Deus ex Maliki

Bush bets big on Iraq’s prime minister.

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People watch Bush's Iraq speech. Click image to expand.
People watch Bush’s Iraq speech

Two months ago, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley wondered whether Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was clueless, incompetent, or devious. Now, Bush is betting the farm on him. His troop surge is based on a plan that he says Maliki authored. He is banking on the leader’s promise to end the vicious cycle of sectarian violence. Bush also promises that Maliki will form a plan to share oil revenues, create new jobs, reform de-Baathification laws, and establish a fair process for considering amendments to Iraq’s constitution.

The president isn’t just asking the American people to buy into a new military strategy for Baghdad; he’s asking the country to embrace Iraqi leadership that, in the same speech, the president portrayed as so fragile it would collapse if U.S. troops pulled back. Two months ago, Donald Rumsfeld considered the government so infantile he referred to giving it more responsibility as “taking our hand off the bicycle seat.” Bush’s plan takes as a matter of faith that Maliki can deal with Muqtada Sadr and his militia—to which the Iraqi prime minister is politically beholden. It assumes that ragtag Iraqi troops will shortly be trained, equipped, and capable. Bush was admirably blunt this time about his past mistakes and the slog ahead. But the confidence he expressed in the Iraqi government—without caveats, doubts, or warnings—seemed utterly fantastical.

Bush’s argument is, essentially: Give Maliki breathing room, and he will perform. This will be a tough sell in Congress. “I’ve got real questions about Maliki,” said Ohio Sen. George Voinovich on Tuesday, explaining his skepticism about a surge. “Every time Maliki gets a call from Sadr, he just capitulates.” Democrats who have met with Bush over the last couple of days have come away with two reactions to his extreme faith in the fledgling Iraqi government: Bush is either setting Maliki up as the fall guy for his failed policy (unlikely), or he’s so desperate to save his policy that he is putting far more trust in Maliki than is warranted (more likely).

What do supporters think? John McCain, the politician most closely associated with the troop surge, would have preferred more battalions. He called Gen. David Petraeus on Wednesday after he was briefed on the plan and asked if the new top commander in Iraq was happy with the final number of just over 20,000 troops. Petraeus said he thought he could make it work with that many troops, but that if he finds he needs more, he won’t hesitate to ask and is confident he’ll get them.

Administration officials say they have seen an “expression of will” from Maliki and a recognition among not just the prime minister, but also from other moderate Iraqi leaders, that there is “an imperative to act.” That’s too vague to sell a position that has so little public support. What’s going to happen if Maliki doesn’t hold up his end of the bargain? Is continued U.S. presence conditional on Iraqi political progress toward reconciliation or not? The president merely said that the American people’s patience is not unlimited. There was no further public ultimatum, but Sen. Trent Lott says that in private, Bush has given the Iraqi leader one: “The president convinced me that he had made it abundantly clear to Maliki that he had to perform,” Lott told me Tuesday.

In a briefing with reporters before the speech, a senior administration aide tried to explain that Maliki would feel pressure not from Bush but his own people. “This is, after all, a democracy,” he said, as if Iraq really were the land of Bush fantasy, where people take matters into their own hands by voting a weak leader out of power. After Bush’s speech, another White House official clarified: Maliki is starting to get serious about quelling the violence not because of pressure from Washington, but because of pressure from within his coalition.

Perhaps the most puzzling assertion during this briefing was that U.S. domestic political pressure will budge Maliki. The Iraqis are “not oblivious to what is going on on Capitol Hill and the kinds of statements that you’ve been hearing from Leader Pelosi and others,” said the official, referring to threats to begin removing troops. Suddenly, threats to withdraw are a good thing because they’ll focus Maliki’s mind. Isn’t that exactly what Democrats have been promising the threat of a troop withdrawal would do?

In the end, administration officials argue that the president’s plan is good because the alternatives are worse. “They call it an escalation without explaining how redeployment would not escalate the situation even faster,” says a senior White House official of Democratic critics. “Does anybody believe if we were to start pulling out, that the violence and casualties would actually go down? Pulling back now would strengthen the hand of every enemy we have in Iraq, and leave those who want us there high and dry.”