Dead Certain

Maliki
Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 4 2007 12:07 PM

Dead Certain

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This week, Slate is publishing three exclusive excerpts from Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bushby Robert Draper. In preparing this chronological narrative of the Bush presidency, Draper has had unprecedented journalistic access to the Bush White House, including six interviews with the president in late 2006 and 2007. Our second extract is about Bush's relationship with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

It was something Bush talked about every week during his video teleconferences with Tony Blair: These guys Maliki and Abbas [the president of the Palestinian National Authority], we've gotta nurture them. ... He had tried with Allawi and Ja'fari, the two previous prime ministers. But the former had little interest in policy, while the latter—definitely not Bush's kind of guy—was more inclined to recite poetry than build a democracy. By the time he first laid eyes on Maliki in Baghdad on June 13, 2006, Bush could not afford to be choosy. Iraq was out of control, here was its new leader ... and through his willful optimism, Bush would see to it that theirs was a match made in heaven. In 2007, he found himself mentoring the head of the world's most frail democracy on how to lead a nation.

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"I'm convinced you will succeed," he told Maliki that day in front of the media. Shortly afterward, Bush acknowledged to the Iraq Study Group (as some of its members would recall in interviews) that "my job is to give confidence to the Maliki government." Though some in the group evinced less enthusiasm for the new prime minister, Bush had a different outlook. Maliki, he said, was "a lot better than what we've had." And in any event, the president's job was to "inspire" the novice politician.

In the months that followed, the prime minister's Shiite patron, Moktada al-Sadr, ran roughshod over Baghdad while the government arrested only al-Sadr's Sunni foes. Bush didn't lecture or threaten Maliki. When National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley's memo criticizing Maliki was leaked to the New York Times in late November, Bush immediately contradicted it, saying that Maliki was "the right guy for the job"—and then dispatched Hadley to the Sunday talk shows, where the latter assured viewers that Maliki "has the will and desire to take responsibility."

Bush and Hadley happened to be on their way to Amman, Jordan, to meet with Maliki when the Times published its story about the memo. The president thought to defuse the matter right away. Pulling Hadley toward him, Bush grinned at Maliki and said, "Do you know our national security adviser, Steve Hadley?" When Maliki smiled and hugged Hadley, Bush thought, This speaks well of the guy.

The prime minister had been hearing rumors of a coup against him and feared that Bush and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad supported it. Maliki therefore came armed with a security plan of his own. Though it struck Bush as ambitious in the extreme, he was delighted by Maliki's assertiveness and returned from the Middle East just as upbeat as he had been six months earlier.

Five weeks later, Bush was conducting a secure teleconference to brief Iraqi officials on his upcoming address to the nation on the new Iraq strategy when he suddenly said, "Let's clear the room." Maliki's aides departed, as did Bush's. Now it was just the two leaders.

"You know," Bush would—in a later interview—recall telling his counterpart with a fatalistic laugh, "we're hanging out here together. A lot of people here don't think we can succeed. I do."

Then, challenging Maliki, the president said, "It's looking like al-Sadr's gonna run your country."

Maliki grew solemn. "I swear to God," he vowed, "al-Sadr will not run this country." Bush took that in. "Well," he said, "I'll put my neck out if you put your neck out."

Bush's decision to appoint General David Petraeus as the new commander in Iraq didn't please some in Maliki's government who remembered Petraeus's empowerment of former Baathists in Mosul. "I know you have concerns about this," Bush said. "But let me just tell you, leader to leader: I have a lot of respect for this man. Trust me on this."

A week later, Maliki appointed First General Aboud Jenber to be his new Baghdad security commander. General George Casey contacted Bush to register his concern. Jenber, he said, was an unknown quantity. Bush got Maliki on the phone.

Maliki said to Bush, I have a lot of respect for this man. Trust me on this.

Turning the tables on him—Bush loved it!

"He's learning to be a leader," Bush said a few weeks later. "And one of my jobs as the president and his ally is to help him be that leader without being patronizing. At some point in time, if I come to the conclusion that he can't be the leader—he's unwilling to lead or he's deceptive—then we'll change course. But I haven't come to that conclusion. As a matter of fact, his recent actions have inspired me."

So far, Maliki's armed forces had begun to enforce laws across sectarian lines. His government had passed a $41 billion budget. The prime minister had yet to fulfill all his promises—most prominently, ratifying an oil-revenue-sharing deal that would grant the Sunnis a stake in the Iraqi economy. But Bush would cut Maliki some slack. "Everybody tells him the same thing—you better get moving, or else," Bush would say. "That's what I told [Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman] Carl Levin. I said, 'You went to Iraq and you told him point blank, You better get moving.' I said, 'Thank you for doing that.'

"He said, 'Why don't you do the same thing?' I said, 'I've got other audiences. My message isn't just to the Iraqi government. It's to U.S. troops, the enemy, the Iraqi people. And therefore I've got to be careful about how I deliver the message. I want to be viewed more as a mentor than a scolder."

Maliki was learning leadership on the fly—and getting into a groove, Bush believed, where the more hard decisions the Iraqi made, the stronger he became. It was Bush's theory of political capital transplanted to Baghdad: The more of it you spent, the more you accrued.

"I do believe, however," said Bush in February, "that he knows he's running against the clock."

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