News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqBush takes a step away from Maliki

Bush takes a step away from Maliki


New York Times: When President Bush and Nuri Kamal al-Maliki stood side by side in Jordan last November, the president proclaimed the prime minister “the right guy for Iraq.” By Tuesday, that phrase had all but evaporated from Mr. Bush’s lexicon. The New York Times

Published: August 22, 2007

WASHINGTON, Aug. 21 — When President Bush and Nuri Kamal al-Maliki stood side by side in Jordan last November, the president proclaimed the prime minister “the right guy for Iraq.”

By Tuesday, that phrase had all but evaporated from Mr. Bush’s lexicon.

Instead, Mr. Bush acknowledged “a certain level of frustration” with the Iraqi government’s failure to unify its warring ethnic factions. His comments at a meeting of North American leaders in Canada came just hours after the top American diplomat in Baghdad, Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, called political progress in Iraq “extremely disappointing” and warned that United States support for the Maliki government did not come with a “blank check.”

It was not quite the vote of no confidence delivered by Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the Democratic chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who on Monday said Mr. Maliki should quit. But it was a striking attempt by the White House to distance itself from the Maliki government before September, when the president’s troop buildup faces an intense review on Capitol Hill.

That timing is no coincidence. Mr. Bush is already facing skepticism within his own party over the troop buildup, and will almost certainly confront repeated attempts by Democrats to force an end to the war. So he seems to be laying the groundwork for a new message, one that says, “We’re doing our job in Iraq; don’t blame us if the Iraqis aren’t doing theirs.”

Mr. Bush is hardly ready to throw in the towel on Iraq. On Wednesday, in the first of two major speeches on the war, he will hit hard against those who would force an end to the troop buildup. According to excerpts released by the White House, the speech, to a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Kansas City, Mo., includes this sharp warning:

“Our troops are seeing this progress on the ground. And as they take the initiative from the enemy, they have a question: Will their elected leaders in Washington pull the rug out from under them just as they are gaining momentum and changing the dynamic on the ground in Iraq?”

Experts say Mr. Bush does not appear to be trying to force Mr. Maliki out, if only because there is no obvious alternative. Rather, they say, the president’s remarks are aimed at a domestic audience. Back in January, Mr. Bush sold the troop buildup to the country as a plan that would tamp down violence and create “political breathing space” to allow the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds to create a unity government.

Now Mr. Bush is admitting publicly what anyone who follows events in Iraq can plainly see: that plan is not altogether working.

“It strikes me that this is more throwing up his hands in exasperation than washing his hands in disgust,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research organization in Washington. “I don’t think the decision has been made to move beyond Maliki, but it seems to me that the president has to put himself back in the center of the Iraq debate.”

White House officials, nervous over the fallout from President Bush’s remarks, insist that he still supports Mr. Maliki. Mr. Bush is unlikely to refer to Mr. Maliki in Wednesday’s speech, White House officials say; rather, he will use it to cast the war in the broader, long-term context of American foreign involvement in Asia. In the speech, Mr. Bush will draw parallels between the current commitment to Iraq and sustained American involvement in Japan and South Korea, which produced thriving democratic allies of the United States.

In the text, Mr. Bush also links withdrawal from Vietnam to the rise of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, and asserts that the American pullout caused pain and suffering for millions, saying, “Whatever your position in that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like ‘boat people,’ ‘re-education camps,’ and ‘killing fields.’ ”

Those assertions are already being criticized by Democrats, including the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, and at least one historian, Robert Dallek, a biographer of presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. Both said Mr. Bush was ignoring fundamental differences between the conflicts. Citing Cambodia in particular, Mr. Dallek said in an interview that the mayhem under the Khmer Rouge “was a consequence of our having gone into Cambodia and destabilized that country.”

As Mr. Bush begins to lay out his case anew for the troop buildup in Iraq, he must walk carefully in acknowledging the obvious failures of the Maliki government. On Tuesday, he argued all was not lost, citing the passage of “60 different pieces of legislation,” and the creation of a budgeting process that he said was distributing oil revenues despite the lack of an oil-revenue sharing law — one of the key benchmarks that Congress had set for the Iraqi Parliament to meet.

He said that even as the politicians in Iraq had more work to do, there had been “bottom up” progress toward reconciliation in the form of tribal leaders and Sunni militia fighters who have joined with the United States to quash terrorist groups in places like Anbar Province.

And Mr. Bush repeated his long-standing argument that the Iraqis and their democracy deserved patience, given the years they have spent living in “a tyrannical society where the tyrant brutalized his people and created deep suspicions, into one in which people are willing to work more closely together.”

Still, it was hardly the enthusiastic praise he gave Mr. Maliki back in November — praise that may have been intended to counter a stinging assessment by Mr. Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, who wrote in a private memorandum that “the reality on the streets suggests Maliki is either ignorant of what’s going on, misrepresenting his intentions or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient.”

Nine months later, Mr. Bush is not going that far. But when asked about Mr. Levin’s assertion that the Iraqi Parliament should oust Mr. Maliki, the president’s answer — with its implicit lack of an endorsement — spoke volumes. “That’s up to the Iraqis to make that decision,” Mr. Bush said, “not American politicians.”

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