Less than 12 hours after he addressed the nation to announce a series of military strikes against Syria, President Donald Trump celebrated on Twitter.
“A perfectly executed strike last night,” he wrote. “Thank you to France and the United Kingdom for their wisdom and the power of their fine Military. Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!”
On Sunday, Trump defended his use of the phrase after members of the media – including yours truly – pointed out some ironies.
“The Syrian raid was so perfectly carried out, with such precision, that the only way the Fake News Media could demean was by my use of the term ‘Mission Accomplished,’” Trump tweeted. “I knew they would seize on this but felt it is such a great Military term, it should be brought back. Use often!”
Mission. Accomplished. So, let’s break this down.
You might remember those two words emblazoned on a massive red, white and blue banner that hung behind the last Republican president – George W. Bush – as he spoke aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003. Bush’s speech that day was regarded as a marker of the end of “major combat operations” in Iraq after just over a month of fighting.
As the war in Iraq dragged on for years to come and American casualties piled up, the “Mission Accomplished” banner became a punch line, a telling indication of the Bush administration’s gross underestimation of the challenge posed by the conflict.
Years later, as he was preparing to leave office, Bush acknowledged the banner was a mistake.
“It was a sign aimed at the sailors on the ship, but it conveyed a broader knowledge,” Bush said in 2008. “To some it said, well, Bush thinks the war in Iraq is over, when I didn’t think that. But nonetheless, it conveyed the wrong message.”
And now, just hours removed from strikes on Syria that were hotly debated even within his administration – and for which there is no congressional authorization – Trump is using those same words to declare victory.
What it suggests is either an ignorance of or a disinterest in recent history. Anyone – and I mean anyone – who has followed the political and policy debate in this country for the last 20 years knows exactly what the words “mission accomplished” conjure up. Particularly when in reference to a military strike against a foreign power. In the Middle East. With fears of escalation into a broader regional war rampant.
Words matter. Even if George W. Bush and the “Mission Accomplished” banner never existed, it’s more than a little bit strange for Trump to declare victory so soon after he announced the strikes.
Here’s the key piece of what he said Friday night (bolding is mine):
“The purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread, and use of chemical weapons. Establishing this deterrent is a vital national security interest of the United States. The combined American, British, and French response to these atrocities will integrate all instruments of our national power – military, economic, and diplomatic. We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents.”
If we are “prepared to sustain” our “response” until Syria stops the use of chemical weapons forever, it may well take more than a single night of missile strikes. And, isn’t Trump the one who blasted the likes of President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for supposedly telegraphing the United States’ strategic moves?
Trump tweeting out “Mission Accomplished” won’t make one missile miss or knock one US ship off course.
But Trump would do well to remember the words of philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”