And then ... nothing. The two men met for breakfast. They had a press conference. Bush said al-Maliki was the "right guy" to run Iraq, an endorsement that may sidle into history along with "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" and Bush's recent, full-throated pre-election support for Donald Rumsfeld. Bush also said in a petulant tone that U.S. forces would stay in Iraq "until the job is complete." Afterward, Iraqi and U.S. diplomatic spinners asserted that al-Sadr's name had barely come up in the discussions. That Bush hadn't pushed al-Maliki on anything. That al-Maliki had in fact pushed Bush for more control over the Iraqi security forces.
Excuse me, but I'm not sure I understand: the President of the United States flew halfway across the world to stubbornly renew his "stay the course" rhetoric only to be snubbed and pressured by an incompetent, powerless U.S. client whose government seemed in danger of collapse? Given the absurdity of the situation, Washington was aflutter with speculative scenarios.
Scenario 1: The President really intended to pressure al-Maliki on al-Sadr and failed. There is a lot of circumstantial evidence for this. There were two spectacularone might even say suspiciousfront-page news leaks in the New York Times in the days before the summit. First there was the report that Hizballah was training members of al-Sadr's militia. This placed in one bull's-eye almost all Bush's favorite evildoersHizballah; Iran and Syria (which support Hizballah); and al-Sadr, whose Shi'ite organization has been responsible for much of the recent violence against Sunnis in Iraq. The slap-Sadr scenario had some powerful covert supporters, especially among Sunni governments. The Saudis had summoned Dick Cheney to Riyadh on Nov. 25 in order to convey, among other things, their distress with the rise of "Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias ... butchering Iraqi Sunnis," as Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi security expert, put it in a Washington Post Op-Ed piece last week. Obaid threatened "massive Saudi intervention" in Iraq to prevent "a full-blown ethnic-cleansing campaign" against Sunnis if the U.S. cut and ran.
The slap-Sadr scenario was reinforced by the second New York Times leaka memo from National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley to the President, in which Hadley expressed despair over al-Maliki's incompetence. "He impressed me as a leader who wanted to be strong, but was having difficulty figuring out how to do so," Hadley wrote. The conventional assumption was that this was a purposeful White House leak, sending the message that Bush wanted al-Maliki to allow U.S. forces to move against the Mahdi Army, a step that al-Maliki has resisted so farand with good reason, since al-Sadr has been al-Maliki's prime source of support in the Iraqi governing coalition. But if the leak of the Hadley memo was some sort of awkward Bush strategy, it failed. Al-Maliki refused to sup with Bush. They breakfastedand it's possible bread was broken only after the White House agreed not to push on al-Sadr. The body language between the two men was dire. Bush seemed severely ticked off during the press conference.
Scenario 2: Maybe the leaks weren't organized and didn't come from the White House. The Times stories were reported by Michael Gordon, the paper's chief military correspondent. The source for the Hizballah story was "a senior American intelligence official," which often means military intelligence; the cia usually asks reporters not to identify its senior officials that way.
There is a small, but not insignificant, faction in the U.S. military that thinks the only way to stabilize Baghdad is to forcibly disarm al-Sadr's militia. The Hizballah story may have been unofficial, second-tier military lobbying. And the Hadley memo? "A parting gift from Don Rumsfeld," guessed an Iraq expert with close ties to the White House. "He's the only one who had access and motivation. The memo proves his point: it's the political process, not the military operation, that's the problem in Iraq." Would Rumsfeld be so spiteful as to embarrass the President like that? We'll probably never know. It may be that the President's agenda for the al-Maliki meeting was a relatively simple public relations ploy: to show support for a weak Iraqi partner andwith the Baker-Hamilton report loomingto reassert that Bush will be the "decider" on Iraq strategy. But even that simple mission failed.
The President looked foolish. Nothing he did last week slowed the collapse of Iraq. Nothing he did bolstered his political standing at home or in the region. Nothing he did showed the slightest indication that he accepted reality in Iraq.