| President Bush making his victory speech in front of the banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln. (Reuters)
Washington, Oct. 30: One of the most triumphant images of George W. Bush’s presidency — his dramatic landing on an aircraft carrier to declare an end to major combat in Iraq — has come back to haunt him six months later.
Bush has been drawn into a dispute with the US navy over who was responsible for a giant banner reading “Mission Accomplished” that hung behind him as he spoke on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1.
At the time, his opponents attacked the banner for claiming premature victory. Now, it is once again fuelling Democratic accusations that Bush did not “level" with the American people about the dangers still faced in Iraq.
On Tuesday, Bush said at the White House that the banner had been put up by the navy — not by his own staff. He said that he had gone out of his way in his May speech to describe the toppling of Saddam Hussein as only one victory in a continuing war on terrorism, and to give warning that Iraq remained a dangerous place.
A navy spokesman confirmed that the banner was “a navy idea; the ship’s idea”, and was meant to refer to the end of the Lincoln’s record-breaking 290-day deployment.
However, Bush’s spokesman, Scott McClellan, later conceded that the banner was actually made and supplied by the White House. “We took care of the production of it,” he said. “We have people to do those things. But the navy actually put it up.”
Though the distinctions may seem petty, the row speaks volumes about the newly defensive mood gripping the White House, as the rising death count erodes American satisfaction at what had seemed a swift victory over Saddam. Six months ago, Democrats tried their best to ridicule Bush’s carefully stage-managed visit to the Lincoln — arriving in a jet and striding along the deck in a military flight suit, pilot’s helmet under one arm.
His critics noted that, as a young man of draft age, he secured a coveted slot in the Texas air national guard, and thus avoided service in Vietnam.
Democratic derision grew louder when it emerged that the aircraft carrier had been ordered to cruise in circles off the Californian coast — apparently so that the President could make his speech against a golden sunset in time for the main evening news.
Despite these charges, the public responded with enthusiasm six months ago to these images of their war-time President.
Now, Democrats appear newly confident that Bush is vulnerable to talk of hubris.
John Kerry, a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination and a decorated Vietnam veteran, said: “Landing on an aircraft carrier and saying ‘mission accomplished’ didn’t end a war, and standing in the Rose Garden and stating that ‘Iraq is a dangerous place’ does nothing to make American troops safer.”
The UN is temporarily withdrawing its international staff from Baghdad to consult on the security situation in the Iraqi capital, a spokeswoman said today. The decision follows Monday’s car bomb attack on the Red Cross, in which 12 people were killed.