Analysis: No Major Course Correction on Iraq

You could be forgiven for thinking there was something big in the works. President Bush is holding a three-way summit in the Middle East. Washington’s political insiders are swapping leaks about forthcoming studies on Iraq. Even the network news anchors are flying halfway across the world.

So the White House is ready to change course in Iraq, right?

Not quite. The president and his senior staff arrived in Amman, Jordan, on Wednesday with a deep sense of discontent about the direction of Iraq. But that doesn’t translate into a major course correction, no matter what the pundits—or the Democrats, or James Baker’s study group—suggest. Somewhere between Stay the Course and Reverse Course lies Bush’s new approach. Call it Adjust the Course.

Look at how the White House is approaching the high-stakes meeting in Amman between President Bush, King Abdullah of Jordan and the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The president’s fundamental judgment about Maliki is unchanged.

The tone of the leaked White House memo from the national-security adviser to President Bush may raise tough questions about Maliki, as reported by The New York Times on Wednesday. But senior White House officials tell NEWSWEEK that they have scrutinized Maliki closely over the last several months, including the use of intelligence reports and surveillance.

Based on what they have seen and heard—in public and in private—the president’s aides believe that al-Maliki’s intentions are genuine and his actions are in line with his stated policy. In spite of the leaked memo’s rhetorical questions, Bush’s aides believe that the prime minister is neither clueless about the violence nor a dissembling actor. To Bush’s aides, al-Maliki is a long way from former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, whom they considered untrustworthy. Where al-Maliki has failed is due to the weakness of his position, these aides say.

But the leaked memo may have had unintended consequences. Maliki abruptly pulled out of his first scheduled meeting in Jordan with Bush late Wednesday. White House officials insisted the snub had nothing to do with the leaked memo. Maliki was also under pressure from more than 30 members of his own ruling bloc who are loyal to Sadr and who suspended their participation in the Baghdad government in protest at in protest at the meeting with Bush.

So Bush’s goal in Amman is not to deliver an ultimatum to Maliki or to get tough with him. Instead of isolating Maliki, Bush’s message will be that he and the Iraqi prime minister are in this hole together. Bush’s goal, according to his aides, is to toughen the prime minister’s position—and give him greater authority—in both military and political affairs.

First the military side: The White House wants to give the Iraqi prime minister greater control over his own forces and security operations in general, including territory outside the killing zones of Anbar province and Baghdad. Beyond that, the White House is considering how to reposition American troops inside Iraq to improve the training of the Iraqi Army and to overhaul the corrupt and inept Iraqi police. Those broader decisions about U.S. troops will be made by the end of the year, after a series of reports emerge from the White House, the Pentagon and the bipartisan study group led by former secretary of State James Baker.

What about Maliki’s political weakness? Bush’s aides say they are trying to strengthen the prime minister through several channels. One is to boost his support among the Sunni minority by leaning on its regional supporters—especially Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The White House believes that Maliki will be a stronger leader if he is less dependent on his own Shia base.

Bush’s aides are also hoping to execute a more complex strategy: to exploit divisions among the Shia as a means of undermining extremists like the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr . Their great hope is to draw Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani into becoming a more effective opponent of Sadr—something successive American officials have tried (and failed) to do since the occupation began.

For anyone expecting more out of Amman, or more out of the extensive policy reviews under way, they need look no further than President Bush himself. No matter what the result of the midterm elections, nor the conclusions of James Baker, there is only one commander in chief, and only one decider. And his decisions on the big things in Iraq seem set in stone.

Bush’s message in Europe could not be clearer. In his big set-piece speech of the trip, at the Latvia University in Riga on Tuesday, the president described his goals in Amman. “We’ll continue to be flexible, and we’ll make the changes necessary to succeed,” he said. “But there’s one thing I'm not going to do: I’m not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete.” In other words, anyone—such as the newly empowered Democrats—expecting troop withdrawals will have to wait either until Iraq is able to govern itself, or until Bush leaves office.

At an earlier press conference, the president also brushed aside the only concrete proposal to have emerged from the deliberations of the Baker group: the idea of negotiating directly with Syria and Iran to stabilize Iraq. Bush and his aides believe that would undermine the sovereign position of Iraq’s government, as well as their own get-tough negotiating position with Damascus and Tehran. If the Iraqis want to talk to the Iranians, as they have in recent days, they are free to do so—and probably more effective at it, in the eyes of the White House.

But Bush’s aides note tartly that if that’s all Baker is suggesting, he won’t be able to live up to the expectations surrounding his report. Dealing with Baker’s report may be relatively easy if Syria and Iran are the big new ideas, these aides say.

So how long will it take to complete the mission in Iraq? Bush gave a historical analogy in the same speech in Riga. He told the story of the bleak, early years of the cold war, when the Soviets annexed the Baltic countries, when Czechoslovakia fell to communism, when Berlin was blockaded and the U.S.S.R. detonated its first nuke. Within six years of victory over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, the Korean war had begun, China was a communist state and the outlook looked dreadful across Europe.

As he neared the end of his speech, Bush choked up with emotion. He was telling the story of the Latvian president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who escaped the Red Army and spent some years in Morocco. There, he said, she learned that Muslims—just like those living under communism—wanted “a future of peace, a chance to live in freedom, and the opportunity to build a better life.” Now, he noted, she was a leader in the mold of Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady of the Baltics.” This is the kind of simple, homespun story that Bush finds inspiring enough to ride out the critics, the naysayers and the pundits—even the critics inside the Pentagon—and stick with his mission in Iraq.

Back in 2000, Bush’s senior aides used to say that pundits spent too much time parsing Bush’s words. Instead of looking for hidden meanings and ulterior motives, reporters should take him at face value, they said. As he reviews his Iraq policy, Bush’s face is an open book. He has no intention of leaving Iraq, or abandoning its prime minister. Naive or not, Bush still hopes that Maliki may yet grow into an Iron Man of the Middle East.

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