George Bush decided to kick-start the September debate on Iraq by getting his own feet on the ground in Anbar. He’ll visit the troops, but more importantly meet directly with Nouri al-Maliki to determine how well the newly-announced political reform agreement is faring — and talk with a few tribal leaders as well (via Memeorandum):
Air Force One touched down under the blazing sun at Al Asad Air Base in Anbar province. The White House said the base was chosen because of the “remarkable turnaround” in the province.
Bush has hailed Anbar — a Sunni province west of Baghdad — as a success, citing the U.S. military’s alliance with tribal leaders in fighting al Qaeda in Iraq.
Marine commanders on the ground told Bush that “morale is high,” despite long troop rotations.
Bush stayed primarily in Baghdad the last two trips he took to Iraq, but today he will stay in Anbar. The President wants to highlight the success of General David Petraeus in the once-hopeless province, a particular point to make ahead of the debate coming up in Congress this month. The visit also puts Bush outside of what Ellen Tauscher this week referred to as the “Green Zone fog”.
Bush brought quite a few top members of the team along with him. Condoleezza Rice, Robert Gates, General Peter Pace, national security adviser Stephen Hadley, and “war czar” General Douglas Lute all traveled along with Bush on Air Force One. It’s a rather impressive roster, underscoring the confidence the White House has in making the trip.
How will this affect the debate on Iraq here in the US? It will show that more of Iraq has been secured in a rather dramatic fashion. A year ago, a presidential visit to Anbar would have been a ludicrous suggestion. His meetings with tribal leaders may have been even more ludicrous regardless of whether they occurred in Anbar or Baghdad. It cuts through the filters of conventional wisdom and media narratives to make a rather bold point about the progress since the start of the surge.
More importantly, how does this affect politics inside Iraq? By meeting with Maliki, Bush can assuage some hurt feelings over calls for Maliki’s ouster by Hillary Clinton and Carl Levin. However, his meetings with tribal leaders will demonstrate that the US will be willing to work with a broad range of political leadership, a move that should send a message to Maliki. It will be a recognition of tribal leaders who have chosen political engagement rather than terrorist support, which will strengthen the momentum towards political reform.
It’s a smart move in all directions. Bush has once again shown the relevance and the power of the presidency, and he chose the best possible time for this demonstration.