Wolffe: The Odd Bush-Maliki Relationship

It's not Reagan-Thatcher. And it's certainly not Clinton-Yeltsin. But the Bush-Maliki relationship is now the single most important one of the Bush era. Both leaders desperately need one another for their political survival and their place in history.

So how come there's so little electricity when they meet?

After their third face-to-face meeting in six months, President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki emerged in Amman, Jordan, on Thursday to face a hotel ballroom fairly bristling with cameras and excitable Iraqi reporters. But the energy level among the media was far higher than it was between the two leaders.

At one point, President Bush turned to the prime minister to ask if he wanted to take any more questions. Maliki slowly wheeled around and stared blankly at Bush as if he'd never really understand the foreigner standing next to him. If Americans are from Mars, and Europeans are from Venus, then the Iraqi prime minister may be from the planet formerly known as Pluto.

Which raises a simple but vital question: what does Bush see in Maliki?

For President Bush, all politics are personal. He prides himself on making a gut judgment about his fellow leaders. And his gut tells him that Maliki is—despite appearances and the concerns raised by a leaked White House memo about whether the Iraqi leader could control his country's spiraling violence—a strong man. In fact, it took the president less than 60 seconds from the start of his press conference to declare that Maliki is indeed "a strong leader."

There was almost no mention on Thursday about the abrupt cancellation of a three-way meeting between Bush, Maliki and King Abdullah of Jordan on Wednesday evening. Some U.S. officials said the meeting was unnecessary; others said it was impractical. Jordanian media suggested the King wanted to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Iraqis brushed it off as no big deal. Nobody, it seems, had got their story straight.

Thursday's sessions—a one-on-one between Bush and Maliki, followed by a bigger meeting with their respective aides—passed off without a hitch. But according to senior White House officials, it was just as functional and colorless behind closed doors and no news of substance emerged at the press conference. At their off-camera session, Bush and Maliki dispensed with the usual small talk and got straight down to business. The official explanation is that the two leaders have met so many times this year that they just don't need the chitchat. The unofficial explanation is that the two leaders are stuck in the same deep hole. This is a relationship between captives, not freemen. What they share is a desperate need to escape, not an urgent need to talk.

That's not to say the day was entirely without humor. It's just that the humor was drawn from mutual pain and embarrassment. To be specific, there were some jokes between American and Iraqi officials about leaking to the press—a reference to the memo that suggested Maliki was either ignorant about the lack of security in Iraq, or misrepresenting his own policy. But Bush's aides said they couldn't recall who cracked the jokes and in what context. Maybe you had to be there to find them funny.

Jokes aside, the overwhelming theme of the meeting in Amman was not security, or troop levels. It was leadership. The summit was in many ways a pre-emptive strike against next week's much-anticipated report by the study group headed by former Secretary of State James Baker. Some pundits have suggested that Baker is running a kind of shadow national security council, as if he (and the president's father) could run the place better than the current team.

Bush's response has been clear all week: he's running the real White House, and he doesn't think much of the shadow team's ideas. Talks with Syria? Not a chance—they'll think we're letting them "off the hook" for their bad behavior in Lebanon. Talks with Iran? Even less likely—they'll think we don't care about their nuclear ambitions. Troop withdrawals? Not realistic any time soon. "I know there's a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there's going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq," Bush said. "We're going to stay in Iraq to get the job done, so long as the government wants us there."

When it comes to leadership, Bush sees Maliki as his most promising student—someone with character and potential, rather than a fully formed savior of the mission in Iraq. "He's been in power for six months and I've been able to watch a leader emerge," the president replied when NEWSWEEK asked him why he was so confident about Maliki's abilities. "No question it's a violent society right now," Bush continued. "He knows that better than anybody. He was explaining to me that occasionally the house in which he lives gets shelled by terrorists who are trying to frighten him."

For some leaders, the story of a prime minister coming under fire might be seen as a disastrous lack of security. For President Bush, it's an inspiring story of personal strength. "You can't lead unless you have courage," Bush said. "And he's got courage, and he's shown courage over the last six months."

The president even found something reassuring in Maliki's inability to get anything done. "What I appreciate is his attitude," Bush explained. "As opposed to saying, 'America, you go solve the problem,' we have a prime minister who's saying, 'Stop holding me back. I want to solve the problem.'"

The president's conclusion? "He's the right guy for Iraq and we're going to help him, and it's in our interest to help him, for the sake of peace." Courage under fire, frustration with the pace of change: Bush's description of Maliki sounds pretty much like his own self-image. Maybe the two leaders have more in common than their contrasting styles suggest.