Something was unmentionable in the polite company gathered to dedicate former US president George W. Bush’s presidential library on Thursday: the Iraq war.
However, memories of the US invasion in 2003 lingered anyway like an uninvited guest as living former US presidents came to Dallas, Texas, to honor one of their own.
The gathering of the powerful clan was hardly the place to re-argue one of the most divisive issues yet in 21st-century US politics.
However, the silence was palpable nonetheless because the Iraq war may be the defining political moment for Bush and for US President Barack Obama.
Barring a democratic turnaround that becomes an example in the Middle East, Iraq threatens to stain Bush’s legacy after he failed to find the weapons of mass destruction he used to justify war.
By contrast, Obama built his 2008 campaign on fierce opposition to what he blasted as a “dumb” war and at the end of 2011 fulfilled his promise to bring US troops home.
As the party went ahead in Texas, new fears of sectarian war stalked Iraq, where 4,400 Americans and tens of thousands of civilians died in a violent decade after 2003.
Bush said in interviews before the ceremony that he remained “comfortable” with his decisions on Iraq and his museum makes the case that he had no option but to use force after former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein refused to bend to UN resolutions.
In his speech, Bush made an impassioned case that his actions abroad were based on the cause of expanding “freedom.”
Freedom is what Bush and top aides say they provided to the Iraqi people, despite botched US management of the post-war period that sparked an insurgency.
“We liberated nations from dictatorship,” Bush said, as he honored service members who laid down their lives to keep the US safe “and to make other nations free.”
Obama, who had to praise Bush while skipping over their disagreements, chose to focus on his predecessor’s role after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the US.
The closest he got to Iraq was a gentle reference to their differences over the war and Bush’s empathy for those he sent into battle.
Other guests also had a case of “don’t mention the war.”
Former US president Jimmy Carter, who once called the war “unnecessary,” chose to praise Bush for fighting HIV and AIDS in Africa.
Bush was not the only one with a tricky Iraq legacy in Dallas.
His old comrade-in-arms, former British prime minister Tony Blair, sat in a place of honor — his popularity in the US in contrast to the fury over his war record in the UK.