Three years ago today, George W. Bush took a Viking jet to the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, stood before a banner that said "Mission Accomplished" and declared that "major combat operations" in Iraq had ended. "In the battle of Iraq," the president said that day, "the United States and our allies have prevailed."
If only he'd been right. Approximately 140 Americans had been killed in Iraq by May 1, 2003. About 2,260 have been killed since. After declining steadily for five months, U.S. deaths in Iraq were up sharply again in April, and a war that was supposed to last weeks, not months, still has no end in sight.
Just before the war began, a reporter asked Bush what he could say to assure Americans that he wasn't leading them into another Vietnam. "That's a great question," the president said. "Our mission is clear in Iraq. Should we have to go in, our mission is very clear: disarmament. And in order to disarm, it would mean regime change. I'm confident we'll be able to achieve that objective, in a way that minimizes the loss of life. No doubt there's risks in any military operation; I know that. But it's very clear what we intend to do. And our mission won't change. Our mission is precisely what I just stated."
But if the mission was "disarmament," that mission was accomplished before the first U.S. soldier died. Three years into the war, there's still no proof that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. What there is, increasingly, is proof that the president and his men knew that Saddam didn't have WMD but pressed ahead with their plan for war anyway. So what was the mission when Bush said "go"? What is the mission three years later? And how is that mission worth more than $300 billion and 2,400 American lives?
These are questions one might have asked the president today, if in fact he had been taking any. At the White House, Bush played host to Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice, squeezing every last drop of press out of the dog-and-pony show that began last week when Rumsfeld and Rice met up in Baghdad for a synchronized surprise visit. Bush said it was important that they'd gone. "I thought it was very important for both secretaries to go firsthand, to be there with the leadership to say we're supporting them," Bush said. "It's very important for these two senior officials to sit down with these new folks and say, you have our support and we want you to succeed."
Important for U.S. public opinion? Maybe. Important for the Iraqis? Apparently not. After Rice and Rumsfeld left Baghdad, Iraqi politicians trying to make something out of their government said the joint visit was more hindrance then help. "We didn't invite them," said a Shiite legislator close to the new prime minister. "It would be more appropriate if they would leave us alone," said a senior Kurdish legislator. "Rice's trip to Iraq at this critical time is just another desperate move by the Americans to try to impose themselves on our new government," said another Shiite legislator. "They have lost their influence."
That is not all we have lost. The soldiers are gone. The money is gone. America's place in the world, its image, its power -- they're all diminished. Americans' faith in their government is shot: Only 9 percent think it was "mission accomplished" back in May 2003, and only 40 percent believe that the mission in Iraq -- whatever it is -- will ever be accomplished now.
Over the weekend, another retired general -- this one by the name of Colin Powell -- said that Rumsfeld and his boss made grave errors at the beginning of the war. "The president's military advisors felt that the size of the force was adequate," Powell said in an interview with a British TV network. "They may still feel that years later. Some of us don't, I don't. At the time the president was listening to those who were supposed to be providing him with military advice. They were anticipating a different kind of aftermath of the fall in Baghdad. It turned out to be not exactly as they had anticipated."
Powell said he tried to make the case for more troops from the outset. Asked about Powell's criticism during a CNN interview over the weekend, Rice feigned ignorance. "I don't remember specifically what Secretary Powell may be referring to," she said, "but I'm quite certain that there were lots of discussions about how best to fulfill the mission that we went into Iraq."
The president? He didn't say anything about any of that today. Instead, he talked again about hard work and progress, and this is what his new chief of staff says we all need now: We need to see more of the real George W. Bush, to see "what he's really like." Does the president's 32 percent approval rating suggest that it's time for new thinking at the White House about Iraq or anything else? No, Josh Bolten tells Fox News. "I don't think we need to change, but we do need to refresh and reenergize."
For the White House, it's all about getting Bush's "mojo" back. Three years later -- three years and counting -- we'd submit that it ought to be about something more.