Mission Accomplished? Really?

America is no stranger to revisionist history, but media claiming victory in Iraq are just comically Pollyannaish in their wishful thinking, writes Eric Alterman.

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President Bush gives a "thumbs-up" sign after declaring the end of major combat in Iraq on May 1, 2003. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
President Bush gives a "thumbs-up" sign after declaring the end of major combat in Iraq on May 1, 2003. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

History has sped up, no question about it. Vietnam revisionism took decades. During Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, that multifaceted catastrophe became a “noble cause” that we could have won if we had just stuck with it over a period of about a decade. But Iraq revisionism has begun even before the war is over.

Newsweek has crazily used this past weekend’s Iraqi election to declare “Victory At Last” over a photo of President Bush next to the justly infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner. The article is not nearly as foolish as the cover, but it is nevertheless comically Pollyannaish in its diehard commitment to wishful thinking. The authors write, “something that looks mighty like democracy is emerging in Iraq. And while it may not be a beacon of inspiration to the region, it most certainly is a watershed event that could come to represent a whole new era in the history of the massively undemocratic Middle East.”

The Newsweek story, however misleading, is serving as a kind of beachhead for similarly misguided pronouncements by people who cannot bear to admit how wrong they were to buy into the lies that delivered the United States—and the Iraqi people—into the morass of the past seven years. Nigel Biggar uses the pathetic tack in the Financial Times, for example, of comparing criticism of Iraq to fighting Hitler. Sure there were flaws, he writes, “Most just wars are flawed. Take the war against Nazi Germany,” as if the need for one were somehow equivalent to the other.

Fox News’ Sean Hannity, hardly trying any harder, says of the Iraq war, “The good news is that we were victorious in spite of the Democrats’ efforts and attempts at preventing victory.” And conservative David Frum, writing on, quotes George W. Bush as if he knew what he was talking about or meant what he said: “‘Leaders in the region speak of a new Arab charter…from Morocco to Bahrain and beyond, nations are taking genuine steps toward politics reform. A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region.’ Will he be vindicated?”

As energetic as these efforts may be, they must take a backseat to the master of disaster, Karl Rove, who on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” simply out and out lied to defend his administration’s performance in Iraq. Even if you grant the (untrue, as we’ll see in a minute) notion that “victory” is at hand in Iraq, the war would still have been dishonestly sold and incompetently accomplished. When guest host Tom Brokaw noted that “the cost of the war skyrocketed almost from the beginning. There was not a sharing of the oil revenue that a lot of people had promised,” Rove denied the claim itself, insisting, “the suggestion that somehow or another the administration had as its policy, ‘We’re going to go in to Iraq and take their resource and pay for the war’ is not accurate.”

In fact, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told a congressional panel that Iraqi oil revenues would help pay for reconstructing the country. “The oil revenue of that country could bring between $50 and $100 billion over the course of the next two or three years,” he said. “We’re dealing with a country that could really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon.” And a month before that, then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Iraq “is a rather wealthy country…And so there are a variety of means that Iraq has to be able to shoulder much of the burden for their own reconstruction.”

(This is all rather reminiscent of the time when Dick Cheney was reminded on CNBC that he had called an alleged Prague meeting between that the head of Iraqi Secret Service and Al Qaeda hijackers “pretty well confirmed,” which he denied, saying, “No, I never said that. Never said that. Absolutely not.” In fact, he had said just that on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” The only place on television where the lie was exposed was, you guessed it, “The Daily Show.”)

Conservatives have apparently decided that national amnesia is a workable strategy when it comes to terrorism and war. Remember when Rudy Guliani told George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “Good Morning America” back in January that, “We had no domestic attacks under Bush…We’ve had one under Obama.” That crazy comment didn’t even rate a follow up, so it’s no wonder that Bush defenders think they can rewrite history so easily when it comes to Iraq.

Declaring “victory” in the creation of a “democratic” Iraq requires some pretty fancy footwork when it comes to the previously understood meanings of the term. Leave aside the costs of getting here. Ok, let’s not leave them aside, but let’s rush through them because, well, you should know them by now. So far:

  • At least 4,385 members of the U.S. military have died in the Iraq war since it began in March 2003 as of Tuesday, March 16, 2010, according to an Associated Press count. And 31,732 U.S. service members have been wounded in hostile action, according to the Defense Department’s weekly tally. The war has also killed an estimated 50,000 Iraqi civilians, displaced 4 million Iraqi refugees, and imprisoned thousands of Iraqi detainees.
  • Smart folks like Joe Stiglitz estimate the cost of the was at as much as $3 trillion when you add up all the ancillary costs. Based on the extremely narrow terms of how much Congress has been forced to allocate so far, that number keeps rising every second.
  • Then there’s the torture, abuse of the Constitution, war crimes, fraudulent theft of taxpayer funds, strengthening of Iran in Iraq and in the region generally, increased terrorist threat to the United States, and greater anti-Americanism around the world…just to name a few.

The sad fact is that Iraq is still in pretty awful shape even after all that. What Newsweek and the conservative cheerleaders are calling “democracy” looks a lot like chaos to me. Did you know, for instance, about the bombs detonated within five minutes of each other on the main road in the town in Babil province, 60 km (40 miles) south of Baghdad on Monday? What about the roadside bomb that injured at least three police in eastern Baghdad? The blasts follow a suicide bombing in Fallujah on Monday where at least seven people were killed. Then there was the Christian shopkeeper who was gunned down on Wednesday in the main northern Iraqi city of Mosul, where eight members of the minority were killed in 10 days last month.

We are all moved by the sight of people risking their lives to exercise their right to vote, but a) should that really be necessary after “victory”? and b) perhaps, more to the point, is it really such a good idea when no such victory—much less democracy—can honestly be said to exist? According to Ned Parker of the L.A. Times, during the previous national elections in January 2005, the Sunnis boycotted, and this helped ignite the civil war in which Sunni Arab insurgents fought against militias backed by the Shiite-dominated government. Now, “the current election fight could push the sides back to that era if Sunnis again feel marginalized and take up arms…. Maliki has also accused the other side of fraud, a charge Western officials say is unsubstantiated. In doing so, Maliki’s coalition is following the example of Allawi, who voiced similar concerns even before the vote.”

What’s more, according to a new report by Refugees International, Iraq is facing a dire “a dire humanitarian crisis that sees huge numbers of displaced Iraqis struggle to survive.” Roughly 500,000 of the 1.5 million internally displaced people forced from their homes in 2006 and 2007 continue to “live as squatters in slum areas.” Meanwhile, the Iraqi government is doing little, if anything, to help the displaced, the report said.

I could go on, but I’m too busy breaking out the champagne I’ve had on ice for seven years to toast the honesty, competence, bravery, and foresight of the folks in the Bush administration who had the guts to help us “accomplish” this impressive mission. It’s a wonder to think that I and many other liberals shortsightedly opposed this invasion right from the beginning. I wonder: Why did we hate America?

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals. His “Altercation” blog appears sporadically here and he is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

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Eric Alterman

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