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The Mission Was Never Accomplished

State of the Union: Twenty years ago today, President George W. Bush gave his infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech.

(White House photo by Paul Morse, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Twenty years ago today, on May 1, 2003, then-President George W. Bush stood on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln behind a lectern that bore the presidential seal. Behind him stood the aircraft carrier’s crew, some wearing their brightly-colored suits, coded for the role they played on the ship’s deck, and the fighter jets they were tasked with deploying. Also behind the president, a banner hung across the carrier’s bridge that read “mission accomplished.”

“My fellow Americans: Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed. And now our coalition is engaged in securing and reconstructing that country,” Bush said.


“In this battle, we have fought for the cause of liberty, and for the peace of the world. Our nation and our coalition are proud of this accomplishment — yet, it is you, the members of the United States military, who achieved it,” the president continued. “Because of you, the tyrant has fallen, and Iraq is free.”

The Mission Accomplished speech lives on in infamy, and for good reason. 

That iteration of the Iraq War would continue, officially, until 2011. At that point, the war had claimed the lives of about 4,500 Americans and well over 100,000 Iraqis. It had cost the United States upwards of $800 billion in direct war-fighting costs. American troops would return less than three years later thanks to the rise of the Islamic State. The combat mission would continue until December 2021, almost exactly ten years since the first withdrawal and eighteen years since Bush’s address aboard the Lincoln. 

The war is over, as is the combat mission—officially, at least. We’re still in Iraq, however. Currently, the U.S. military has about 2,500 soldiers deployed in Iraq, mainly stationed at Al Asad Airbase, Al-Harir Air Base, and Camp Victory.

The war in Iraq was as destabilizing as devastating. Toppling Sadam Hussein paved the way for the emergence of the brutal terror that was the Islamic State, all while empowering Iran, giving it a semblance of regional hegemony. The Bush administration’s visions for Jeffersonian democracy taking root in the Muslim world were delusions of grandeur. There was no oasis to be found in the desert, and the liberal American empire was a fish out of water, all too far from home.


Bush also referenced America’s invasion of Afghanistan, an integral part of the nation’s broader war on terror, in the mission accomplished speech:

In the battle of Afghanistan, we destroyed the Taliban, many terrorists, and the camps where they trained. We continue to help the Afghan people lay roads, restore hospitals, and educate all of their children. Yet we also have dangerous work to complete. As I speak, a Special Operations task force, led by the 82nd Airborne, is on the trail of the terrorists and those who seek to undermine the free government of Afghanistan. America and our coalition will finish what we have begun.

The government of Afghanistan was anything but free. America’s military and political leaders knew that to be the case, but intentionally lied to the American public. Twenty years after the invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan. And twenty years after Bush proclaimed the terrorists who sought to undermine the American-backed government of Afghanistan would be hunted down, they’re running the country.

The foreign policy establishment has moved on as if nothing ever happened. And why wouldn’t they? No one was ever held accountable for America’s failures in the Middle East, except maybe Hillary Clinton in her 2016 loss to President Donald Trump. But that was it, really. No one lost their job or their cushy pension; no one is behind bars. The Clintons still live quite comfortably.

Once the spigot of cash ran dry for the military industrial complex in Afghanistan, it nearly instantaneously reopened with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. After Ukraine fared better in the early stages of the war than most initially anticipated, the liberal establishment in Washington and the western world started to believe it would not be long until Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, flanked by President Joe Biden and the world leaders who provided aid to Ukraine, would unironically be delivering a mission accomplished speech of his own. That hasn’t come to pass, despite hundreds of billions in aid forked over by the U.S. and other western nations. Nevertheless, some still hold out hope that Ukraine’s counter offensive, which is supposedly imminent, will have Zelensky saying, “Because of you, the tyrant has fallen, and Ukraine is free.”

As President Bush taught us, mission accomplished can be declared at any time. But that doesn’t make it true; and the mission might not ever be accomplished in Ukraine.

Some might be coming around to that reality. According to the New York Times, a particularly heavy rainy season might mean the Ukrainian advance is stuck in the mud, not to mention U.S. intelligence assessments revealed in the Discord leak that the U.S. doesn’t have much faith in the counter offensive’s ability to turn the tide.

Biden has promised to support Ukraine for “as long as it takes.” That could be two years, or twenty, or two hundred. And protraction works to Russia’s advantage: they have more men, more guns, and more patience (Russia is no stranger to suffering massive casualties to prevail in long military campaigns). And the stakes are arguably even higher in Ukraine than they were in Iraq and the Middle East: Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction. Putin surely does.