Foreign Policy Blogs

Bush Never Said "Mission Accomplished"

With the leaking Gulf oil well apparently under control, and the spilled oil mysteriously vanishing, the Obama administration has come under pressure from journalists to declare “mission accomplished.” It is understandably unwilling to do this, partly because things could still go wrong and partly because of the phrase’s unfortunate political baggage.

According to the virtually universal political folk memory, former President George Bush prematurely declared “mission accomplished” in Iraq from the deck of an aircraft carrier in May 2003, when some of the worst fighting still lay ahead.

We all remember that, don’t we? And if not, Kevin Connolly of BBC News in Washington has just reminded us of Bush’s much mocked statement. Analyzing President Obama’s August 2 announcement that all U.S. combat operations would end in Iraq by the end of the month, Connolly said:

The president was careful not to repeat the mistake of his predecessor George W. Bush who famously declared that America’s mission in Iraq had been accomplished seven years ago – long before the violence and instability were ended.

But Bush didn’t say that. In fact, in his speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, Bush declared: “Our mission continues.” It is true that Bush’s speech, in which he announced the end of major combat operations, was far too triumphant about U.S. military achievements. But he never “famously declared that America’s mission in Iraq had been accomplished.”

On the contrary, he said that following the fall of Baghdad, “now our coalition is engaged in securing and reconstructing that country… We have difficult work to do in Iraq. We’re bringing order to parts of that country that remain dangerous.” Bush’s goal in Iraq was never purely military – his mission was to bring freedom and democracy to a vital part of the Middle East.

Here are some more quotes from the speech:

  • “The transition from dictatorship to democracy will take time, but it is worth every effort. Our coalition will stay until our work is done and then we will leave and we will leave behind a free Iraq.”
  • “Our mission continues. Al Qaida is wounded, not destroyed.”
  • “The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11th, 2001, and still goes on.”
  • “America and our coalition will finish what we have begun.”

So how did the belief that he declared “mission accomplished” become so deeply embedded in the public consciousness? The reason is that the ship’s crew, in collusion with White House staff, had strung a large banner bearing the words “mission accomplished” behind the spot where Bush was due to speak. The banner was seen on TV throughout the president’s speech. But Bush himself knew nothing about the decision to display the banner, and certainly did not approve it.

“Irregardless,” as Bush himself used to say, the speech became known as the “mission accomplished” speech, and will probably always be known that way. A striking visual image trumps the spoken word any day. And it’s almost certainly too much to hope that the media will go back and read the speech and see what he actually said. You can forget about renaming it the “mission continues” speech, even if that would be much more accurate.