Dazed and confused

With his "three-way" with King Abdullah and Nouri al-Maliki canceled, thanks to the timely leak of a nasty memo about the Iraqi prime minister, Bush looks like the blunderer in chief.

Joan Walsh
November 30, 2006 2:15AM (UTC)

The three-way is off! The trilateral is now a bilateral! And the vain hope that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki could solve the Iraq crisis is spinning away just as fast as the slimmer hope that a summit in Jordan could make President Bush look like a leader.

In a week of surreal attempts at what administration officials apparently think is "diplomacy," Wednesday's press briefing with deputy press secretary Dan Bartlett is still a standout. The facts are clear: On the heels of an all but official leak of a memo by National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, criticizing al-Maliki as either ignorant, dishonest or incompetent, suddenly plans for a Wednesday night meeting between President Bush, Jordan's King Abdullah and the Iraqi prime minister are off.


But pay no attention to the memo, Bartlett says; the need for a "three-way" was obviated by a "two-way" between Abdullah and al-Maliki earlier today. Watch Bartlett try, and fail, to spin reporters in Amman. It's worth quoting at length:

Bartlett: The President is going to have a bilateral and dinner with the King of Jordan. Since the King of Jordan and Prime Minister Maliki had a bilateral themselves, earlier today, everybody believed that negated the purpose for the three of them to meet tonight, together, in a trilateral setting. So the plan, according to -- since they had such a good, productive bilateral discussion, was just for the President to deal with bilateral issues and other issues with the King this evening in a dinner setting, and then the meetings set for tomorrow will still take place as scheduled.

Reporter: So the dinner is off, the three-way.

Bartlett: Right.

Reporter: Well, if Maliki -- he was never going to the dinner anyway, right? It was just supposed to be a meeting.

Bartlett: There was going to be a trilateral meeting, and then the dinner with the King. Now, since they already had a bilateral themselves, the King of Jordan and the Prime Minister, everybody felt, well, there's no reason for them to do a trilateral meeting beforehand, because matters had been discussed.


Reporter: So the scheduled trilateral is scrapped.

Bartlett: Right.

Reporter: But the dinner -- all three of them are still going to be at the dinner?

Bartlett: No.

Reporter: OK, so Maliki is not doing anything?

Bartlett: The President will see Prime Minister Maliki in the morning...

Reporter: But don't you risk sending a political message that the three were supposed to get together tonight and now they're not, after the memo by Hadley and all? This wasn't a snub, or anything like that.

Bartlett: Absolutely not. And I think that will be demonstrated tomorrow, as well as the fact that the King and the Prime Minister had a good meeting themselves, today. The King is being a gracious host, allowing for the two leaders to meet tomorrow morning. No one should read too much into this, except for the fact that they had a good meeting. This gives an opportunity for the King and the President to catch up on issues that are in the interests of Jordan and the United States, as well as the broader region. The issue -- a discussion specifically about Iraq will be had tomorrow by the two leaders, by themselves.


Reporter: No connection to the memo, whatsoever?

Bartlett: No.

It would be funny if it wasn't tragic. The last two supposed virtues of the Bush administration have crumbled since the election three weeks ago: its strict internal discipline and message control -- leaks are for Democrats! -- and the president's loyalty to his supporters. Now the White House is leaking like a sinking ship. And Bush's loyalty? It's vanished along with his majority in Congress.


First to take the hit was Donald Rumsfeld -- a man who richly deserved his shove under the bus, but still, someone Bush had promised to keep until the end of his term. This week, it's al-Maliki. The president himself began to set up al-Maliki on Tuesday, when he told reporters he'd be asking the besieged Iraqi prime minister for his plans to stop the violence that the U.S. invasion of his country ignited.

"My questions to him will be: 'What do we need to do to succeed? What is your strategy in dealing with the sectarian violence?'" It felt like a burglar asking how you're going to replace the goods he just stole, or an arsonist asking how you'll rebuild the house he just burned to the ground. Not surprisingly, on the heels of the disparaging Hadley memo, al-Maliki passed up his chance to answer those questions. But the mess also insults King Abdullah, one of the administration's last allies in the region.

The most disturbing aspect of the diplomatic carnage is that this was supposed to be the week the president got religion and began reaching out to world leaders to find a solution to the mess he's made in Iraq. His Jordan summit was part of an effort to preempt the work of the Iraq Study Group, to show that Jim Baker isn't the only one who can globe-trot and glad-hand with world leaders. "They want to create some activity on the eve of the Baker commission report so that they can point to the fact that they haven't just been sitting in the Situation Room waiting for Iraq to improve on its own," an administration "advisor" told Time this week.


And it's not just political posturing that's provoking the belated Bush effort. While some Democrats are already protesting the Baker group's probable failure to call for a timeline for troop withdrawal, Vice President Dick Cheney is said to be dead set against its almost certain recommendation that the administration reach out to Iran and Syria. And so the administration is suddenly looking globally for its own answers. The problem? "There's complete bewilderment as to what to do," the advisor told Time.

That much is obvious. The only thing worse than Bush's failure to practice diplomacy is what apparently happens when he tries. Maybe it's a use-it-or-lose-it thing. After six years of unilateralism, this administration can't defeat its enemies, but doesn't remember how to treat its friends. For Americans, it's going to be a long two years under an increasingly lame duck administration. But it's going to be much, much worse for Iraqis.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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