Twelve years ago today this May Day, in one of the most otherworldly political spectacles ever seen, President George W. Bush stood on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln and declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq as a giant “Mission Accomplished” banner hung behind him.
As Bush’s successor in the Texas governor’s mansion would say, “Oops.”
In the months following the speech, it became brutally clear that the sectarian pressure cooker some analysts had warned of was about to burst. When it did, causalities of U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians skyrocketed. Al Qaeda, which wasn’t in Iraq before the invasion, made itself at home, battling Shiite militias and creating the chaos that’s allowed ISIS to exist in the present day.
Yes, Americans will never forget the absurd image of their head of state arriving on that aircraft carrier in a jet and disembarking in a Navy flight suit, much like a tinpot tyrant of some distant Third World dump would.
After changing into civilian clothes, our messianic hero addressed the country about the fall of Saddam Hussein, who, in the year prior, had been hyped up as the second coming of Attila the Hun — with weapons of mass destruction. But Saddam didn’t have weapons of mass destruction. In fact, he didn’t even have an active WMD program. (Of course, he used to have WMDs back when the U.S. government was supporting him under the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.)
“[M]y fellow Americans, major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”
This was the signature moment of the Bush years, typical in its arrogance of an administration so cocksure that it could manipulate geopolitics abroad just as easily at it had manipulated its constituency at home. I’ll never forget how frighteningly toxic the nation’s political atmosphere was in the lead up to the war in 2002 and 2003 when anti-war sentiment couldn’t be expressed in public without a backlash. Casualties included the Dixie Chicks, Michael Moore, and Phil Donohue, whose show was canceled by MSNBC — yes, that MSNBC, because he was a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war” and, “He seem[ed] to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives.”
And that was a problem at a time when, according to Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, U.S. television viewers “were more than six times as likely to see a pro-war source as one who was anti-war; with U.S. guests alone, the ratio increases to 25 to 1.”
All of this was very scary, especially because around the time of the invasion Bush’s approval rating was hovering above 70% as he benefited from a classic rally-around-the-flag effect as the march to war intensified along with references to the September 11 attacks. The public was afraid, and its representatives in Congress had been cowed in all matters of international relations and national security. It had overwhelmingly approved the Iraq war resolution, and the creepily named Homeland Security Act, along with the ironically named USA PATRIOT Act, which vastly expanded the powers of the president.
Beyond this is a broader problem, though, and it speaks to our unwillingness to acknowledge our inability to engage in nation-building, specifically in places where the local population sees itself as members of a religion first, and citizens of a country second. For all the bombs dropped, talks held, blood spilled, and money spent, the U.S. is no closer to molding the Middle East into a stable America-friendly region of allies who are about to come to Jesus Muhammad on the issues of human rights and democracy. There’s no shame in that. After all, the world is a complicated place.
But the least we can do is not be a part of the problem, and that starts with us the people, who should be wary of giving our blind support to the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, whoever it may be. That way, we can avoid the next war, as well as the next war-related PR disaster.