Ten years ago this month, President George W. Bush climbed confidently from the cockpit of a fighter jet that had landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln flight deck. He strode to the microphone and declared an end to major military operations in Iraq.
Behind him fluttered that infamous banner that declared "Mission Accomplished," an embarrassing artifact that nonetheless is housed in the new library he dedicated last month.
Iraq war. Much lost -- 4,500 American lives and $2.2 trillion dollars, 13 percent of the national debt -- and little if anything gained. We traded one despot for another, and right now the nation is on the verge of civil war. In April alone, internecine fighting nationwide killed 712 people, the largest number in a single month since 2008, the United Nations reported.
By almost any measure, Iraq is tumbling down the abyss, and as other Middle Eastern nations are demonstrating all too well, the ultimate benefactors will likely be Islamic extremists. Already, the state has its own name-brand candidate eagerly awaiting its moment: al-Qaeda in Iraq. The group is blamed for destroying the justice ministry with four bombs in March, killing at least two dozen people, and membership in that al-Qaeda branch is reported to be growing rapidly.
Many writers like to blame Iraq's problems on the British occupiers a century ago. As they left the region after World War I, Britain drew the boundaries for Iraq, Syria, Jordan and other states -- heedless of the ethnic divisions endemic to each of these new states.
Afterward, in each of the countries dictators kept the lid on the simmering hatred between Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and Kurds. But then, once they were overthrown by uprisings or war, the stew boiled over.
True enough, but in Iraq right now I blame Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's Shiite prime minister. He is systematically discriminating against Sunnis and Kurds -- having them arrested and killed en masse. Last month, his security forces attacked a Sunni protestors' camp in the town of Hawija, killing at least 20 people and wounding many more. Unprovoked massacres like that are what lit the brewing civil war.
Maliki certainly knew full well that to make Iraq work, he had to be an inclusive prime minister, giving fair treatment to all parties. That was perfectly obvious to everyone in the world who was paying attention. But Maliki refused. Recently he fired his widely respected finance minister, in my view merely because he's Sunni. For that and so much more, Maliki deserves to be thrown out. Is Maliki simply a new, diabolical dictator? By one key measure at least, he's the worst in the world.
You can tell a lot about any government by how it treats the news media. A national leader confident he's serving his people as best he can has little to fear from the media. Occasional criticism is part of what comes from holding office.
Maliki obviously holds no such confidence. Late last month, his government revoked the operating licenses for 10 satellite TV channels, including Al Jazeera. The stations were covering the nationwide violence and unrest, as should be expected. But by doing so, the government charged, they were "promoting violence" with "misleading and exaggerated" coverage.
I was based in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, and one of the most exciting developments was watching new newspapers and magazines show up on newsstands almost every day and cameramen from new TV stations arriving for important events. A new, free press was flowering across the country.
No more. And what better demonstrates this than the number of journalists assassinated. Since 2003, more journalists have died in Iraq than in the conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria or Vietnam, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported. "In Iraq," the CPJ added, "at least 92 journalists, or nearly two out of every three killed, did not die in air strikes, checkpoint shootings, suicide bombings, sniper fire, or the detonation of improvised explosive devices. They were instead murdered in targeted assassinations in direct reprisal for their reporting. Many were targeted because of their affiliations with U.S. or Western news organizations."
The CPJ also publishes what it calls its "impunity index," an accounting of how frequently people are arrested for killing journalists. And in Iraq, the committee wrote, "even today, as Iraq has moved beyond" the war "authorities have shown no interest in investigating these murders."
Iraq's impunity rate "is 100 percent" -- the "worst in the world."
(Joel Brinkley is the Hearst professional in residence at Stanford University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning former correspondent for The New York Times.)