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An emotional but unapologetic George W. Bush opened up about his tumultuous presidency Tuesday as he released memoirs in which he defiantly defends the Iraq invasion and the use of waterboarding.
“I felt so strongly about the decisions I was making and I felt that history would understand,” Bush, who left office deeply unpopular at home and abroad, said during an hour-long interview with US talk show queen Oprah Winfrey.
The former president, who dubbed himself “the decider” during his eight years in the White House, takes readers of his 500-page “Decision Points” on a backstage tour of his administration and confronts his bitterest critics.
Bush acknowledges errors on Iraq, saying cutting US troop levels too quickly after the March 2003 invasion allowed deadly chaos to spread, but says he was blindsided by the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal and the failure to find the weapons of mass destruction at the heart of his case for war.
“No one was more shocked or angry than I was when we didn’t find the weapons. I had a sickening feeling every time I thought about it. I still do,” writes the former president.
Bush describes how he personally ordered the waterboarding of the confessed mastermind of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, with a resounding “damn right” when CIA officials asked whether they could use the controlled drowning technique in a bid to break him.
But he says that senior US government lawyers greenlighted the tactic — which experts say falls under international definitions of torture — and calls it “insulting and wrong” to say interrogators broke US law.
He also insists the technique yielded valuable, life-saving information, a claim doubted by outside experts and even the CIA Inspector General, who said the effectiveness of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” cannot be measured, and reports that traditional measures may be more potent.
And in response to his comment, human rights group Amnesty International renewed its call for Bush to be investigated and possibly prosecuted.
“Decision Points” appeared one week after Bush’s Republicans routed Democrats in November 2 elections, capping a hard-fought recovery following ballot-box drubbings in 2006 and 2008, when Barack Obama took the White House.
Bush, who has kept largely out of the public eye since leaving office in January 2009, told Winfrey he never paid much mind to his critics or his standing in public opinion.
“One of my proudest accomplishments was I wouldn’t sell my soul for the sake of popularity,” Bush said, adding that while the criticism may have hurt his family, it never hurt him.
“If I’d allowed the critics to affect me during he presidency — the name calling and stuff — I don’t think I’d have done my job as a leader.”
As he does in the book, Bush told Winfrey that he does not regret the war to topple Saddam Hussein, stressing “the world’s better with him gone.”
Bush also acknowledged that “we could have done a much better job” during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina crisis, when he drew heavy fire for surveying the damage from the air on a fly-over from Texas to Washington.
That was a “huge mistake” because it made him seem “uncaring,” but landing would have diverted key resources from the rescue efforts,” said Bush, who has blasted singer Kanye West for his comment at the time that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” the majority population in flooded New Orleans.
“I can see how the perception might be maybe Bush didn’t care. But to accuse me of being a racist is disgusting,” said the former president.
As he embarked on his book tour, the Gallup polling organization found that Bush had a 44 percent favorable and 53 percent unfavorable rating from the US public, up slightly from his 40 percent favorable rating when he left office but well off his nearly 90 percent approval after the September 11th attacks.
The former president’s book is expected to have a first run of 1.5 million copies, along with an e-book version containing a video message from the former president and his home movies, Crown publishers said earlier this month.
The huge print run is equivalent to that for former Democratic president Bill Clinton’s book, “My Life,” which was a runaway hit.
Copyright © 2010 AFP