On the anniversary of one of the president's most infamous episodes of political theater, Congress and the White House tried to upstage each other today in a showdown over the Iraq funding bill, which mandates U.S. troop withdrawal as an attempt to bring an end to U.S. involvement in the war. With hastily arranged press conferences and a rare presidential veto, the legislative and executive branches squared off.
That the showdown occurred on the four-year anniversary of President Bush's premature "Mission Accomplished" photo op aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln was, Democrats insisted, a coincidence. Either way, Democrats sent the president an unwelcome anniversary present — a $124 billion troop funding bill that requires the withdrawal of U.S. troops as soon as July 1.
The president vetoed it, using what is only his second presidential veto. "Members of the House and the Senate passed a bill that substitutes the opinions of politicians for the judgment of our military commanders," the president said around 6 p.m., shortly after a flight from Florida to visit Central Command. "So a few minutes ago, I vetoed the bill."
The drama had begun just hours before, at a rare bill signing ceremony where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., staged a bit of political theater of their own.
"With the benchmarks to hold the Iraqi government accountable, this legislation respects the wishes of the American people to end the Iraq War," Pelosi said. Added Reid, "As we know, the president has put our troops in the middle of a civil war. The reality on the ground proves what we all know -- a change of course is needed."
Democrats lack the votes to override the president's veto. So they will likely start crafting a new war funding bill to send to the president, one that will likely contain benchmarks for progress for the Iraqi government and U.S. troop readiness requirements — but no timelines for U.S. troop withdrawal.
"The president wants a blank check," Pelosi said after the president's veto. "The Congress is not going to give it to him." She said that she and Reid "look forward to working with the president to find common ground. But there is great distance between us right now."
Wednesday at 2:25 p.m., Bush is scheduled to meet both Democratic and Republican congressional leaders. "I'm confident that with goodwill on both sides we can agree on a bill that gets our troops the money and flexibility they need as soon as possible," he said.
Added Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., "A number of Republicans think some kind of benchmarks would be helpful. Gen. Petraeus said he thought benchmarks would be helpful. Its an area to talk about starting tomorrow," said McConnell.
Meanwhile, Democrats filled the Senate chamber decrying the president's pronouncements from four years ago.
"I can think of no greater act of hubris, arrogance and denial than the declaration of 'mission accomplished' in Iraq four years ago," said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who used the phrase "mission accomplished" 14 times in his speech today.
"Four years later, there is one thing that the American people, bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress, military experts and the Iraq Study Group all agree on," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "We clearly have not accomplished our mission in Iraq, and that the only way to succeed is to change our current course of action. It seems only the president and his small band of advisers think we have accomplished our mission in Iraq."
At the time, however, the president's May 1, 2003, photo op seemed to many an inspired if spectacular bit of political theater to demonstrate the president's national security credentials as he helped fly a jet onto the aircraft carrier, strutted in a flight suit, and declared, while standing in front of a "Mission Accomplished" banner, that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended" and that "in the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed."
"Yes, I flew it," said the president to members of the media. "Yeah, of course, I liked it." Bush, the White House reminded everyone, flew F-102s in the Texas Air National Guard.
But the war continued. Since Bush's speech, 3,212 U.S. troops have been killed and 24,548 troops seriously wounded. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed, and the country has descended into sectarian violence.
And since then, the event and the banner have emerged as indicative of an arrogant White House too often disconnected from facts on the ground in Iraq. By April 2004, even political aide Karl Rove acknowledged that the banner was a boner. "I wish the banner was not up there," Rove told an editorial board meeting with the Columbus Dispatch. "I'll acknowledge the fact that it has become one of those convenient symbols."
There were no banners as Bush traveled to the military's Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., highlighting that troops fighting the war need the $100 billion set aside for them in the funding bill, although he did not mention troop funding in his speech today. "We look back at that history and marvel at what millions of ordinary people accomplished," the president said of World War II. "That success was not preordained. And the outcome was not certain. Only now we can see those eras with the proper perspective. I believe that one day future generations will look back at this time in the same way, and they will be awed by what our coalition has helped to build."
"I think it's an embarrassment when our troops are waiting on an emergency spending bill to provide them essential equipment that we are staging signing ceremonies and going through political kabuki theater just to demonstrate on the part of some their disagreement with the president's strategy in Baghdad and in Iraq," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in a speech on the Senate floor. "I think it's inappropriate and irresponsible."
However much the "Mission Accomplished" event embarrassed the president today, if at all, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said that the event could have been much more embarrassing. Rumsfeld has said that when he got an advance copy of the president's speech he edited out a number of other items, including a line stating that in Iraq "the guns are silent."
"I took 'mission accomplished' out," Rumsfeld told Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward. "I was in Baghdad, and I was given a draft of that thing to look at. And I just died, and I said, my God, it's too conclusive. And I fixed it and sent it back. And we got it back and they fixed the speech, but not the sign."