CBSNews.com Chief Political Writer
, President Bush told the world, "In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed."
Fresh off an S-3B Viking aircraft that he co-piloted but did not land and donning a flight suit, Mr. Bush strutted triumphantly aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. He stood at the podium and declared, "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended."
"It looked like a brilliant political move at the time," said Norman Orenstein, an elections expert at the American Enterprise Institute. "But clearly, there was a matter of irrational exuberance and I think they regret it now."
It was May 1, 2003, a year ago Saturday, when the president spoke to the nation beneath a massive banner reading "Mission Accomplished." At that point, 138 U.S. troops had been killed in Iraq. This past month alone, 131 have died. In total, 734 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq, 596 of them since the president proclaimed major fighting completed.
By any military measure, the war in Iraq is not over.
"Those Americans are dying because this administration screwed up," said Flynt Leverett, former senior director for the Middle East Initiative for the National Security Council from 2002 to 2003.
"The Bush administration heard what they wanted to hear. They were not willing to face reality and were not willing to pay the price for resources for their ambition," said Leverett, who also served in 2001 as a State Department counterterrorism analyst and before that held a similar post with CIA during the Clinton administration.
"What [the one-year anniversary] shows," Leverett continued, "is that having overthrown Saddam's regime and having carried out a successful military campaign, the Bush administration at the highest level still had no clue of what they have gotten themselves into and they had no meaningful plan for coping with it, for managing it."
The Defense Department categorizes "major combat operations" as "force on force" combat. But Mr. Bush's use of words like "prevailed" and "victory" gave the impression that the worst of the war, if not the war itself, was over.
"A year ago, I did give the speech from the carrier saying that we had achieved an important objective, that we had accomplished a mission, which was the removal of Saddam Hussein," the president told reporters Friday. "And as a result, there are no longer torture chambers or rape rooms or mass graves in Iraq. As a result, a friend of terror has been removed and now sits in a jail."
It was the "Mission Accomplished" banner streaming atop the aircraft carrier while Mr. Bush spoke that has received the greatest criticism, making it
possibly the largest public relations flub of this administration. In a rare public admission, key administration officials have questioned the move
"I wish the banner was not up there," said White House top political adviser Karl Rove in April, while speaking with the editorial board of The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch. "I'll acknowledge the fact that it has become one of those convenient symbols."
But for the president's spokesman at the time, Ari Fleischer, there are no regrets. "I continue to think that it was entirely appropriate," said Fleischer from his home in Washington, as he helped care for his wife, who is expecting a child within weeks.
For months, the Bush administration denied that it was responsible for the banner, blaming the aircraft carrier crew itself. Since then, White House officials have acknowledged it was their idea.
"We put it up. We made the sign," Fleischer said. "But I think it accurately summed up where we were at the time, mission accomplished... the mission was to topple Saddam Hussein.
"Looking back now, I think it is a classic issue of the Bush presidency," he continued. "People who like the president still think it was a great event and it was the appropriate way to say thank you to the military, even if combat has flared back up again. People who don't like the president thought it was showmanship and think he was wrong because obviously combat has flared back up again. And I think people in the middle are in the middle. They probably think it was right of him to say thank you to the military because of the hostilities, but they think he got the facts wrong."
A released Thursday shows support for President Bush and his Iraq policy slipping. His overall approval rating is at 46 percent, his rating on handling Iraq at 41 percent and his rating on foreign policy at 40 percent – all represent the president's lowest numbers since the war began.
Also at an all-time low, according to the poll, is the number of Americans, 32 percent, who say Iraq was a threat that required immediate military action.
For Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, the low poll numbers reflect Americans' increasing awareness that the Bush administration "had a plan, which turned out to be a pretty good plan, for winning the war, but they had no plan for winning the peace."
Of serious concern to the administration is whether such poll results are a harbinger that a worsening situation in Iraq could lead to the loss of the political center.
Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and a decorated Navy veteran, has asserted since the Iowa primary that "I know something for real about aircraft carriers" – a direct criticism of Mr. Bush's speech on the deck of the Lincoln a year ago. But whether or not Kerry can capitalize on growing discontent with the war in Iraq remains unclear. The two men remain in a virtual tie in the CBS/NYT poll.
Already Mr. Bush has moved closer to Kerry's position on Iraq. After more than a year of fighting United Nations involvement on an administrative level, the White House has conceded a necessary role for the U.N. in facilitating the Iraqi transitional government following the scheduled June 30 transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis.
"Now we are coming in on hands and knees asking the U.N. to bail us out," Nye said.
"What we should have done at the conclusion of major operations was say, 'OK, whatever our disagreements with others about how we went in, making sure Iraq is stable now is a common problem for all of us.' And we should've invited in the U.N. and other countries that opposed us," he continued.
"But by succumbing to hubris, mission accomplished, we did it all ourselves, no problem," he added, "Yeah, we won the war, but we lost the peace."