Back in 2003, the George W. Bush administration was publicly expressing optimism about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That May 1, Bush memorably stood under a “Mission Accomplished” banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier and proclaimed that the United States and its allies had vanquished Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The victory declaration was premature, to say the least. Inside both nations, deadly insurgencies were building. Five months after the “Mission Accomplished” speech, USA TODAY Pentagon reporter Dave Moniz got his hands on an internal memo from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to his top aides. “The coalition can win in Afghanistan and Iraq in one way or another,” Rumsfeld wrote, “but it will be a long, hard slog.”
Indeed. The Iraq War turned into one of the biggest debacles in the history of American foreign policy, and U.S. troops remain bogged down in Afghanistan nearly two decades after the 9/11 attacks.
Trump's happy talk is premature
Rumsfeld’s memo comes to mind whenever I hear the happy talk coming from the Trump administration about the coronavirus pandemic. Even as the president trumpets success in the battle against COVID-19, the disease is making a swift and stealthy comeback across America’s Sun Belt.
To listen to Trump, the “invisible enemy” has been routed. He has promoted magical thinking (saying the virus is “dying out” and “fading away”), quick fixes (recommending hydroxychloroquine) and quack remedies (musing about bleach and disinfectant).
Desperate for the adoration of crowds, the president has put his most fervent supporters at risk of contracting a deadly disease. Future historians will undoubtedly look back in astonishment at his large indoor rallies recently in Tulsa and Phoenix, masks and social distancing be damned in the middle of a pandemic.
Trump isn’t the only top administration official guilty of painting overly rosy scenarios. In late April, Vice President Mike Pence, head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, had his own “Mission Accomplished” moment, predicting that “by Memorial Day weekend we will have this coronavirus epidemic behind us.”
Well, now we are past the Fourth of July weekend, and the numbers are telling a very different story. Case counts are surging to record levels across the South and West. Deaths have topped 130,000. The United States, with about 4% of the world’s population, has nearly 25% of the reported COVID-19 fatalities.
Experts are still showing alarm
Outside the White House bubble, public health officials are expressing alarm at the latest surge in cases.
“We're right back where we were at the peak of the epidemic during the New York outbreak,” Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who served as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration earlier in the Trump administration, said Sunday on CBS News' "Face the Nation." “The difference now is that we really had one epicenter of spread when New York was going through its hardship. Now we really have four major epicenters of spread: Los Angeles, cities in Texas, cities in Florida, and Arizona.”
“We are still knee-deep in the first wave of this,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease specialist, said Monday. “We're surging back up. So it's a serious situation that we have to address immediately.”
Tellingly, Fauci made his candid comments in a webcast interview with his boss, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, not on a network or cable news program. Since Trump pivoted to economic reopening, the White House has clamped down on national TV appearances by public health officials who work for the federal government.
"Face the Nation" host Margaret Brennan said the show has been trying for three months to book Fauci. USA TODAY’s Editorial Board, which has been meeting with a series of COVID-19 experts, has been seeking for many weeks to arrange interviews with the surgeon general and top officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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Fauci assured the public Monday that “science will get us through this.” It will, but how long will that take?
The question evokes another of Rumsfeld’s classic utterances: “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know.”
In the case of COVID-19, we do not know how long it will take to develop a vaccine or a cure. Already, death rates are declining because treatment protocols are improving; sooner or later, humanity will prevail over this novel and highly contagious pathogen. In the meantime, it will be a long, hard slog.
Bill Sternberg is the editor of the editorial page. Follow him on Twitter: @bsternbe
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump's pandemic happy talk is dangerous as COVID spikes across America