Their View: Bush's visits needs to be more than a photo op
President Bush's unexpected trip to Baghdad last week was all about bolstering a flawed policy and the American people's sagging support of it. With the recent killing of al-Qaida's commander in the country, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and the completion - finally - of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Cabinet, the time was politically ripe for Bush to swoop back into Baghdad.
The administration policy toward Iraq has always had a fanstasyland quality, built as it was on a foundation of false assumptions and misplaced optimism. To the extent that Bush left his ivory tower in the White House to travel to the harsh reality of Iraq, this visit was a good idea. True leaders are not supposed to stay hunkered down.
Unfortunately, how much reality Bush absorbed in his few hours in Baghdad, and most of that spent in the highly fortified Green Zone, is an open question. A thoughtful president might be impressed by the extraordinary precautions to keep the visit quiet for security reasons and draw a logical conclusion. Even by wartime standards, the list of those who knew he was making this trip was remarkably short.
Most people in his administration, including some senior intelligence officials, reportedly were just as surprised by his trip as other Americans. As for al-Maliki and his ministers, they thought they were being called to a videoconference linked to the president in Camp David, only to be told five minutes before that Bush had come to them.
Let us concede that this elaborate deception was necessary - but that in turn illuminates a greater truth subversive to the administration's sugar-coated story line: Iraq remains a highly dangerous place, for everyone and not just a visiting president. For all the lives lost and the billions of dollars spent, for all the experiment in democracy, this is a country still in deep distress.
Indeed, as much as al-Maliki might have been reassured by Bush's personal visit, whether it does him any good among his own people is another imponderable. The prime minister needs to be seen as his own man, especially among disaffected Sunnis, and yet there was Bush showing up as his patron.
Bush was right to call on Iraqis to seize the moment, but he again failed to say that Americans must soon start withdrawing - something that would reduce a basic source of resentment as well as concentrate the minds of the new government.
Without those words, Bush's trip resembled his brief visit on Thanksgiving 2003, which came to be seen as a bold gesture, a photo opportunity all about style and not substance.
- The Pittsburgh-Gazette