We're far enough away from it now that we can probably all agree: It was a mistake for George W. Bush to land on that aircraft carrier in a flight suit to proclaim "Mission Accomplished." And not just because the war in Iraq was far from over at that point.
Every president crows about his successes in war — assuming he has anything to crow about. But he should try to seem modest and statesmanlike while doing so.
President Obama should have reminded himself of that lesson this week as he prepared to fly to Afghanistan to observe the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death. The president didn't actually use the words "mission accomplished," but he came pretty close.
Obama and his campaign have managed to turn the anniversary of bin Laden's death into a weeklong celebration of the president-as-tough-guy. And they're celebrating in a distinctly partisan way, suggesting that Mitt Romney would not have made the same decision.
The impulse is understandable. Ever since Obama took office, the GOP has accused him of being weak. Romney and other Republicans have painted him as a peacenik, as soft on defense, as a leader who makes preemptive concessions to tougher-minded adversaries. And these portrayals have persisted despite Obama's refusal to play the part. Not only did he order the death of bin Laden, he also approved relentless campaigns of drone strikes against suspected terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen and tripled the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Still, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden would have done better not to turn the anniversary of Obama's death into an attack on Romney. It wasn't presidential, and it wasn't even necessary. The president deserved credit for a gutsy decision, but by the time he got to Kabul, his campaign had turned it into another cable television food-fight.
And that micro-debate overshadowed a far more important foreign policy (and campaign) message of Obama's trip to Kabul: The president is keeping his promise to wind down the unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The tide has turned," Obama said in Kabul. "The goal that I set — to defeat al-Qaida and deny it a chance to rebuild — is within reach." And so, he promised, thousands of troops will come home from Afghanistan this summer and fall — a good-news story that will recur long after the anniversary of bin Laden's death has faded.
His success in the fight against al-Qaida even emboldened him to try out a metaphor that hasn't been heard in decades: It's morning in America.
After "a decade under the dark cloud of war ... we can see the light of a new day on the horizon," he said. "As we emerge from a decade of conflict abroad and economic crisis at home, it is time to renew America — an America ... where sunlight glistens off soaring new towers in downtown Manhattan."
To a remarkable degree, Obama has won the debate on Afghanistan. There are still Republican critics, led by Sen. John S. McCain, R-Ariz., who say the troop withdrawals are too fast and warn that the Taliban is simply waiting us out. Their position is reasonable and defensible, but it collides with a public that is sick and tired of the war and its costs. An ABC News-Washington Post poll this month found that 66 percent of adults say the war has not been worth fighting — and that included 55 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.
Indeed, Afghanistan was one issue you didn't hear Mitt Romney talk about this week, perhaps because his positions aren't likely to win many votes beyond his existing base of national security conservatives.
Romney has called for delaying troop withdrawals until at least the end of the year and has said he would stay in Afghanistan as long as it took to "defeat the Taliban." Moreover, Romney has denounced Obama for seeking negotiations with the insurgents, even though the Afghan government (and McCain, for that matter) supports the talks as a way to bring the war to an end.4 comments on this story
It's no wonder the Romney camp was bent out of shape this week. Not only did Obama challenge his opponent's manliness; he also kept the nation focused on Afghanistan rather than on the sorry state of the economy, where Romney stands a better chance of scoring points.
Obama has every right to point out the progress he's made in the fight against al-Qaida and the promises he's kept in Afghanistan and Iraq. And he's got every right to challenge Romney for apparent inconsistencies.
But that's what campaign debates are for. When the president wants to commemorate an act of military valor, he should keep politics out of the mix.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.