Bush, al-Maliki and the search for a fall guy

Iraq's prime minister visits the White House.

Published July 25, 2006 1:25PM (EDT)

The problem with these sovereign nations is that they're so ... sovereign.

As the New York Times reports this morning, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is likely to use his visit to the White House today to make some requests that "clash sharply" with the policies of George W. Bush. "Signaling a widening gap between the Iraqis and the Americans on crucial issues," the Times says, al-Maliki will probably ask Bush to let U.S. troops in Iraq be tried under Iraqi law, to call on Israel to end its fighting against Lebanon and not to hassle him or other Iraqi Shiites about their ties to Iran.

Sovereignty or no sovereignty, al-Maliki isn't really in the position to demand much. His plan for securing Baghdad -- announced with great fanfare just after his last visit with Bush -- has done less than nothing to stop sectarian violence there. On a stop in London Monday, al-Maliki was forced to acknowledge that 100 Iraqi civilians are dying every day in his country; it's not a civil war, al-Maliki insisted, but rather a "sectarian issue."

And it's hard to demand too much of the guy whose troops are keeping your government in place -- even if he's the one responsible for breaking apart your country in the first place. Among the things al-Maliki won't be requesting: a speedy withdrawal of U.S. troops.

The White House seems happy to play up the differences between al-Maliki and Bush, and that's because this "you're kind of with us and kind of against us" approach probably works pretty well for both of them. Al-Maliki has to stand up to Bush, at least a little bit, to save some face back home. And by letting him do so -- by creating some distance between himself and the Iraqi prime minister -- Bush helps prop up a fall guy for the problems his administration has caused in Iraq.

Indeed, that process has already begun. White House press secretary Tony Snow said Monday that al-Maliki's Baghdad security plan has "not achieved its objectives," and a senior administration official is suggesting that it's incumbent upon al-Maliki to come up with a new one. In the meantime, the U.S. will be sending more troops into Iraq and shifting some of the troops already there into Baghdad, where 55,000 U.S. troops on the ground haven't been enough to stop the spiral of sectarian violence.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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