President Bush could tell something big had happened in Iraq, but he didn't know if it was good or bad. Last Wednesday afternoon, the president hosted a meeting at the White House with members of Congress who had recently returned from Baghdad. The congressmen told stories and gave Bush advice. Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois pointedly told Bush that he should be trying to kill Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. The comment caused quiet snickering: try to kill Zarqawi--like no one had thought of that before. At one point, Bush's national-security adviser, Stephen Hadley, was called out of the room. When he returned a few minutes later, Bush gave him a searching stare, trying to suss out what Hadley had learned. Bush had been waiting for word that Iraq's government had finally succeeded in filling its last cabinet positions, an incremental step that the White House was eager to hold up as a sign of progress. But Hadley, gray-haired and sober, sat poker-faced, betraying nothing. Bush grimaced and waited out the end of the meeting.
Afterward, the president and his top aides gathered in the Oval Office. "Hadley, you got news for me?" Bush barked. "Yes, sir," Hadley said. "I'd like to talk to you alone." There was a kind of inaudible groan in the room. The staffers filed out, bracing for yet another setback in Iraq. Instead, Hadley told Bush that Zarqawi was almost certainly dead. Gen. Stanley McChrystal had laid eyes on the terrorist's corpse. It would take a few hours to make sure it was him. "That would be a good thing," Bush said cautiously. The president knew that the military had recently intensified its efforts to hunt down Zarqawi, but he had not been told about the planned airstrikes on the terrorist's safe house.
When the staff returned to the Oval Office, Bush's mood was upbeat, according to a White House aide who was present (and who, like all White House personnel quoted in this story, follows a policy of not being quoted by name). "I think we got Zarqawi," he announced. Counselor Dan Bartlett joked, "Damn, Ray LaHood is good!" Aides began to laugh but then caught themselves. It was immediately clear to everyone, says the Bush aide, that even with Zarqawi dead they were still a long way from high-fives in Iraq.
For the White House, Zarqawi's unexpected demise is the first good news about the insurgency in months, and the president and his advisers know they risk squandering it if they were to gloat. Bush's tendency toward "bring it on" swagger cost him credibility as the war dragged on--the insurgents did come on, to deadly effect--and the president now avoids raising expectations even when he has something good to report. Announcing Zarqawi's death at the White House, Bush was solemn. "The difficult and necessary mission in Iraq continues," he said. "We can expect the terrorists and insurgents to carry on without him. We can expect the sectarian violence to continue." (Among themselves, long-suffering staffers couldn't help but indulge in a little end-zone dance. "People around here are palpably happy," says one senior White House official. "Good news is good news. I'll take any I can get. It's hard to come by.")
The new cautious, low-key approach is part of a larger White House strategy to win back voters' trust in Bush's Iraq plan--and in Bush himself, whose public- approval ratings are languishing in the basement. The idea is to show that Iraq is improving by touting progress in the government and the Iraqi security forces while projecting a measured optimism about defeating the insurgency. That will require strict message control--a White House specialty--and constant vigilance to avoid creeping hubris.
A possible hitch: Congress. With the elections coming up, Republicans on Capitol Hill, fearful of being dragged down by the war, aren't spending much time worrying about Bush's rehabilitation. And they aren't buying into the new, nuanced stand on the war. GOP leaders were quick to violate every principle of the White House plan, hailing Zarqawi's death as a major victory in the war on terror--and lording it over the Democrats.
The new White House strategy emerged late last year, after Bush had plunged into what looked like a death spiral in the polls. Bush's senior aides believed that the public had a surprisingly high tolerance for casualties in Iraq as long as they thought the war had a purpose, and that Bush had a plan that would ultimately be successful. That view was more than just a gut feeling. It was based in large part on the research of Peter Feaver, a Duke University political scientist who had recently joined Bush's National Security Council. Feaver helped shape Bush's new approach, especially his "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq." For the first time, Bush seemed to be speaking more truthfully about the war's problems and challenges. With-out conceding any personal mistakes, the president admitted that the training of Iraq's security forces "hasn't always gone smoothly."
The new tone seemed to work. Bush's poll numbers rose out of the post-Katrina hole for several weeks before the rising death toll--and the political stagnation in Iraq--pushed them back down. Still, Bush's aides had proved their point: they could massage public opinion by recalibrating expectations, and that a realistic tone, which conveyed purpose without hype, would produce the best long-term results in the polls.
Zarqawi's death grabbed attention in a way that political advances in Iraq's reconstruction never could have done. For weeks, White House aides have been planning a Camp David strategy session for the president and his cabinet as a way to underscore the importance of the new government in Baghdad. The session would take place the first week after the new government was fully formed. By chance, the new Iraqi cabinet was finally named on the day Zarqawi was killed, and the Camp David session takes place early this week.
One private reasonfor the meeting was to take a cold look at the military strategy in Iraq. In recent weeks, brief-ers have given Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte a grim view of the war effort. Before Zarqawi's death, "there was a sense that the insurgency was getting stronger, and we were on the road to nowhere," says an administration official who declined to be named talking about intelligence. But the public highlight of the Camp David session will be much sunnier: a picture-perfect videoconference between the Bush cabinet and the new Iraqi cabinet--symbolically projecting an image of two independent, democratically elected governments working together.
That's just the sort of feel-good image that helps burnish a president's legacy--but it's not much good to a congressman looking for votes. Members of Congress saw a domestic political opening in Zarqawi's death, and unlike Bush they didn't waste much time trying to find just the right words to express their feelings. "With regard to the insurgency in Iraq, the military has chopped off the head of the snake," said House Majority Leader John Boehner. Senate GOP leader Bill Frist went so far as to say Zarqawi was a bigger threat than Osama bin Laden. "[Bin Laden] is a little bit like Saddam Hussein at this point. He's not giving orders," Frist said. "The mastermind ... the top terrorist in the world today, has been taken down." Democrats were sure to lace their comments about Zarqawi with praise for the soldiers who killed him--and reluctant credit for Bush. But Republicans don't intend to let the triumphant moment pass without using it to their advantage. "When there's nothing but bad news from Iraq, we have to worry that the war will hurt us," says a campaign aide to a GOP senator who wouldn't speak on the record while talking strategy. But "good news gives you an opportunity to start reminding people that [Democrats] don't have a plan for Iraq."
To help make that point, the GOP House leadership has set aside time this Thursday for what it called a "freewheeling" floor debate on the Iraq war. There will be plenty of praise for the troops, no doubt, and huzzahs over Zarqawi's death. The hope is that voters who may have gone cold on the GOP will rally once again around the war. "When you kill some bastard terrorist with a long Arab name--they get that right away," says the Senate campaign aide. "So, yeah, this is the kind of thing ... voters respond to."
Not all Republicans think it's such a great idea. Democrats will have a chance at the microphone, too, and they will use it to remind voters that the violence continues despite Zarqawi's death, and point out that Iraq is still a mess with no end in sight. "Why are we going to have a debate about the thing that has been dragging the president and our party down?" LaHood wonders. "It doesn't take a genius to see what a silly idea that is in a year like this."