workings of the White House and the actions of the various individuals charged with making decisions exposed.
It sliced through the fog of war and political posturing, drawing on almost 40 hours of films aired by the channel since 2001, 400 interviews, including new ones with former high-ranking administration officials, ex-military personnel and outside experts and analysts.
And what emerges from all those interviews is the somewhat unsettling absence of Mr Bush himself from the picture. Despite the title of the programme, he is referred to only in passing by many of the contributors, with few directly attributing decisions to the president.
He rarely seems to have articulated any views, even in meetings with top members of his administration. Only on two occasions did he “reach into the process” directly. What he did after every meeting was to retire alone with Vice President Dick Cheney.
Just a few hours before air strikes against Iraq and the beginning of the war in March 2003, the administration gathered for a meeting.
When it was over, everyone filed out, leaving Bush and Cheney alone. Secretary of State Colin Powell remarked to one of his aides: “At the end of the day, Cheney has the last word.”
Cheney, the Republican stalwart, former congressman and member of Bush senior’s cabinet, had left public office and was head of Halliburton, the oil and gas exploration company, as George W was gearing up for his presidential bid in 2000.
He was asked to find a vice presidential nominee for Bush. He delivered his report and somehow emerged from the meeting as the presumptive vice president.
Cheney’s influence on the President has been suggested, hinted at and joked about. But following this programme, it is hard not to conclude that Cheney, such was his overwhelming influence, in effect ran the White House’s war strategy, certainly until late 2006.
What also emerges is that Cheney and Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld were no geniuses, except in the way they were able to use their vast political experience to effectively control the White House.
Otherwise, almost every decision has proved to be disastrous, made in the face of internal and external opposition and overwhelming evidence that ran counter to their analysis.
The thread running through the entire programme is the battle between the State Department headed by Powell on the one hand and Cheney and Rumsfeld on the other.
Within hours of the planes hitting the Twin Towers, Rumsfeld was asking how America can hit Saddam Hussein.
Powell argued that this was an opportunity to build a coalition and stressed that they knew where Osama Bin Laden lived and the focus must be on him. Bin Laden and Afghanistan was job number one but even as battles raged there, the pressure to find links between bin Laden and Saddam Hussein was being brought to bear on the CIA.
Lt Gen Michael DeLong, the US army’s deputy at Central Command (CENTCOM), said the President was told very early on the enemy was al-Qaida in Afghanistan.
Yet within a very short period, the focus was off Afghanistan as preparations to attack Iraq began.
The CIA was the lead agency in Afghanistan, charged with hunting down Bin Laden and his cohorts. By December, they noticed resources in Afghanistan disappearing.
Gary Schroen, who was in charge of the initial incursion, said: “It was clear that the kind of guys that a lot of us believed were essential... with special operations capabilities ... were being pulled away.”
The head of the CIA’s bin Laden department advised his director George Tenet that an Iraq war would seriously damage the counter terrorism effort against al-Qaida.
Tenet was under pressure to find links between bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The CIA reviewed thousands of documents — and found nothing.
This did not make Cheney and Rumsfeld happy, so they decided to set up their own intelligence gathering group, made up of Department of Defence employees and reporting directly to the vice president’s office.
They found links, such as a meeting between Mohammad Atta, the leader of the 9/11 hijackers and an Iraqi agent in Prague. Two years later, in 2003, Cheney was still talking publicly about this meeting.
CIA deputy director John McLaughlin said: “We looked at it from every conceivable angle... we peeled open the source... looked at photographs... looked at timetables.”
It turned out both the CIA and FBI had Atta in Florida at the time of the supposed meeting. The alleged meeting was confirmed by the Iraqi National Congress (INC), led by Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi exile.
Chalabi was friends with Paul Wolfowitz, a key architect of the war strategy, and from a very early stage, the plan envisaged by the Cheney/ Rumsfled camp was to get in, hand over to Chalabi and get out.
What emerged in the programme broadcast last week was the deep antipathy and distrust between the various arms of government.
Richard Armitage said: “It did not take me long to come to the belief that Mr Chalabi was a real charlatan.”
The championing of Chalabi led to bitter divisions between the vice president’s office, Rumsfeld’s department and, on the other side, the State Department and the CIA.
In the run up to war, the State Department had set up an Iraqi project group, bringing together 200 experts to discuss the aftermath of an invasion, everything from garbage removal to healthcare.
None of their recommendations were acted on because Rumsfeld and Cheney, were determined to have Chalabi in place as soon as possible. The INC was opposed to the study group’s involvement.
Following the invasion, it quickly became clear Chalabi had little support in Iraq and a quick handover to him was impossible.
Next to go were about 300,000 Iraqi soldiers, whom the US military were counting on to be pacified and to help maintain security.
Both decisions were taken within days of the arrival of Paul Bremer, a hitherto unremarkable mid-level diplomat. But Bremer was a pal of Scooter Libby, who just happened to be Cheney’s right-hand man.