US President George Bush met Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to review the Iraqi situation and assured him of giving him the "the tools," "capacity to respond," and that the US was not looking for a "graceful exit" promising to stay "until the job is complete."
This meeting came a few days after a leaked US memo severely critiquing al-Maliki's capacity or ability to contain the unending violence in Iraq, a changed policy making equation in the US, a more belligerent Iran, internal opposition in Iraq to al-Maliki's meeting with Bush, and Jordans King Abdullah II's warning of three potential civil wars in West Asia - Lebanon, Palestinian Territories, and Iraq. Given the context there was a lot of confusion, controversy, and anxiety about this third meeting that Bush had with al-Maliki. CNN even reported unnamed US Embassy in Amman sources saying that the Iraqi side was planning to stand up Bush for their first dinner meeting, but official spin was that the meeting was mutually cancelled. However, after the meeting, al-Maliki was at pains in the press conference to stress that there were no issues with Bush or his relations with the US.
Bush's message was directed to US policy makers, failing Iraqi coalition, Shiite nations Iran and Syria, and the Iraqi people and the tone was firm but definitely more deferent to his Iraqi partner often indulging in flattery bordering on platitude. He praised al-Maliki repeatedly for his "courage" and publicly distanced himself from the outed memo from his National Security Adviser saying that al-Maliki is "the right guy for Iraq " and reiterated confidence that "the Iraqis are plenty capable of running their own business."
More importantly, Bush forcefully and very coherently highlighted key policy direction for his nation:
Firstly, he dismissed reports that Washington is looking for "some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq " as "speculation" something that "has no realism." This could only mean that Bush was rejecting outright calls or proposals for a phased withdrawal of 140,000 American soldiers from Iraq. As a "realist," Bush says he understands "how tough it is inside of Iraq." Whatever the merits of the occupation of Iraq is, an untimely vacation of American soldiers will seriously damage the credibility American military power and encourage more terrorist and challengers to American hegemony. Moreover, it is not responsible behavior to abandon a nation after changing its political set up, causing the destruction of its economic capability, and also obliterating the marginal living standards of a population when it needs a stabilizing force.
Secondly, he promised to address al-Maliki's "frustrations" with his Administration that it has "been slow about giving him the tools necessary to protect the Iraqi people" but did not say what these tools were and how he was going to deliver them. However, it seemed that these were beyond the stated goals of to train Iraqi security forces and to give more military authority over Iraq to al-Maliki. Analysts believe that these "frustrations" may be lack of coordinated response to ground situation and overt or covert damaging remarks by officials that hurt terribly damaged Iraqi sentiments. After all, only a few weeks ago, al-Maliki had said that the US does not consult him on operations and reacted angrily to reports attributed to a local commander of an early withdrawal.
Thirdly, Bush pointed out that al-Maliki did not "have the capacity to respond" and promised to augment that deficit "accelerate that capacity" building. Again, there were no details on what response or capacities were discussed. It was also clear if this is an effort to negate the allegation of the leaked memo doubting al-Maliki's capacity or assuage hurt Iraqi sentiments by listing it as a common problem that needs to be addressed.
Fourthly, the US President seemed to dismiss suggestions within many strategy circles and among Iraqis about the involvement of Iran asserting that "the Iraqis are plenty capable of running their own business and they don't need foreign interference from neighbors." This seemed to be at variance with a bipartisan study group's view that is expected to recommend talking to Iran and Syria directly. Al-Maliki himself said that his Government's "doors are open" to those "who believe that they need to communicate with the national unity government, especially our neighbors." Bush's rejection of this avenue is also countering his own strategy of involving Sunni neighbors of Iraq (such as Jordan or Saudi Arabia ) to help stabilize the situation. Perhaps, this is under the mistaken belief that al-Maliki speaks for all Shias or that there is no need to involve another Shia entity into the discussion.
Fifthly, Bush firmly rejected the idea of "splitting" Iraq along Sunni, Shia, and Kurd lines and that he agrees with al-Maliki that "any partition of Iraq would only lead to an increase in sectarian violence." The proposal to split the nation into three parts will never be happy for many reasons. The Sunnis will be landlocked and devoid of natural ok resources as the bulk will go to the Shia and some to the Kurds. Turkey will be very unhappy with this plan as there is a running insurgency in that country by Kurds to break away and integrate with those in Iraq and form Kurdistan.
While these are good pointers into the thinking within the Administration or the capacity of Bush to drive policy, the meeting itself presented no direction to pressing and complex issues. The leaders seemed to have talked about mending the Shiite-Sunni divide, curbing activities of Shiite militia, transfer of authority to Iraqi security to the Government, internal political stalemate, sectarian divisions, etc. Even though these are very complex issues that cannot be solved immediately, it is not clear if they were even discussed or whether an action plan was put together to solve them.
Additionally, al-Maliki was clearly sending a message to Bush that he is willing to accept facilitation of neighbors representing different groups and not just the Sunnis. Therefore, Bush's strategy to prop al-Maliki as the Shiite representative is clearly not being accepted as he probably wants to see himself as a representative of all Iraqis. The only point al-Maliki conceded, that too in a veiled fashion, is to exhort his allies "who participate in this government," specifically anti-American militia-cleric al-Sadr, to "bear responsibilities, and foremost upon those responsibilities is the protection of this government, the protection of the constitution, the protection of the law, not breaking the law."
The most significant challenge facing the US is to decide on its strategy to resolve the sectarian conflict. While many US policy makers, strategists, and the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan have been vocal in advocating the inclusion of Iran and Syria to solve the problem, the Administration is being confounded by many problems with the premise of these suggestions. Firstly, while Iran has publicly said that it is willing to cooperate, only last week it told visiting Iraqi President Jalal Talabani that "The first step" is "the withdrawal of the occupiers and handing over the security issues to the Iraqi government." This is clearly an attempt to carve out a larger space for itself which will be resisted by the US, Israel, and perhaps the Sunnis regimes in the region. Secondly, since the going for Iran and Syria in the country is so good, analysts wonder why Iran would want to cooperate with an initiative that will only relive the tension for the US. Thirdly, for such cooperation, Iran may need an American approval for its controversial nuclear plan that will find very few supporters in Washington or Tel Aviv.
Therefore, instead of trying to engage Iran on a bilateral or trilateral (with Iraq ) basis, perhaps the US should work with a regional or international multilateral body such as the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC). Perhaps, it can even create a multilateral regional forum bringing in all actors in the area so they can explore ways to build reconciliation and rehabilitation of Iraq.