Mission Unaccomplished

When George W. Bush appeared aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln beneath a “Mission Accomplished” banner on May 1, 2003, to declare the end of “major combat operations,” he was performing a PR stunt that embodied much that was—and is—wrong with his presidency. A year later, Bush is unable to admit error and continues to promote a false triumphalism. Instead of leveling with the American people about his Administration’s miscalculations, he forbids the release of pictures showing the caskets of dead troops returning home, and instead of discussing options for ending a war that should never have been waged, he offers nothing but “stay the course” rhetoric.

Before the war began, Bush refused to confront the challenges that could be expected. As Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack shows, there was little conversation in the White House about what to do immediately following the invasion, and even less planning for the possible bloody time ahead. Recently, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, “If you had said to me a year ago, ‘Describe the situation you’ll be in today one year later,’ I don’t know many people who would have described it—I would not have—described it in the way it happens to be today.” But before the war, there were foreign policy experts who warned that an invasion would trigger instability and that US troops would be stuck, and dying, in Iraq for a long time.

In his aircraft carrier address, Bush continued to peddle the misleading reasons for the war, which he has stuck with ever since. He declared, “We’ve removed an ally of Al Qaeda.” But there was no proof then—or now—that Saddam Hussein was a partner of the mass murderers of 9/11 or involved in the attacks. He also said, “We’ve begun the search for hidden chemical and biological weapons and already know of hundreds of sites that will be investigated.” Bush did not tell the troops standing before him that a hunt had been under way for weeks and had not uncovered a trace of WMDs. In fact, the preliminary search results had by then caused some officials to doubt that there were any weapons to be found. But Bush insisted the weapons were there—just as he did at a press conference a few weeks ago, in defiance of the most current information. Facts do not burden the President.

Then there was the phony symbolism of the high-priced floating photo-op. Bush arrived on the aircraft carrier in a fighter jet and strutted about in a flight suit. The prime-time speech drew much favorable media coverage, with many fawning journalists noting that Bush had flown fighter jets in the Air National Guard. But few, if any, mentioned Bush’s spotty and suspicious Guard record—which was public information. And months after the speech, when it was obvious that the mission was anything but accomplished, Bush claimed that the White House had not been responsible for the banner. Reporters quickly determined otherwise. Bush, it appears, has decided that what worked for him then will work now, and he continues to exploit his status as Commander in Chief to misinform Americans. His re-election campaign, at least, realizes that his aircraft-carrier moment was premature, and it is unlikely to use the glorious flight-suit footage. But Bush remains a man on a mission—a dangerous one—to recast the world according to his limited views. Voters must make sure his mission goes unaccomplished.