Deciphering the Changing Mission in Iraq The stated missions for the Iraq war have changed during the past four years. New York Times reporter John Burns, who has been covering the war in Iraq since it earliest days, talks about what those changes mean.
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Deciphering the Changing Mission in Iraq

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Deciphering the Changing Mission in Iraq

Deciphering the Changing Mission in Iraq

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That wide array of opinion on the U.S. role in Iraq reflects a mission that has grown considerably since President Bush gave this brief description shortly before the U.S. invasion.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Our mission is clear in Iraq. Should we have to go in, our mission is very clear - disarmament.

BRAND: President Bush in 2003, before the war in Iraq. A couple of weeks after he said that, the president's clarity and the U.S. role in Iraq increased.

Pres. BUSH: And our mission is clear - to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein's support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people.

BRAND: Following the U.S. invasion and the defeat of Iraqi forces later that year, it became clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein was not supporting terrorism against U.S. targets. Still, in May 2003 President Bush declared that U.S. forces had completed their mission.

But just two months later, the president said, quote, "the United States and our allies will complete our mission in Iraq." So just what is that mission and how has it changed over the years? New York Times reporter John Burns has been covering the war since it began.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. JOHN BURNS (New York Times): Thank you very much.

BRAND: Well, let's go back to the beginning and talk about the mission in Iraq just after the president said that all major combat operations had ended. What was the mission as you understood it then back in 2003?

Mr. BURNS: Well, I think it, I think it's only fair to remember that what the president thought at that time, at the end of May 2003, was largely what many people who had boots on the ground in Iraq, including the journalists, thought. It was not clear at that time, far from clear, that there was going to be a prolongation of the war or a new war, if you will, the insurgency that has now run for some four and a half years.

And I think it's well worth remembering that in August of 2003, the late summer of 2003, it had in fact become evident that whether or not Saddam Hussein had links with Islamic militant groups like al-Qaida before 2003, the invasion in 2003 - and it's pretty clear that he didn't - by that late summer of 2003, there had been two major strikes, one against the United Nations compound in Baghdad, another against the headquarters of International Committee of the Red Cross, both of which have been subsequently attributed, and I think credibly so, to the Islamic militant insurgency.

So it seems to me that the fair thing to say here is that if the Bush administration didn't have a terrorist problem in the sense of an al-Qaida problem in Iraq at the time of the invasion, by the late fall and early winter of 2003, they did.

BRAND: And then there was sort of a grander vision of ensuring a democratic Iraq and of creating a beachhead, if you will, of democracy in the Middle East.

Mr. BURNS: Yes, we saw that developing apace. And of course the high point for the administration came with the two elections that ensued and drew millions of Iraqis to the polls. Retrospectively, we can see that the enthusiasm generated by those elections had to do with elections as a mechanism for transferring power from the Sunni minority to the Shiite majority.

They didn't have a great deal to do, as we now know, with the seedlings of democracy flowering into anything that we in the Western world, in the United States, might regard as a fully functioning democracy. The ground has proven far too stony for that.

And it came as no surprise, at least to those of us amongst the press corps in Iraq, that after those elections the American hopes for Iraqi democracy began progressively to flounder.

BRAND: John Burns, thank you very much.

Mr. BURNS: Not at all. It's a pleasure.

BRAND: John Burns is the New York Times reporter and former chief of the paper's Baghdad bureau, spent many, many years covering Iraq and the war.

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