The 'mission accomplished' moment
'All of the intentions that went into why we did it the way we did it were lost'
On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush appeared in a nationally televised address aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, standing in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner. The implication was that major combat operations in Iraq were over. But his team of top advisors said that wasn't the plan.
Dan Bartlett, communications director
One of the big regrets of my life was "Mission Accomplished" and that speech, because all the intentions that went into why we did it the way we did it were lost. The exact opposite narrative came out of it. Our whole point was that we did not want to do a declaratory speech like "Bush won," from the Oval Office. How do we make it about the troops, the guys who actually—
We got the story about the USS Lincoln, which had been on the longest deployment in the history of the Navy because they were in Afghanistan and had to turn around and go back to the Gulf, Iraq, 14 months in the water. Why don't we go out there and speak to them from there? Then you start thinking about the daunting task of delivering a speech to the nation from a moving aircraft carrier. So I sent one of my team. One of my deputies was a former Emmy-winning producer they flew to Hawaii, got on the boat in Hawaii. Again, in all the texts it never said, "mission accomplished." In fact, erroneously, Don Rumsfeld takes credit for taking "mission accomplished" out of the speech, which is not true. It did not work that way.
Tommy Franks called and wanted some specific language in there about the end of combat operations. They wanted to send the signal to stop fighting. He was very deliberate about that, but we never had the language in there that said mission accomplished. I looked at every single draft of it. Scott Sforza, the guy who works for me, calls me from the ship and knows what was going on. I thought a million different things. Scott is on the phone calling me. I figure it's a novelty. He was calling me from the ship.
He says, "Hey, this is going to be great. I just want to run by you, the motto of the ship is 'mission accomplished' because they'd been at deployment for so long. Would you have any issue if we put a banner up on that?" I said, "It's their boat, dude. Do it." I didn't think twice about it. Now, did I say is it going to be in the tight shot for the speech in which that is going to be hanging over him? I didn't get into that detail. The rest is history. The President had multiple occasions where he could have thrown me, my staff, any of us under the bus for that. He never did. He just said, "That's fine. It's on me."
For it to come out that it was Bush declaring victory and all this. It was the exact opposite sentiment of him, and all of us, and what we attempted to do, and it just totally blew up in our face. But what it showed me about him as a man and as a leader and as my boss, he had our back. He didn't have to do that.
Miller Center's Russell Riley: Let me ask you about one other piece of this that I think, in my own mind, is what contributed to these perceptions. That is his decision to take control of the plane or to be partly in control of the plane, wear a flight suit. As somebody who had had all this experience with all these questions about his National Guard service, was there ever a red flag raised about using that as the way to deliver—
Bartlett: To be frank with you, this was more of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing. The advance team was in charge of getting him out there. They concocted this whole idea of him flying out there on that and he was comfortable. Frankly, I don't recall a lot of debate about whether he should or shouldn't do it. I don't remember until we got out there thinking, Oh, he's going to. All of us had to get on a plane of some sort. He was going to sit number two in a plane and was going to have the kind of Top Gun walk and the whole thing. We didn't, to be honest—this is another thing. We get more credit for good things. A lot of these things, God, that was luck. That wasn't as thought through as we all thought, as you may think.
Riley: My recollection is that the original returns on that piece of it were actually extraordinary because he looked terrific.
Bartlett: He looked like he knew what he was doing, and he did. It was only later when they couldn't find any weapons of mass destruction. One of my multiple moments I had, when Secretary Rumsfeld—we were outside the Oval Office and it was just another—the insurgency is cranking up. He says, "Dan, I just don't understand why we can't get any good news stories out of Iraq. The progress—" I said, "Mr. Secretary, you find me one vial of WMD [weapon of mass destruction] and I promise you I will get you some good stories." [laughter] He didn't like that answer. That's just the fact.
There was nothing that drove me more to prematurely graying hair than this whole notion of Bush's communication skills and that stark contrast between those who would see him intimately in private sessions. You have to know by definition that since he got to where he was, he had communicative skills. He is a great retail politician. If he were in here, you'd be mesmerized by his personality and his ability to do that. Very Bill Clinton-esque in some respects. But some people are good microcommunicators and some are good at macro. He is not a macrocommunicator.
Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary
The banner read "Mission Accomplished." In the speech Bush gave, Bush said there were many parts of Iraq that were dangerous. Major combat operations were over, but it was going to take time and there was a lot of danger ahead. He gave a perfectly nuanced, qualified speech to end major combat operations, which were exactly chosen words for just that reason, because we knew there was still fighting in the Sunni triangle and especially in Fallujah.
The banner. The ship was steaming back from duty in and around the Gulf and was the longest-deployed ship in the history of the United States Navy. Our advance people met the crew of the Abraham Lincoln. I think they flew to Hawaii and then boarded the ship as the ship was steaming back toward San Diego and the crew was totally excited: the Commander in Chief is coming out. He's going to declare combat is over from here. They asked if they could hang a sign in honor of them being the longest-deployed ship. They successfully, in their view, had completed their mission, which they did, and they wanted to have a sign that read "Mission Accomplished."
Our guys thought, Great idea. It's a fitting tribute to you. Certainly it fit into the theme of what we were talking about. On May 2, it assuredly felt as if the mission had been accomplished: Saddam was out of power, Baghdad fell, hardly any lives had been lost. At that time, too, you could go to downtown Baghdad and eat at outdoor cafes. It was one of the safest places on earth, with no crime, no violence. People forget that we were greeted with flowers. That was the reality of May.
The banner was hung because our advance team thought it was a good idea, a tribute to the sailors and Marines aboard the ship. Bush landed in his flight suit, producing just tumultuous, fabulous pictures, but we started to hear a little "Is it over the top?" pushback from some people on TV.
Ryan Crocker, United States Ambassador to Syria, Pakistan, and Iraq
I’d just come back from Baghdad and was just getting set to go back. I remember thinking sarcastically, Oh, that’s good, I guess I don’t have to go. It’s interesting how we look at these things in retrospect because I watched it. My reaction at the time was “nothing inappropriate about that” in terms of his clear context: the liberation of Iraq and the demise of Saddam Hussein. They did accomplish that mission. I still find the subsequent castigation of Bush over this misses that point. I think it was meant far more narrowly than it was interpreted.
Josh Bolten, White House deputy chief of staff for policy; director of the Office of Management and Budget; chief of staff
This is the episode that really resonates through time: the banner behind Bush on the aircraft carrier that said "mission accomplished." Somebody allowed that to be put up. My understanding in retrospect was that the banner was intended for the sailors onboard that ship—they had accomplished their mission and they were headed home. But somebody made a bad mistake allowing that to be in the photo. Bush never said those words, and in fact if you go back and read his remarks, he's complimenting the troops on the great job they've done and preparing everybody for the important work that lies ahead. Yet that "mission accomplished" moment—it's an emblem. So somebody did that.
It was not the kind of place where you figured out who let that be there and fired them or something like that; nobody got fired or anything like that.