Five years ago today the U.S. media and administration officials who plotted the invasion of Iraq celebrated the fall of Baghdad while expressing few fears about the future. "We're all neo-cons now!" crowed Chris Matthews on MSNBC. Joe Scarborough, also on MSNBC, declared, "I'm waiting to hear the words, 'I was wrong' from some of the world's most elite journalists, politicians, and Hollywood types." Vice President Cheney dismissed critics of the war as ''retired military officers embedded in T.V. studios.'' Donald Rumsfeld compared the end of Saddam Hussein's government to the fall of the Berlin Wall - a tragically premature judgement, as we would soon learn..
In all of this there was a special emphasis on the toppling of that tall statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. It was, in most cases, attributed solely to the Iraqis--with little or no mention of the crucial help provided by U.S. marines (as I note in my new book on Iraq and the media).
The stories were filled with gloating comments by administration officials. I happened to be in New Orleans for a newspaper conference where Vice President Cheney - I'm sure he would have preferred being back at the White House sharing a few toasts with his fellow architects of the war - offered that quip about the war critics. It was a surreal scene. In the ballroom at the Fairmont awaiting Cheney's arrival I watched a huge video screen, which was showing the toppling of the statue, fall over itself and nearly reach the floor before it was propped back into place.
At the White House, The New York Times reported, President Bush, "watching the Iraqi crowds topple the Saddam Hussein statue on a television set just outside the Oval Office, exclaimed, ''They got it down!' according to an aide."
There was one complication. The marines had put an American flag over Saddam's head, like a hangman's noose (very, as it turns out, Abu Ghraib-like). Soon it was replaced by an Iraqi flag.
But quickly--more quickly than most of us recall - mobs of looting Iraqis had already taken to the streets, raiding unprotected buildings and ministries, with utterly horrendous results. Rumsfeld would soon joke: "Stuff happens."
The New York Times in an editorial on this day five years ago did offer some prescient words:
"It is clear that the United States and Britain need to act quickly to bring order and succor to a chaotic and wounded land....The urgent task now in the occupied areas of Iraq is to bring order and security to cities where the sudden collapse of the government has left a power vacuum that invites lawlessness. In the absence of civil government, there is an ominous potential for strife and bloodshed in a nation riven with ethnic divisions and hatreds. A long-oppressed populace has plenty of scores to settle....
"The removal of Saddam Hussein's regime can be the opening chapter in a positive and historic transformation of Iraq, but only if military operations are followed quickly by efforts to stabilize the country, feed and heal the people, and set Iraq on a course toward self-governance. That is the difference between a war of conquest and a war of liberation."
Greg Mitchell's new book is So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq. It feaures a preface by Bruce Springsteen and a foreword by Joe Galloway. He is editor of Editor & Publisher.