Trump’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ tweet, and the premature declaration that haunted George W. Bush

If there was a new employee handbook for people who’d just obtained the position of “leader of the free world,” there would be some surefire entries in the section about presidential phrases to avoid:

I am not a crook,” would be an easy one, for reasons both obvious and historical.

So would “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

New hires would also be discouraged from summing up economic policy stances with the phrase: “Read my lips. No new taxes.”

And then there is “Mission Accomplished,” the historically loaded phrase President Trump tweeted Saturday after U.S.-led airstrikes in coordination with British and French forces that struck the “heart” of Syria’s chemical weapons network.

Fifteen years ago, on a similar spring day, President George W. Bush made a speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, in which he announced that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended” in the U.S.-led invasion begun just six weeks earlier.  

Operation Iraqi Freedom was carried out with a combination of precision, and speed, and boldness the enemy did not expect, and the world had not seen before. From distant bases or ships at sea, we sent planes and missiles that could destroy an enemy division, or strike a single bunker. Marines and soldiers charged to Baghdad across 350 miles of hostile ground, in one of the swiftest advances of heavy arms in history. You have shown the world the skill and the might of the American armed forces.

But military operations in Iraq weren’t over: The vast majority of the combat deaths in Operation Iraqi Freedom occurred after Bush made that speech.

A banner touting “Mission Accomplished” was hanging above Bush that day. That declaration continues to hang over his legacy.

The phrase has become a code word for any mission that was not particularly accomplished, despite a politician’s claims to the contrary.

Over the past 15 years, Bush’s premature words have been mocked as political arrogance.

Riding shotgun in an S-3B Viking jet, he streaked onto the aircraft carrier, even though the Abraham Lincoln was well in range of the presidential helicopter. A Wall Street Journal reporter said he looked “virile, sexy and powerful” as he arrived decked out in his flight suit.

But history would remember Bush differently, as not fully understanding the quagmire that the United States was embroiled in. A little over a year after that speech on the USS Abraham Lincoln, the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq reached 1,000. In total, more than 4,400 Americans were killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and nearly 32,000 were wounded, according to the Department of Defense.

The difference between Bush’s boisterous words and the deadly reality of the decade-long war was not lost on the masses.

“Mission Accomplished” has a detailed Wikipedia entry, and a potty-mouthed entry in Urban dictionary too.

A flight-suit wearing Will Ferrell milked the phrase for nearly eight minutes of comedy in his one-man play about Bush:

“Remember this outfit? Remember this moment? Landing on a carrier in a jet fighter plane — ‘Highway to the Danger Zone’ playing in my helmet. Setting foot on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln to announce that major combat operations were over. It truly was ‘Mission Accomplished.’ ”

And so, when Trump put the words in front of an exclamation point Saturday, there was a clear reaction.

To be sure, Trump and Bush had different missions to accomplish. Bush was announcing a significant landmark in the worldwide war on terrorism. Trump’s airstrikes were intended to send a message to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad about using chemical weapons on civilians.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Saturday that the mission in Syria was to take out three chemical weapons sites.

And in a briefing, Pentagon press secretary Dana White said: “Last night’s operations were very successful. We met our objectives. We hit the sites, the heart of the [chemical] weapons program. So it was mission accomplished.”

Some of the comments were from people asserting that “Mission Accomplished” wasn’t the act of blind political hubris that it’s been made out to be. Bush never uttered “mission accomplished” in his remarks. And he acknowledged that the United States still had “difficult work to do in Iraq.”

It’s unclear if Trump was alluding to Bush’s 2003 moment or simply using similar phrasing. But after the president tweeted “Mission Accomplished!” former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer took to Twitter himself, saying he would not have recommended using those two words.

Fleischer also defended the decision to hang the banner, saying that it came from the crew of the USS Abraham Lincoln, not the White House staff.

“They were returning from the longest deployment of any ship in Naval history,” Fleischer told his followers, adding that the White House thought the banner would send a dual message. “They were proud of what they had done.

“The nuance of his remarks, however, couldn’t compete with the message of this banner.”

Bush, in October 2003, disavowed any connection with the “Mission Accomplished” message. He said the White House had nothing to do with the banner; a spokesman later said the ship’s crew asked for the sign and the White House staff had it made by a private vendor.

Bush’s White House ultimately said the phrase referred to the carrier’s crew completing its 10-month mission, not the military completing its mission in Iraq, according to the Associated Press.

But in the intervening years, even Bush has expressed regret at the tone of the speech and its backdrop.

“They had a sign that said ‘Mission Accomplished,’ ” he told CNN in 2008. “It was a sign aimed at the sailors on the ship, but it conveyed a broader knowledge. To some it said, well, Bush thinks the war in Iraq is over, when I didn’t think that. But nonetheless, it conveyed the wrong message.”

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