During President Bush's first trip to Iraq, under cover of darkness in November 2003, security was so tight that Iraqis didn't even know he had been there until he was long gone. Iraq's progress has been so dramatic that, for the president's visit Sunday, he left the security of U.S. military bases and, in daylight, held a joint news conference with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The atmosphere turned nasty when an Arab journalist hurled shoes at the president while shouting about the suffering Iraqis have endured since the 2003 invasion. Iraq might be a much more secure place today, but as Bush told reporters, "there is still more work to be done."
His admission underscores one of the great lessons of this war: Patriotic slogans and an overly positive appraisal of progress might help rally supporters, but it's no substitute for good planning, realistic expectations and honest assessments of the challenges ahead.
This administration got itself into serious trouble when it failed, for years, to be realistic about the depth of Iraq's problems and the sacrifices required of Americans to fix them. The United States spent $100 billion on reconstruction and security-force training in Iraq. But as top federal auditor Stuart Bowen indicated in a 513-page history of the reconstruction effort, much of the administration's effort was wasted.
Figures indicating dramatic progress were, at times, fabricated. Complex and overlapping lines of authority left too many people wondering who was in charge. A major way of coping with failure was simply to deny it.
"Through trial and error, and amid constant bloodshed, American agencies, the military and contractors struggled to come up with a solution," Bowen wrote in a draft of the report. His findings were summarized in The New York Times and the online investigative Web site ProPublica. Recent progress notwithstanding, "the U.S. still struggled in late 2008 to make Iraq's reconstruction a success."
Security conditions have not improved enough for Iraq's reconstruction to proceed at the pace either country would prefer. President-elect Barack Obama would be wise to heed these lessons as he attempts to redirect aid and military resources toward Afghanistan.
Obama should expect many hiccups and embarrassments along the way, with Republicans eager to pounce on every misstep - just as Democrats did with Bush. Rather than seek to hide problems or paint an overly rosy picture of progress, Obama should be frank from the outset.
He might even have to break promises from the campaign about the timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. In spite of a newly negotiated withdrawal accord, U.S. commanders say Baghdad and other urban centers won't be ready for U.S. troops to leave by June.
Failure and criticism - even the occasional flying shoe - come with the job, as Bush can attest. Obama's success will be measured not by his ability to avoid criticism, but to confront his mistakes and move quickly to correct them.