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President Bush Reaffirms Support for Iraqi Prime Minister

August 22, 2007 at 6:05 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City today, the president endorsed the Iraqi prime minister, ahead of a new assessment on the war just weeks away.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Prime Minister Maliki is a good guy, a good man with a difficult job, and I support him. And it’s not up to the politicians in Washington, D.C., to say whether he will remain in his position. That is up to the Iraqi people, who now live in a democracy and not a dictatorship.

RAY SUAREZ: That public embrace came less than 24 hours after these comments at the end of the North American summit in Canada.

GEORGE W. BUSH: I think there’s a certain level of frustration with the leadership in general, inability to work — come together to get, for example, an oil revenue law passed or provincial elections. People at the grassroots level are sick and tired of the violence, sick and tired of the radicalism, and they want — and they want a better life.

And the fundamental question is, will the government respond to the demands of the people? And if the government doesn’t demand or respond to the demands of the people, they will replace the government.

RAY SUAREZ: Earlier this week, Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told reporters he thought Maliki should quit. He and the senior Republican on the committee, Senator John Warner of Virginia, recently visited Iraq to assess the surge. Levin said the Iraqi government was facing its last chance to straighten out the political situation in Baghdad.

In a joint statement, Warner and Levin said, “In all of our meetings, we witnessed a great deal of apprehension regarding the capabilities of the current Iraqi government to shed its sectarian biases and act in a unifying manner.”

Meeting in Damascus today with the Syrian president, the Iraqi prime minister fired back.

NOURI AL-MALIKI, Prime Minister, Iraq (through translator): The American administration is full of contrasts and petty politics. We see that from recent criticisms and undiplomatic statements about us, which don’t show proper respect. Our government is legal — the Iraqis choose it — and Americans have no right to place timetables on it or any other restrictions.

RAY SUAREZ: Despite the leaders’ meetings and frequent phone calls, Washington and Baghdad have often been at odds since Maliki, a Shiite, took office in May last year.

GEORGE W. BUSH: He’s a strong leader who wants a free and democratic Iraq to succeed. The United States is determined to help him achieve that goal.

Critics of the Iraqi Prime Minister

George Packer
The New Yorker
I think the administration is caught in a bind of its own making. They put all their chips on Maliki last year. Bush has confirmed and reconfirmed that he supports him, that he thinks he's the right man.

RAY SUAREZ: Just as the president was meeting with Maliki in Jordan last November, a memo from National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley was leaked to the press. Hadley wrote, "The reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests Maliki is either ignorant of what's going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action."

And yesterday, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, vented his frustrations at the inability of Maliki and other Shiite leaders to reach accommodations with Sunni Arabs and Kurdish political leaders. He said, "This is an open society, a democratic society. And if governments don't perform, at a certain point I think you're going to see a new government."

This mixture of criticism and praise comes as the administration is preparing for the release of reports to Congress on military and political progress in Iraq from General David Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker in early September.

Now, for some analysis of the state of relations between the Bush administration and the Iraqi prime minister, we turn to: Laith Kubba, who served as spokesman for Iraq's previous government from April 2005 until January 2006; George Packer, staff writer for the New Yorker and author of "The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq"; and Suzanne Maloney, who served on the policy planning staff at the State Department from 2005 until May of this year, she's now a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

And, Suzanne Maloney, a day after the president publicly expressed some doubts about the abilities of the Iraqi government, he comes in with this very strong endorsement. Why do you think that happened?

SUZANNE MALONEY, Saban Center for Middle East Policy: Well, I think the administration obviously does share this frustration that is felt across the political spectrum here in Washington and, frankly, within Iraq and the region with the pace of political progress in Iraq and the inability, apparently, of the current Iraqi government to take significant, meaningful steps on those issues that are most important to securing Iraq's future.

But I think it's also clear -- and I think the president wanted to make clear through his remarks today -- that this administration is, if not committed to the individual of Maliki himself, and I think the personal relationship there is real and important, very much committed to the political process that brought Prime Minister Maliki into his office.

RAY SUAREZ: George Packer, you heard today the president endorsing the Iraqi prime minister and the Iraqi prime minister sort of pushing back at his critics in the United States. What's going on?

GEORGE PACKER, The New Yorker: I think, on the Iraqi side, there's always a tendency to sort of play the sovereignty card when American officials start criticizing them. And then, behind the scenes, as is happening now in Baghdad, some Iraqi officials beg American officials to be more proactive to push harder. That's been going on over the past few weeks in Baghdad.

I think the administration is caught in a bind of its own making. They put all their chips on Maliki last year. Bush has confirmed and reconfirmed that he supports him, that he thinks he's the right man. And the government is, as one official said to me, not dysfunctional, it's nonfunctioning. It is practically collapsed.

And so there's a kind of an uncertainty in the administration whether to continue riding this horse, because anything else will seem like a failure of its political strategy, or to admit the strategy has failed and to look for an alternative.

"We're not hearing the whole story"

Suzanne Maloney
Former State Department official
[I]n the political debate here in Washington that, on this very important issue, we're now very much focused on the search for either a white knight or some opportunity for blame-laying.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Laith Kubba, are we now hearing in public things that were already being said in private for weeks, maybe months?

LAITH KUBBA, Former Iraqi Government Spokesman: I think we're not hearing the whole story. I think the frustration with Maliki and his government is real, and it's understandable, and Iraqis have been frustrated for awhile.

I think what we're not hearing is that the problem is not with the person. If you replace Maliki with any other person, those problems will not go. They're more rooted in a dysfunctional political system that needs serious attention.

And I think the recent surge was supposed to create the space and the opportunity to fix that dysfunctional political system. So far it hasn't happened, and I think this is what's adding to everybody's frustration.

RAY SUAREZ: George Packer, do you agree with that, that it's not Maliki, it's the situation?

GEORGE PACKER: I do. We've had a series of prime ministers, Iyad Allawi, Ibrahim Jaafari, Nouri al-Maliki. There's now a lot of talk about possibly engineering a parliamentary coup, that is to say a democratic replacement of Maliki with Adil Abdul-Mahdi or Iyad Allawi again.

But there is basically a problem of lack of shared vision by the three main factions, Sunni, Shia and Kurd. Several American diplomats with a lot of experience in Iraq have said to me that they have grown to despair of the possibility of achieving accommodation, let alone reconciliation, because at bottom there is no shared vision among the major groups.

And also, those groups themselves, their leaders, are really isolated from the Iraqi people. A lot of polls show that Iraqis are fed up with sectarian government, and many of these leaders came from exile and have not established deep grassroots support. Instead, they've got militias and they've got cronies who they put in positions in power, and that's why the government is unable to function.

RAY SUAREZ: Suzanne Maloney, is there a difference of opinion inside the Bush administration? Is the president now hearing from different parts of the far-flung Iraq operation differing reports about the future of this government and the wisdom of continuing to support it?

SUZANNE MALONEY: Well, as your initial news report suggested, obviously over some period of time there have been questions about Maliki's personal capacity to undertake the mission that he has by virtue of his position as prime minister. So I think, for quite some time, there has been some internal focus within the administration about the nature of this government.

But I tend to think -- and I agree with my colleagues here -- that the focus on the individual is very much unfortunate. And it really demonstrates a paucity, I think, in the political debate here in Washington that, on this very important issue, we're now very much focused on the search for either a white knight or some opportunity for blame-laying.

We spent a lot of time at the outset of this government debating the difference between Jaafari and al-Maliki. There's a lot of interest in people like Adil Abdul-Mahdi or Iyad Allawi. It's very unclear to me that anyone in this set of circumstances is going to have the capacity to meet our benchmarks on our timetable.

And, frankly, the sort of political debate that you hear in Washington today does not make it any easier for Maliki or anyone around him to take the sorts of steps that we'd like to see him take on any one of the key issues.

Replacing al-Maliki

Laith Kubba
Former Iraqi government spokesman
[T]hose groups who have the prime minister under their mercy are enjoying power, while the rest of the country is in disarray and sinking.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, as you noted, both Laith Kubba and George Packer talked about finding a constitutional way to replace him with somebody. Is there anybody? Is there a plausible replacement for Nouri al-Maliki?

SUZANNE MALONEY: There are conceivable candidates. And we've mentioned a few of them. The one who has the most credibility, I think, inside Iraq and, I'll obviously defer to others here, Adil Abdul-Mahdi may suffer from some of the same critiques if he were to be in office that have been leveled against al-Maliki and his predecessor, in particular the relationship with Iran.

Iyad Allawi has a certain allure for certainly many within the administration, those who've been working on Iraq since the early days, but he has demonstrated no capacity to be able to put together a parliamentary coalition that would lead him into office. I think the Bush administration will be very reticent to embrace some sort of solution that is extra-constitutional.

RAY SUAREZ: So do you just stick with what you've got, given all the problems that all of you have talked about, Laith Kubba?

LAITH KUBBA: I think the breakthrough will come looking at the three blocs. I think George Packer was spot on when he said they lack vision, but they cut deals. And I think, if they were to cut a deal, one alternative to Maliki, that Maliki will go within a week. He's very much under their mercy.

And if the U.S. was to signal maybe to one of three groups on how this deal should be struck, it will actually lead to some results. But the real question is, those groups who have the prime minister under their mercy are enjoying power, while the rest of the country is in disarray and sinking, those people benefiting from the situation, they're very happy in their little territories of power, and they have very little incentive to fundamentally alter the game.

I think the only way to bring some difference is to leverage neighbors' influence over them and change the dynamic of Iraqi politics as it stands today.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, George Packer, you talked about the United States playing a heavy bet on Nouri al-Maliki. Well, if you stick with him for the long term, does whoever takes his place at some point in the future inherit a much degraded situation and less of a chance for success by that much more time of drift passing?

GEORGE PACKER: Absolutely. The surge has given us the sense that there is progress. There is, but it's superficial. The deep problems remain; in fact, they're getting worse. In some ways, Iraqis' daily lives are getting worse every day when it comes to services and things like that. Refugees continue to leave the country at the same rate. And that is because, as Laith Kubba said, there is a fundamental blockage of political groups.

I think it's interesting that the Bush administration has bet so much on Maliki. Some Iraqis have said to me, some Iraqi politicians, "You've got 160,000 troops. Your aid package is enormous. Your president's legacy is riding on this. Why don't you push harder?"

But I think there's just a reticence, as Suzanne Maloney said, to seem to be pushing from the outside and perhaps getting the devil they don't know instead of the devil they do. So I think there's a stalemate both in Washington, where some people would like to push him out and others don't, and in Baghdad, where none of the faction is willing to be the first to jump and get rid of Maliki. But it's true, he would be gone in a week if they could come to an agreement about an alternative.

Reports from General Petraeus

Suzanne Maloney
Former State Department official
Clearly, there may be some elements of success in our military strategy over the recent months, but it has not had that sort of carry over impact on the security situation that was hoped for originally.

RAY SUAREZ: We're expecting the reports on the effect of the troop surge. There will be one on the military situation, one on the diplomatic. When Ambassador Crocker reports to the administration and the Congress, will what he has to say be weighted down by the performance of the Maliki government?

SUZANNE MALONEY: Well, it's hard to separate anything that the administration may say in a report from what we're actually seeing on the ground in the newspapers and on the television screens every day. Clearly, there may be some elements of success in our military strategy over the recent months, but it has not had that sort of carry over impact on the security situation that was hoped for originally. And I see very little prospect that that's likely to happen in the period that is leading up to those reports being issued.

So I think, in effect, the reports are important, but the debate has been effectively preempted by what's happening on the ground, the extent to which we're seeing it taken up in the political partisan debate here in Washington, and the need really to look toward a longer term solution.

Both of my colleagues here have spoken about U.S. influence. I think ultimately the president is correct in saying that Iraqis make these decisions. It may not be, at this point, in the hands of all of the Iraqi voters, because I think it would be very difficult to conceive of the situation of holding new elections in any time of the near future, but these Iraqi political actors, the key political blocs among the Shia, Kurds and Sunnis, are really the ones who are going to determine whether a coherent government can be put in place that can in any way begin to build on any progress or that can at least take the reins of the state, if and as the U.S. begins to move toward a position of redeployment or withdrawal.

RAY SUAREZ: Suzanne Maloney, George Packer, Laith Kubba, thank you all.