President Bush made a surprise visit to Baghdad today.
For several days, the Administration had been promoting a “major” cabinet meeting to “hone” its post-Zarqawi Iraq strategy. Up at Camp David, Bush had all of his Cabinet and senior advisors either in attendence or hooked in via teleconference.
Well, lo and behold, on day 2, instead of having a teleconfrence with the new PM of the Iraqi Government, he drops into Baghdad (litterally, drops from the sky for 6 hours and then left) and meets with PM Maliki, Gen. Casey and Amb. Khalilzad and has the rest of his Cabinet, still back at Camp David (presumably still waiting for Bush to show up) on teleconference.
So, what to make of Bush’s vist?
As with most major Foreign Policy issues, there is a very delicate 2-level game in play.
Domestically, support for the war has been in a free-fall, and Bush’s own numbers approval numbers have followed all the way down– prior to this week, Bush’s approval rating was in the low 30’s, historic low territory. People feel as if the war was a mistake, the US is lacking direction in Iraq, and that the occupation is failing, in part because we can’t seem to put together a stable Iraqi government worth supporting. We might stand down when they stand up, but that line only works if you can sell the idea that Iraq will in fact one day stand up. Its telling that a majority of Congressional candidates are running against Bush and the war for the November elections.
Within Iraq, the administration is trying to support a new government and avoid a civil war and find some sort of exit pathway that allows for enough future stability to permit needed diplomatic and military focus on Iran and North Korea and Somalia and….
This week we had the convegence of two key events: the killing of Zarqawi and the completion of the Iraqi cabinet.
As just about everyone else has said, getting rid of Zarqawi eliminates a major source of agitation, but certainly does not solve the insurgency.
Obviously, its a PR move. It can’t hurt (well, lets never say can’t…), and if early returns are of any use, may have helped a little at home. But, trips like this can only have a limited PR value– driven in part by the OPSEC necessary to protect the President traveling in a War Zone. Only 6 close aids knew of the trip beforehand, and reporters designated to tag along to cover the event were told to turn in all communications devices. Maliki didn’t even know that Bush would be there until 5 minutes before the meeting. At a “normal” state visit, there are elaborate plans, speeches, photo-ops, and message-crafting. None of that could happen here. So, the PR is not what it could be, but at this point, its certainly better PR than what the Administration had been getting and grabs headlines worldwide.
There’s probably a good paragraph or two to be written about public vs. private langauge. Maybe for a future post.
The larger PR boost, however, probably comes within Iraq and is linked to the potential political pay-off of the visit. The PM hopes to get a boost (and Bush certainly hopes to give him one) in two arenas. By meeting with the President of the USA, Maliki can show his legitimacy and all that. By standing up to the President–talking about withdrawal dates and such–he can make all the legitimation moves with his various constituencies Patrick is so fond of writing about.
Aside from the PR boost with the public, the visit hopefully gives Maliki a political boost with his own government.
With this visit, Bush and Maliki are now joined at the hip, with each having an undue influence on the future of the other. Maliki needs the US to secure and rebuild his country, and also needs appropriate political cooperation to establish a functional Iraqi government. Bush needs the same thing. If either fails, both probably go down together.
It certainly provides those who want to support the Administration with an opportunity to make a solid argument in favor of optimism in Iraq. This could be a turning point, but we’ve “turned the corner” in Iraq before.
The PR and shows of support are no substitue for the long, hard, dirty work of putting the promises made at this meeting into practice. And, unfortunately, this is where both the Bush Administration and nacent Iraqi government have a track record that has turned so many corners as to be walking around in circles.