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Commentary: What the Iraq mission cost Bush

  • Story Highlights
  • Julian Zelizer: Shoe-throwing brings to mind another moment from Bush years
  • He says the "mission accomplished" speech serves as bookend to recent visit
  • Bush's failure to ensure stability in Iraq overshadows his achievements, he says
  • Zelizer: Bush doesn't get credit for keeping nation safe from terror attacks
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By Julian E. Zelizer
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is the co-editor of "Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s" and is completing a book on the history of national-security politics since World War II, to be published by Basic Books. Zelizer writes widely on current events.

Julian Zelizer says Bush's mishandling of Iraq has denied him credit for preventing more terror attacks on U.S. soil.

Julian Zelizer says Bush's mishandling of Iraq has denied him credit for preventing more terror attacks on U.S. soil.

PRINCETON, New Jersey (CNN) -- President George W. Bush's hope in making his surprise visit to Iraq last week was to highlight the stability that had been achieved in the country.

Instead, an Iraqi reporter threw his shoes at Bush, an act of disrespect, yelling out that "this is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog."

The event serves as a bookend to the "Mission Accomplished" moment in May 2003, when President Bush appeared on the USS Abraham Lincoln, standing before a banner that said "Mission Accomplished," and praised the troops who had defeated the Iraqi government.

At that televised event, he said, "major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed."

Both moments were damaging to the way many Americans perceive Bush, and they will go down in the history books as part of the story we tell about his presidency. The Mission Accomplished moment ultimately proved devastating because it revealed Bush's overconfidence and failure to prepare for the task of reconstruction.

Last week, The New York Times published a draft of an official U.S. government history of Iraq that documented the enormous problems with the period that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The draft says: "In March 2003, the United States invaded Iraq, made short work of its armed forces and easily topped Saddam Hussein's government. A well-trained and properly equipped force achieved a quick and efficient military victory.

"But the United States was unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with what came next. ... Washington -- with no plans to manage the increasing chaos it faced, no developed doctrine of nation building, and no established structures through which to carry out complex relief and reconstruction operations -- was forced to forego its hoped for quick transfer of power to an Interim Iraqi Authority and give way to an occupation of undetermined length."

The shoe-throwing incident captured another failure of the administration -- the inability to win the support and confidence of the Iraqi people.

While the surge of troops to Iraq helped stabilize a situation that had started to spin out of control by 2006, it is far from clear that the United States has established the conditions for a democracy that can be stable in the long-term.

There is also ample evidence that the frustration and anger voiced by the shoe-throwing reporter expresses the feelings of many Iraqis.

Scholars and pundits will continue to debate whether Iraq was a strategic success or failure, and much of their analysis will depend on what happens next. Yet it is hard to see how anyone will be able to deny that politically the war has been disastrous for Bush and the Republican Party.

At the end of last week, Bush appeared at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He tried to refocus attention on an issue that has not been discussed as much, even by his supporters, and that is the fact that the nation has been free from terrorist attacks since 9/11.

Bush said that "there can be no debate" that he helped keep America safe on the home front. Despite uncovering many horrendous plots against U.S. citizens, terrorists have not been able to strike again. Bush argued this was not a result of chance but of public policy accomplishments by his administration.

There are many reasons that President Bush and the GOP have not gotten political credit for helping to achieve what seemed impossible to many Americans on September 12, 2001 -- a sense of normalcy and relative safety.

The most important reason is that this is an area where success is achieved by what does not happen rather than what does.

The fact that counterterrorism operations are covert makes them difficult for politicians to discuss. And most in the White House are nervous about saying too much and appearing overconfident in case another attack occurs.

Finally, many of the techniques used by the administration to achieve security, including secret surveillance and aggressive interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, have been highly controversial.

But Bush's failure to receive political credit for homeland security is also a result of one of the biggest political choices that he made; namely, the decision to go into Iraq. The evidence thus far leads to the conclusion that this was a war of choice and not a war of necessity.

Many Americans don't think it was a wise choice, going down with such infamous moments as Lyndon Johnson's decision to Americanize the Vietnam War with an escalation of ground troops in 1965.

There were many ways in which the Bush administration could have used its resources, including a greater commitment to the reconstruction of Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, but it decided to pursue the old nemesis of Saddam Hussein, who key members of the administration had been hunting since 1990.

Bush also made the Iraq war a centerpiece of his political rhetoric. Republicans repeatedly used Iraq as a means to achieve re-election in 2004. The GOP highlighted Iraq -- and Democratic opposition and criticism of the war -- as the way in which they painted their party as stronger on national security.

Now Bush and his allies are living with the results.

With all the revelations about what went wrong -- from the failure to find weapons of mass destruction to the scattershot approach to reconstruction -- the president himself has made it more difficult to focus public attention on one area of policy where it is possible to make the argument that he has had significant success.

History shows that presidents can make bad choices, and those choices can have devastating political consequences on their own legacy in history.

Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and 1965 looked like a transformative president as a result of civil rights progress and the Great Society. Lyndon Johnson in 1968 looked like a defeated and failed president as a result of Vietnam.

As President Bush tried last week to remind Americans of what went right, his own trip to Iraq was the clearest revelation about why so many Americans just are not listening anymore.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

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