Our Man in Baghdad

How Republicans and Democrats use the Iraqi leader.

George Bush and Iraqi PM Nuri al-Maliki

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is getting more democracy than he expected. During his Washington visit this week and since, Democrats have been attacking him to prove they can act tough on national-security issues, and Republicans have been using him to prove they were right all along about Iraq. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean called Maliki an “anti-Semite” for speaking out against Israel’s retaliation against Hezbollah. When Maliki addressed a joint session of Congress Wednesday, a number of House Democrats boycotted, leaving their seats to be filled with stand-ins, as at the Oscars. Republicans heralded the speech, which could very well have been written by the Bush White House. Throughout the day, they quoted the prime minister’s characterizations of the struggle between democracy and terrorism in Iraq and his clarity about the global struggle for freedom.

The Democrats may have the advantage in this cheap tug of war over Maliki. Howard Dean is not a serious foreign-policy thinker, and no-showing Maliki’s speech was childish, but even hacks can have a point. By the rules of the Bush doctrine, which says you’re either with the terrorists or against them, Maliki presents a problem. He’s against the terrorists when it comes to al-Qaida, but he’s with them when it comes to Hezbollah. The conundrum for Republicans was neatly encapsulated by Sen. Mitch McConnell, who aspires to be Senate majority leader. Moments after issuing a statement praising Maliki, he issued another one denouncing Hezbollah as equivalent to al-Qaida. As if on cue, al-Qaida seemed to affirm that with a new video supporting Hezbollah’s struggle. So, if the two terrorist organizations are equivalent, and Maliki affirmed the black-and-white rules of the Bush doctrine, shouldn’t Republicans be denouncing Maliki for his position on Hezbollah?

The situation is more complicated than that, say White House officials. Of course it is, but these aren’t my rules; they’re Bush’s rules. If the GOP is going to score cheap political points by accusing Democrats of cutting and running in Iraq and having a pre-9/11 mind-set, then why can’t Democrats try to score cheap points by demanding rigid adherence to Bush’s own formulations? If Democrats match Republicans in the craven use of foreign policy for political advantage, it just might get the Bush administration to give up on the point-scoring and admit the complexity of the Middle East.

The truth is that Maliki needs to have a few public clashes with the United States to have legitimacy at home. To quell sectarian violence, Maliki may have to distance himself even further from the U.S. But every time Maliki asserts his independence, it creates a political problem here. Democrats may not have the talent or standing on national-security issues to exploit Maliki’s policies, but they may not have to. White House aides have long worried that Americans would revolt—even more than they already have—if Iraqis and their leaders seemed ungrateful. “Our troops are dying for this?” voters will ask.

Maliki was on message this week in Washington, but he has not been in the past. In June, he accused American soldiers of participating in habitual attacks against innocent Iraqis: “They crush them with their vehicles and kill them just on suspicion.” A few weeks ago, when a Maliki aide suggested that an amnesty program might apply to those who killed Americans, Democrats pounced to score what Mickey Kaus called “patriotism points.” The details of the amnesty offer have not been resolved, nor has the question of whether the Iraqi government will call for American soldiers who commit crimes to be tried in Iraq. Maliki may need to push both ideas to sustain the unity government he heads, but Americans won’t like them, which is why White House aides have tried to avoid them. When reporters asked National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley about discussions with Maliki on amnesty or trials, he feigned (implausible) ignorance.

The biggest political challenge for Republicans is that Maliki’s visit confirmed that the clock for American troop withdrawal has been reset in Iraq. Six weeks ago, according to conventional wisdom and military hints, it was understood that at least some troops might be home by fall. Not anymore. U.S. troops are being brought into Baghdad to quell increased sectarian violence, which President Bush admitted was “terrible.” This redeployment is a fact larger than spin. Bush had promised that political developments in Iraq would bring about security improvements that were the precondition for an American troop drawdown. Maliki’s plan for securing Baghdad was to be proof of that theory. His plan failed. Now there’s a new plan, which, like all the previous ones, sounds good on paper, but there’s nothing to suggest that the new plan will work any better than all the old ones.

Maliki helped Republicans trying to explain to voters why they should support the Iraq war by describing it as the central front in the global fight against terror. But Maliki was anxious to talk about the stakes in his country because he is worried America has one foot out the door. He pleaded with Congress not to repeat the mistake of 1991, when President George Bush ignored the cries of freedom-fighters in Iraq to topple Hussein, fearing that pushing beyond the U.N. mandate of the first Gulf War would ensnare America in an unwinnable war.

Maliki is right to be worried. Only 30 percent of Americans believe that the Iraq war was worth it. Last November, Republicans in the Senate, nervous that Americans were getting fed up, voted to push the Iraqis to take “significant” control of their own country by the end of 2006. Americans have continued to grow tired of the war and foreign entanglements. In the most recent New York Times poll, 56 percent of Americans said they supported a timetable for a reduction in U.S. forces, and a majority now say Iraq will never become a stable democracy. Bush doesn’t seem likely to waver. “No matter how tough it gets, we will complete this mission,” Bush said while touring Ft. Belvoir with Maliki. But what about members of Congress? Republicans who thought they would be holding parades in the fall for the troops who would be returning now have to face voters who don’t think the war was worth it and tell them it’ll be a long slog.

The best thing the GOP can hope for is that while Democrats may be scoring points with Maliki, they’re not solving their bigger political problem. Polls show that Democrats still haven’t convinced Americans they could do much better than the Republicans.