Four times last year U.S. President George W. Bush stood with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and four times he offered glowing appraisals.
Now Bush's comments about the Iraqi leader are couched with conditions and caution - rhetorical loopholes Bush will need to defend himself if the man on whom he has pinned everything fails.
The U.S. president has gone from holding up al-Maliki as unequivocally "the right guy for Iraq" to tersely declaring that "what matters is whether or not he performs."
Bush's linguistic shift on al-Maliki began last month when he announced his revamped Iraq war strategy. Bush said the success of his new plan, keyed on dispatching 21,500 more U.S. troops, depends on the Iraqi prime minister doing his part.
Bush attached no specific consequences if al-Maliki does not. He also offered no expressions of confidence that he would.
This new wait-and-see stance grew out of a recognition at the White House that the U.S. Congress and the American public need the Bush administration to show it will not wait forever for progress in Iraq generally and from the prime minister specifically. In Congress, a number of Republicans have joined Democrats to question the troop boost. Additionally, polls show that about a third of the U.S. public approve Bush's handling the war.
Bush aides also calculated that the president needed some insurance in case al-Maliki stumbles.
The list of commitments by the Iraqi leader, a member of Islam's Shiite sect, is long and daunting: sending more and more capable Iraqi fighters into Baghdad, taking on powerful Shiite militias, investing heavily in reconstruction projects that help Sunnis as well as Shiites; enacting legislation aimed at promoting reconciliation between warring sects, whose deep distrust and bloody battles are the main source of Iraq's spiraling instability.
Al-Maliki, the compromise leader of a fragile ruling coalition, could prove unable or unwilling to follow through. The criticism from Congress and beyond then would be shrill enough without Bush appearing to have been a naive cheerleader, presidential advisers figured.
"It sets the rhetorical groundwork for arguing that the failure is not ours; the failure is that Maliki failed to meet the expectations we set for them," said presidential rhetoric expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who directs the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
More subtly, placing nearly all the onus on al-Maliki and his ability to meet a list of practical benchmarks takes attention away from a now-bygone emphasis: Iraq as a beacon of freedom in the heart of the Middle East.
"He is shifting away from his last remaining premise for intervention in Iraq, establishing democracy," Jamieson said.
Last year, Bush was still applauding al-Maliki in public even after the Iraqi leader had reneged on several pledges: to deliver a unified government, clamp down on Shiite militias, provide extra Iraqi forces, step up Iraqi troop readiness.
At their most recent in-person meeting in Jordan in November, for instance, the president flattered al-Maliki even though the Iraqi leader had embarrassed Bush by abruptly canceling a meeting planned for the day before. Bush's words also contradicted the conclusions of a private memo by his national security adviser, which laid out plenty of reason to doubt al-Maliki's abilities. The prime minister still was new in office and deserved a bit of a pass, the White House concluded.
The president now not only talks tougher about al-Maliki but more cautiously about success.
In a Jan. 10 televised speech to the nation announcing the new war strategy, the president said "this plan can work" - a claim he carefully attributed to his war commanders. He said al-Maliki's promises represented "a strong commitment," without opining about whether the Iraqi leader would meet them.
"Now is the time to act. The prime minister understands this," Bush said.
Since that speech, Bush has rarely talked about Iraq outside carefully controlled settings such as speeches and one-on-one interviews, and his rhetoric has remained conditional. Last week, the president would not directly answer whether he trusts al-Maliki.
"Trust is earned by doing what you say you're going to do," Bush said in a television interview. "I say he is in the process of performing."
As evidence, the president said al-Maliki is moving more Iraqi troops into Baghdad and directing his forces to go after Shiite militias as well as Sunni insurgents.
Yet, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates saying it would take only about two months to judge the Iraqis' performance, there are signs al-Maliki already is falling behind.
Iraq has missed its own target dates for making crucial trust-building measures, such as laws establishing provincial elections, equitably distributing the country's oil wealth and reversing prohibitions on government participation by many Sunnis because of membership in Saddam Hussein's Baath party. Gates said Friday extra Iraqi troops are arriving in Baghdad on schedule, but are short on promised force levels, the AP reports.
Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Bush is smart to add more reality to his remarks about al-Maliki. At the same time, he said, the Iraqi leader can be pushed only so hard.
"Like it or not, this government is the only option we have. There's no one waiting in the wings," Cordesman said.
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