One year later: Iraq mission accomplished?

The first of May last year saw a “top gun” landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln by a popular, wartime president.  Beneath a “mission accomplished” banner, President George W. Bush declared the end of major combat in Iraq. He said, “In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”

But one year later, it seems too soon to talk of victory in Iraq.

Since the president’s speech, 423 American troops have been killed in action.  In the war zone, an insurgency threatens America’s exit strategy.

Back home, American casualties are part of the debate over war: fallen soldiers are memorialized on a front page and will be read by name on ABC’s “Nightline.”

Friday, at the White House, the president admitted these are tough times in Iraq, but stood behind his speech from a year ago. “A year ago I did give a speech from a carrier saying that we had achieved an important objective, that we’d accomplished a mission, which was the removal of Saddam Hussein," said President Bush. "I also said on that carrier that day that there was still difficult work ahead.”

But in a year, support for the war has fallen dramatically.  In May of last year, an NBC News/Wall St Journal poll found 71 percent approval for toppling Saddam.  Now, a CBS News/New York Times survey finds Americans evenly split on whether military action in Iraq was the right thing.

Administration critics say the public has understandably grown frustrated.  According to Ivo Daadler, senior fellow of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, “All we did prior to the war was to think about how to get Saddam from power, and we didn’t spend any time on how to think to build the peace that was to come afterwards.”

But the president’s political standing remains strong.  “The president wins even though we’ve had a month that’s been deadly and tragic in Iraq, and that shows the support of the American public for the institution of the presidency, as well as the incumbent, Mr. Bush,” said political scientist and American University professor James Thurber.  “I think the American people are losing patience with the policy in Iraq, but they’re not willing to go to an unknown, Mr. Kerry.”

One year after his now-controversial carrier speech, the president argued Friday that there are major accomplishments in Iraq: Saddam is in jail, and a dangerous country is finally taking its first steps toward a different future.