By: Greg Mitchell
On May 1, 2003, Richard Perle advised, in a USA Today Op-Ed, “Relax, Celebrate Victory.” The same day, exactly six years ago, President Bush, dressed in a flight suit, landed on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln and declared an end to major military operations in Iraq — with the now-infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner arrayed behind him in the war’s greatest photo op.
Chris Matthews on MSNBC called Bush a “hero” and boomed, “He won the war. He was an effective commander. Everybody recognizes that, I believe, except a few critics.” He added: “Women like a guy who’s president. Check it out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president. It’s simple.”
PBS’ Gwen Ifill said Bush was “part Tom Cruise, part Ronald Reagan.” On NBC, Brian Williams gushed, “The pictures were beautiful. It was quite something to see the first-ever American president on a — on a carrier landing.”
Bob Schieffer on CBS said: “As far as I’m concerned, that was one of the great pictures of all time.” His guest, Joe Klein, responded: “Well, that was probably the coolest presidential image since Bill Pullman played the jet fighter pilot in the movie Independence Day. That was the first thing that came to mind for me.”
Everyone agreed the Democrats and antiwar critics were now on the run.
When Bush’s jet landed on an aircraft carrier, American casualties stood at 139 killed and 542 wounded.
The following (a revised version of a chapter in my 2008 book on Iraq and the media, “So Wrong for So Long”) looks at how one newspaper — it happens to be The New York Times — covered the Bush declaration and its immediate aftermath. One snippet: “The Bush administration is planning to withdraw most United States combat forces from Iraq over the next several months and wants to shrink the American military presence to less than two divisions by the fall, senior allied officials said today.”
By Elisabeth Bumiller
WASHINGTON, May 1–President Bush’s made-for-television address tonight on the carrier Abraham Lincoln was a powerful, Reaganesque finale to a six-week war. But beneath the golden images of a president steaming home with his troops toward the California coast lay the cold political and military realities that drove Mr. Bush’s advisors to create the moment.
The president declared an end to major combat operations, White House, Pentagon and State Department officials said, for three crucial reasons: to signify the shift of American soldiers from the role of conquerors to police, to open the way for aid from countries that refused to help militarily, and–above all–to signal to voters that Mr. Bush is shifting his focus from Baghdad to concerns at home.
”This is the formalization that tells everybody we’re not engaged in combat anymore, we’re prepared for getting out,” a senior administration official said.
By Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt
BAGHDAD, May 2–The Bush administration is planning to withdraw most United States combat forces from Iraq over the next several months and wants to shrink the American military presence to less than two divisions by the fall, senior allied officials said today.
The United States currently has more than five divisions in Iraq, troops that fought their way into the country and units that were added in an attempt to stabilize it. But the Bush administration is trying to establish a new military structure in which American troops would continue to secure Baghdad while the majority of the forces in Iraq would be from other nations.
Under current planning, there would be three sectors in postwar Iraq. The Americans would keep a division in and around Baghdad; Britain would command a multinational division in the south near Basra; and Poland would command a third division of troops from a variety of nations.
By Dexter Filkins and Ian Fisher
BAGHDAD, May 2–The war in Iraq has officially ended, but the momentous task of recreating a new Iraqi nation seems hardly to have begun. Three weeks after Saddam Hussein fell from power, American troops are straining to manage the forces this war has unleashed: the anger, frustration, and competing ambitions of a nation suppressed for three decades.
In a virtual power vacuum, with the relationship between American military and civilian authority seeming ill defined, new political parties, Kurds, and Shiite religious groups are asserting virtual governmental authority in cities and villages across the country, sometimes right under the noses of American soldiers. There is a growing sense among educated Iraqis eager for the American-led transformation of Iraq to work that the Americans may be losing the initiative, that the single-mindedness that won the war is slackening under the delicate task of transforming a military victory into political success.
By David E. Sanger
WASHINGTON, May 2–In his speech, Mr. Bush argued that the invasion and liberation of Iraq were part of the American response to the attacks of Sept. 11. He called the tumultuous period since those attacks ”19 months that changed the world,” and said Mr. Hussein’s defeat was a defeat for al-Qaeda and other terrorists as well….
Politically more complex for the administration is the continuing search for chemical and biological weapons, a search that so far has turned up next to nothing. One member of Mr. Bush’s war cabinet said that he suspected that Mr. Hussein had not mounted his chemical stockpiles on weapons, but suggested that sooner or later they would be found. Mr. Bush himself said tonight that the United States knew of ”hundreds of sites that will be investigated.”
Editorial, May 2
As presidential spectacles go, it would be hard to surpass George Bush’s triumphant ”Top Gun” visit to the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln yesterday off the California coast. President Bush flew out to the giant aircraft carrier dressed in full fighter-pilot regalia as the ”co-pilot” of a Navy warplane. After a dramatic landing on the compact deck–a new standard for high-risk presidential travel–Mr. Bush mingled with the ship’s crew, then later welcomed home thousands of cheering sailors and aviators on the flight deck in a nationally televised address.
The scene will undoubtedly make for a potent campaign commercial next year. For now, though, the point was to declare an end to the combat phase of the war in Iraq and to commit the nation to the reconstruction of that shattered country.
From the moment that Mr. Bush made his intention of invading Iraq clear, the question was never whether American troops would succeed, or whether the regime they toppled would be exposed to the world as a despicable one. The question was, and still is, whether the administration has the patience to rebuild Iraq and set it on a course toward stable, enlightened governance. The chaotic situation in Afghanistan is no billboard for American talent at nation-building. The American administration of postwar Iraq has so far failed to match the efficiency and effectiveness of the military invasion. But as the United States came to the end of one phase of the Iraqi engagement last night, there was still time to do better.
Letter to the Editor, May 3
Some unanswered questions remain: Where are the weapons of mass destruction? What evidence makes Iraq ”an ally of al-Qaeda”? Where is Saddam Hussein? Where is Osama bin Laden? Who is next?
By David E. Sanger
WASHINGTON, May 4–With his administration under growing international pressure to find evidence that Saddam Hussein possessed banned weapons, President Bush told reporters today that ”we’ll find them,” but cautioned that it would take some time because, he said, Mr. Hussein spent so many years hiding his stockpiles. Mr. Bush’s comments came after his senior aides, in interviews in recent days, had begun to back away from their pre-war claims that Mr. Hussein had an arsenal that was loaded and ready to fire.
They now contend that he developed what they call a ”just in time” production strategy for his weapons, hiding chemical precursors that could be quickly loaded into empty artillery shells or short-range missiles.
Maureen Dowd, column, May 4
The tail hook caught the last cable, jerking the fighter jet from 150 m.p.h. to zero in two seconds. Out bounded the cocky, rule-breaking, daredevil flyboy, a man navigating the Highway to the Danger Zone, out along the edges where he was born to be, the further on the edge, the hotter the intensity.
He flashed that famous all-American grin as he swaggered around the deck of the aircraft carrier in his olive flight suit, ejection harness between his legs, helmet tucked under his arm, awestruck crew crowding around. Maverick was back, cooler and hotter than ever, throttling to the max with joystick politics. Compared to Karl Rove’s ”revvin’ up your engine” myth-making cinematic style, Jerry Bruckheimer’s movies look like Lizzie McGuire.
This time Maverick didn’t just nail a few bogeys and do a 4G inverted dive with a MiG-28 at a range of two meters. This time the Top Gun wasted a couple of nasty regimes, and promised this was just the beginning.
Thomas Friedman, column, May 4
President Bush may have declared the war in Iraq effectively over. But, judging from my own e-mail box–where conservative readers are bombing me for not applauding enough the liberation of Iraq, and liberals for selling out to George Bush–the war over the war still burns on here.
Conservatives now want to use the victory in Iraq to defeat all liberal ideas at home, and to make this war a model for America’s relations with the world, while liberals–fearing all that–are still quietly rooting for Mr. Bush to fail.