That’s the overarching question as you set foot into the George W. Bush Presidential Center, which opened last month on Southern Methodist University’s campus.
The answer: uncomfortably.
In at least eight separate instances, the library offers displays, audio, or video designed to give the impression that Saddam Hussein either possessed weapons of mass destruction, or was on the verge of getting them. It’s the Beetlejuice approach: say “weapons of mass destruction” enough times and they will appear.
To refresh, one of the primary rationales the Bush administration used to go to war with Iraq was that country’s supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction. Secretary of State Colin Powell told the United Nations Security Council that “the facts and Iraq’s behavior show that Saddam Hussein and his regime are concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction.” White House Press Secretary said WMDs were “what this war was about and it is about.” Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz agreed, calling WMDs the “core reason” for going to war. Bush himself made the case in an October 2002 speech, stating, “If we know Saddam Hussein has dangerous weapons today — and we do — does it make any sense for the world to wait to confront him as he grows even stronger and develops even more dangerous weapons?” After none were found, the debate has been whether or not the Bush administration deliberately misled about WMDs in order convince the public and go to war.
But you won’t see any hint of that debate walking through Bush’s presidential museum. In fact, unless you were a news junkie in the mid-2000s or a foreign policy aficionado, you could be forgiven for thinking that Iraq had either possessed WMDs that were simply never found, or were about to produce them had the U.S. not gone to war.
For example, the museum has a big display detailing the “Threat Assessment” of Saddam Hussein, followed by the “Status by the end of Bush presidency”. One curt sentence among the 44 lines notes that “No stockpiles of WMD were found.” Meanwhile, twelve lines are devoted to the possible presence of WMDs in Iraq before the war and how we never have to worry about that now post-war, including that Saddam “refused to account for his chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs” and that “post-invasion inspections confirmed that Saddam Hussein had the capacity to resume production of WMD.”
A timeline nearby also gives the impression that Saddam was on the cusp of attaining WMDs, stopped only by Bush’s decision to go to war:
Even in the instances where the museum concedes that WMDs didn’t exist in Iraq, it still uses an asterisk approach to leave visitors with the impression they did, or were about to. One interactive panel tells users that, although there were “no WMD found,” the chief U.S. weapons inspector found that Hussein “had a large number of WMD program-related activities” and “never gave up its ambition to obtain WMD”.
Similarly, it later tells users that “no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction are found, although Iraq’s WMD-related program activities are still a threat.”
Finally, a document in the interactive detailed the WMD situation in Iraq, telling users that “Saddam wanted to recreate Iraq’s WMD capability” because he saw significant “value” in possessing WMDs.
An audio tour also underscored the idea that Saddam would have gotten WMD were it not for Bush’s decision to invade. Here are a few highlights:
Narrator: “For 12 years, the Iraqi dictator defied the international community. After September 11th, he was a threat the United States could not ignore.”
Narrator: “Ultimately, no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. However, a report by Chief Weapons Inspector Charles Duelfer revealed that Saddam retained the ability to restart his weapons programs.”
Bush: “The Duelfer Report shows that Saddam was gaming the system. He was doing so with the intent of restarting his weapons program once the world looked away.”
Later, a choose-your-own-adventure style interactive features advisers who link Saddam and 9/11: “The world changed on 9/11. Saddam shows every signs he wants to give terrorists weapons of mass destruction to attack the US, a risk we cannot afford.” Another unequivocally declares that “Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction. And don’t forget, during the Gulf War, we also discovered Saddam was much further along in developing nuclear weapons than anyone believed.”
Bush later came on screen and remarked, “Saddam posed too big a risk to ignore. He had used weapons of mass destruction in the past and showed every sign of continuing to pursue such weapons.”
To be sure, one wouldn’t necessarily expect that a museum dedicated to President Bush would be highly critical of his decision to go to war. That having been said, the museum goes out of its way to muddy the water over the existence of WMDs in Iraq and leave visitors with the impression that the war was based on a justifiable truth, not a verifiable falsehood. Indeed, in the decade since 2003, GOPers have been so successful at obfuscating the issue that a poll earlier this year found that 2-in-3 Republicans still believe that Iraq possessed WMDs prior to the war. Were any of that 63 percent of Republicans to visit the museum in Dallas, they would likely walk away still believing that Saddam had WMDs and Bush was right to take us to war.