Just Above Sunset
Volume 5, Number 10
March 11, 2007

Diplomacy 101

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

"Notes on how things seem from out here in Hollywood..."

Diplomacy 101 - Trying New Things Is Always Awkward

Maybe there's a reason the administration doesn't do diplomacy, as it is normally defined (as mentioned in these pages in early September 2003 and just about everywhere else). They just don't get the concept. It's hard work. And why do something you just don't know how to do?

It was the memo, or it wasn't. You didn't get the memo? The president got the memo - National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley advising the president on his upcoming meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, where the two of them will sit down and fix everything that's wrong in Iraq. Hadley says, basically, that the Iraqi prime minister seems to be either ignorant, deceitful or just incapable of doing what it takes to get his country under control. Michael Gordon of the New York Times had it leaked to him, kind of on purpose. And as Gordon explains, the White House has "sought to avoid public criticism of Mr. Maliki." But Gordon didn't have to work very hard to get a copy of the November 8 memo. It was practically handed to him. An "administration official" made the document available to him, "aides to President Bush" did their spin on it, and "two senior administration officials" talked about the memo on the condition that they not be quoted by name because they didn't want to be named as the ones talking about the memo. What's up with that?

Everyone knows the new line is to start laying the blame on the Iraqis for not dealing very well with our generous gift of democracy, and to blame Maliki in particular. Things aren't going well and it must be someone's fault after all. And it cannot be us. See the Washington Post with a review of who is saying such things - from Condoleezza Rice to Carl Levin. It's the new "explanation of everything" - we did the right things and those ingrates and incompetents are just ruining everything. Of course such thinking does make leaving easier. We did our part. And this memo is just more of the same.

And the president said he was going to Jordan to meet with Maliki to basically find out how Maliki was going to fix everything, and offer support for whatever he thought was best. But just as "Yee-haw!" is not foreign policy - we tried that and it didn't work out - it is likely passive-aggressive blame shifting is not diplomacy. It does tend to piss off people.

Hadley - "His intentions seem good when he talks with Americans, and sensitive reporting suggests he is trying to stand up to the Shia hierarchy and force positive change, but the reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action."

Yep, that makes him look like a fool. This is diplomacy?

And, late in the day on Wednesday, November 29, what was entirely predictable -

    President Bush's high-profile meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Wednesday was canceled in a stunning turn of events after disclosure of U.S. doubts about the Iraqi leader's capabilities and a political boycott in Baghdad protesting his attendance.

    Instead of two days of talks, Bush and al-Maliki will have breakfast and a single meeting followed by a news conference on Thursday morning, the White House said.

The president had been scheduled to meet in a three-way session with Maliki and Jordan's King Abdullah II on Wednesday night, and had even rearranged his schedule to be in Amman for both days for talks. This was the big meeting to fix everything. The Associated Press item in this case calls it "an almost unheard-of development in the high-level diplomatic circles of a U.S. president, a king and a prime minister."

Yep, and there was the obvious confusion and conflicting explanations - the last-minute cancellation was not announced until after the president had already arrived at Raghadan Palace and posed for photographs alone with the king. Maliki was missing. People noticed. White House counselor Dan Bartlett then got to publicly deny that the "no show" was caused by any "snub" by Maliki directed at President Bush - and it certainly wasn't related to the Hadley memo. "Absolutely not" - he said the king and Maliki had already met before President Bush arrived from that NATO summit in Latvia. It was very simple - "That negated the purpose to meet tonight together in a trilateral setting." You see, the Jordanians and the Iraqis jointly decided it was not "the best use of time" to have a three-way meeting, because they both would be seeing the president separately. They just didn't tell George - it seems members of the Jordanian and Iraqi delegations contacted our ambassador in Iraq, Khalilzad, and he called Air Force One and spoke with President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, giving them a heads-up.

That hurts. When you're in the last two years of a lame duck presidency and have just lost both houses of congress to the opposition party, you do want to look like a take-charge guy who is in control of everything. This doesn't help. As Maliki proved, two can play at this game. And with Maliki already gone from the palace, the president had "an abbreviated meeting and dinner" with the king before heading, much earlier than scheduled, to his hotel. It was a farce, and the theatrics were devastating.

And the requisite spin was offered - that memo Hadley wrote was authentic, but really, on balance "the document was supportive of the Iraqi leader and generally portrayed him as well-meaning." Tony Snow said the president "has confidence in Prime Minister Maliki" - and he added that Maliki "has been very aggressive in recent weeks in taking on some of the key challenges."

You see, he's really a fine fellow. Of course, thirty Iraqi members of parliament along with five cabinet ministers - the folks loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr - said they were boycotting parliament and the government to protest Maliki meeting with Bush at all. They pretty much put Maliki in power, or least hold the key seats that keep him in office, and were not happy. And that's why AP notes that some analysts suggested that the memo might actually help more than damage Maliki, by showing distance between him and Bush. It's complicated.

And views AP provides are these -

    Jon Alterman, former special assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said the memo's doubts about al-Maliki "seemed calculated to steel his spine."

    "This memo reads to me more like a memo to Prime Minister al-Maliki than to President Bush," said Alterman, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It has his entire to-do list as well as a list of what he'll get if he agrees."

    In Washington, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., called on Bush to appoint a high-ranking special envoy to work with the Iraqi government on disbanding militias, including all Iraq's factions in the nation's political process and equitably distributing resources such as oil revenue. "Steps have to be taken now," he said.

And the steps are in the memo. Take them or you're toast.

The steps are analyzed here -

    It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to implement most of the key ideas for quelling the Iraqi civil war that are outlined in a classified Nov. 8 memo to President Bush from National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, experts said Wednesday.

    Trying to push anti-U.S. Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr out of the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as the memo suggests, would be throwing gasoline on a fire, they said.

    Sadr's party is the largest in parliament, with 32 seats, and Maliki became prime minister only with his support. Sadr's Mahdi Army militia controls large parts of Baghdad and southern Iraq, and many Iraqi Shiites hail him as their only protection from attacks by rival Sunni Muslims, which American and Iraqi forces have failed to stop.

And that's just the start of it. It's a depressing read.

But just what happened here? Tim Grieve takes a stab at that -

    Maliki snubbed Bush either in retaliation for the seemingly orchestrated leak of Stephen Hadley's memo or in response to protests from Muqtada al-Sadr loyalists who have walked away from Maliki's government to show their displeasure over his meeting with Bush.

    The White House says Bush still expects to have a "robust" discussion with Maliki on Thursday and that no one should read too much into tonight's cancellation. "Look, they were not going to be doing a full detail discussion in a trilateral setting about Iraq and the future of Iraq and the strategy anyway, that just wouldn't be appropriate," Bartlett told reporters in Amman. He said the "three-way" meeting was really going to be more of a "social" thing anyway.

    Maybe that's right, but it's hard to escape the feeling that there's a bit of left-at-the-altar embarrassment here. And it's not the first bout of who-wears-the-pants humiliation for the White House this week. Dick Cheney made the trek to Saudi Arabia over the weekend to talk about Iraq. The White House portrayed the trip as a matter of reaching out to its Arab ally. In fact, the Washington Post reported earlier this week, the Saudis had "basically summoned" the American vice president out of concern for the damage the Iraq war is causing.

None of this inspires confidence in our leaders. They're getting jerked around.

Then there's the view from Iraq -

    Senior Iraqi lawmaker Redha Jawad Taqi said the meeting was canceled at the request of the Iraqis after al-Maliki learned that the Jordanian monarch planned to broaden the discussion to include the Arab-Israeli conflict.

    Two senior officials traveling with al-Maliki, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, said the prime minister had been reluctant to travel to Jordan in the first place and decided, once in Amman, that he did not want "a third party" involved in talks about subjects specific to the U.S.-Iraqi relationship.

    The Sadrists had threatened to quit the government and parliament if al-Maliki went ahead with the Amman summit. But by downgrading their protest to a suspension of membership, they left open a return to their jobs. One of the 30 lawmakers, Falih Hassan, called Bush "a criminal who killed a lot of Iraqis" and said the American president has no business meddling in Iraq's affairs.

Maybe it was just a bad day there - another one hundred five people killed or found dead across the country (and we lost two more soldiers) and there was the heavy fighting in Baqouba, and our guys, backed by aircraft, killed eight "al Qaeda in Iraq insurgents" up that way but left two Iraqi women dead, of the eight who were unluckily killed in the aerial bombing. The day before in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, it was one man and five girls, aged seven months, 12, 14, 15 and 17, according to our command office. Oops.

And there's the UN business -

    Meanwhile, a statement issued by the Sadrist lawmakers criticized al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government for its decision to request from the United Nations a one-year extension of the stay in Iraq of the U.S.-led multinational force numbering around 160,000. The request was granted on Tuesday.

    The Sadr politicians argued that the multinational force played a "suspicious" role in Iraq and accused al-Maliki of ignoring the views of parliament's 275 lawmakers when it sought a renewal of its deployment.

    The statement also mirrored the animosity felt by the movement toward the United States and Bush, using a language that harked back to the days in 2004 when the Mahdi Army fought U.S. troops in two major revolts in Baghdad and much of central and southern Iraq.

    "This visit hijacked the will of the people during days when the sons of Iraq write their destiny with blood and not ink," said the statement, which referred to Bush as "cursed," the "world's biggest evil" and a "criminal."

And the folks on our side over there, who want us to help Maliki fix things - where are they? Even in Vietnam back in the late sixties we had at least a few folks who wanted us there, to keep Uncle Ho away. In this thirty-sided civil war, not one side wants us there at all. And we're doing what, exactly? What is the mission now?

Joan Walsh notes we just look dazed and confused.

And she opens with Dan Bartlett's spin session -

    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.

Walsh says 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.

Yep, this diplomacy stuff is really hard. Bombing the crap out of folks is a lot easier. And 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," and as Walsh notes - "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 don't have a clue -

    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.

But maybe they'll get the hang of it. Trying new things is often embarrassing, until you get it right. Too bad about the dead people, though.

And of course, when it rains it pours. The Forgotten Man, Al Gore, has a few things to say in the magazine GQ, of all places. They ask him about the summer of 2001, and he says it is "almost too easy to say, 'I would have heeded the warnings.'"

What warnings? He offers a reminder -

    "It is inconceivable to me that Bush would read a warning as stark and as clear as the one he received on August 6th of 2001, and, according to some of the new histories, he turned to the briefer and said, 'Well, you've covered your ass.' And never called a follow up meeting. Never made an inquiry. Never asked a single question. To this day, I don't understand it. And, I think it's fair to say that he personally does in fact bear a measure of blame for not doing his job at a time when we really needed him to do his job."

So, is there something this crew is good at, besides the bombing stuff? Suggestions are welcome.

This item posted December 3, 2006

[Diplomacy 101]

Last updated Saturday, March 10, 2007, 10:30 pm Pacific Time

All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 - Alan M. Pavlik