Tuesday, George Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will hold a press conference at the White House. I’ll be the guy with thinning blond hair sitting in the third row, and if the president calls on me, he’ll know what my questions will be. I’m revealing them in advance because: a) he never calls on me anymore, anyhow; and b) the “gotcha” aspect of presidential press conferences is highly overdone. These are essay, not pop quiz, questions. It’s not cheating for Bush to think about how he might answer them ahead of time.
1) You have said that in order to promote democracy in the Middle East your administration will not coddle Arab autocracies as previous administrations have. But you are forming alliances against Hezbollah with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt. Aren’t you making deals with those undemocratic allies the same way previous administrations did? What specific immediate plans do you have for getting these countries to reform, and how will you pressure them without endangering their stability and our national security?
2) Prime Minister Maliki has supported the Iranian-Hezbollah position in Lebanon, rather than the U.S.-Israeli one. Mr. President, when you talk to Sunni Arab leaders, what assurances do you give them that after America achieves victory in Iraq, the country’s sovereign leaders will not see their regional standing tied to their fellow Shiites in Iran? And as the democratically leader of a sovereign nation, why shouldn’t the prime minister seek an alliance with his neighbor Iran?
3) Mr. President, you have been increasingly candid about Iraq over the last several months in an effort to gain credibility in making the case that there is slow and steady progress. In that spirit I would like to ask your candid assessment about the state of affairs in Baghdad. Iraqi officials say the city has fallen into civil war and the number of American soldiers present is likely to be increased despite a six-week crackdown by the new government. Is there any characterization of the sectarian violence in Iraq but “civil war”?
4) Mr. President, you’ve said that Iraqi democracy won’t look like U.S. democracy, and that Prime Minister Maliki’s comments about Israel prove that. But with parts of Iraq now tightening restrictions on women’s rights, and thugs in the street killing men who shave or wear shorts, how can you be confident that Iraq will look enough like Western democracy to inspire reformers and dismay extremists in the region? How can it be a beacon for democracy if it looks like an Islamic theocracy?