President Bush flew to Baghdad last week to size up Iraq's new leader. "I have come not only to thank you," he told American troops gathered in the Green Zone on Tuesday, "but to look Prime Minister Maliki in the eyes -- to determine whether or not he is as dedicated to a free Iraq as you are."
The presidential determination? "I believe he is," Bush said.
The snap assessment recalled Bush's famous assertion that he had sensed Vladimir Putin's soul and showed how Bush often appears more comfortable with his gut-level assessment of foreign leaders than the one he gets from briefing papers prepared by his intelligence agencies.
Much is riding on the president's judgment that Nouri al-Maliki, an untested leader who was little known by most senior U.S. policymakers until only two months ago, is capable of healing the divisions that have torn Iraqi society apart and providing the basic services that have been lacking since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Nothing less, perhaps, than the success of a presidency that has come to be defined by its enterprise in Iraq. Many U.S. officials and outside experts believe Maliki's new government represents America's last opportunity to stabilize Iraq after three years and withdraw 130,000 troops without leaving the country in chaos. And while even critics have agreed with the administration's assessment that the new government is off to an encouraging start, they worry that the cleavages in Iraqi society are beyond Maliki's capacity to bridge.
'Hard to imagine the consequences'
"The administration has made a major policy decision, to put all its chips on the Maliki government and then double down," said Richard Holbrooke, the former ambassador and Democratic foreign policy voice. "They are gambling that Maliki can succeed. It's a lot of baggage to put on the back of this man. But I deeply hope they succeed. Otherwise, it is hard to imagine the consequences."
Mithal Alousi, a parliament member who heads the secular Iraqi Nation Party, said it is too soon to tell if the Bush administration's public faith in the new prime minister will be rewarded. "Bush's visit showed how serious the American government is taking the political process and the Iraqi government," Alousi said.
But he questioned Maliki's stated intention to curb the power of militias that are a threat to public order. "I am not sure Maliki will do anything, even though he understands what a dangerous situation it is for militias to be in power," Alousi said. "He needs to understand he is prime minister for all of Iraqis and not just for Shiites. It is not clear he does."
Since Hussein was toppled in 2003, Bush has been looking unsuccessfully for a partner in Iraq -- a version of Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai. The first appointed prime minister, Ayad Allawi, was a tough-talking former Baathist who lacked a wide political constituency. His successor, Ibrahim al-Jafari, was elected interim prime minister by Iraqi legislators and hailed from the Islamic Shiite Dawa Party; while he had more popular support than Allawi, his elusive and indecisive manner eventually soured U.S. officials.
Maliki was Jafari's top aide, and his selection after elections for a permanent government in December came after months of backroom negotiations and Americans making it clear they would not accept Jafari as the permanent prime minister. A second-tier figure, he was barely known to senior U.S. officials in Washington, and his background of fierce loyalty to the Shiite cause and ties to Syria -- where he spent part of his years in exile -- was of concern. Some officials thought he would be more sectarian than he has proved.
Indeed, over the past two months, Maliki has impressed Washington, senior administration officials have said. He has established priorities: addressing the spotty electricity service, cracking down on sectarian militias, and trying to reconcile -- perhaps through amnesty for those who have not killed Iraqi civilians -- with elements of the Sunni insurgency.
The fact that Maliki has set priorities represents an improvement over his predecessor, Bush advisers say. They also point to Maliki's practical side: He sought out help from the U.S. government on how to set up his executive office. "He's a guy who thinks about how I can make this work," one senior official said.
Another senior official, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about the administration's internal assessments, said the White House also believes Maliki weathered significant political pressure in putting together his cabinet, and showed courage in going ahead with a recent visit to Basra, the increasingly violent southern city. "What he has done so far has been impressive," the senior official said.
Bush's firsthand feel
Bush's initial public reactions to Allawi and Jafari were also favorable, so in some respects his embrace of Maliki was not unexpected. Still, his several hours with Maliki in Baghdad seemed to solidify the bond Bush appears to crave with foreign counterparts. Traveling back to Washington on Air Force One, Bush told reporters that Maliki impressed him as "a no-nonsense guy that talks about priorities and how he's going to achieve those priorities. And that's comforting."
Expanding further at a Rose Garden news conference the next day, Bush said he went to Baghdad for a "firsthand feel" for the new government. "I understand leadership," Bush said. "You've got to have will. You've got to have desire to succeed. You've got to have a plan. And that's what I found in Iraq."
Whether that assessment is correct is the subject of debate. "The administration has no choice but to make the best of a possibly bad bargain in embracing this government," said James Dobbins of the Rand Corp., a former U.S. diplomat with extensive experience in strife-ridden countries. Maliki "said the right things -- at this stage, all we can hope for is that he is capable of following through on those commitments."
In Baghdad, Ahmed Ali Hussein, 34, who runs a fish restaurant along the Tigris River, said he was glad for Bush's visit and hopeful that U.S. support could curb violence. But he indicated wariness of the new Iraqi administration. "I do not recognize the government," he said. "They don't provide security or any of the necessary services like electricity and water."
Larry Diamond, who worked briefly for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq only to become a sharp critic of U.S. efforts, said Maliki appears to be a more realistic and politically savvy leader than his predecessors. But Diamond warned that the administration needs to capitalize quickly on recent good news, especially the death of insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, while not smothering Maliki in an embrace that makes it appear he is a U.S. puppet.
"There are not too many bullets left in our strategic arsenal," Diamond said. "If things were to turn direction again and head south [in Iraq], I don't know what would be left to turn things around."
Staff writer Joshua Partlow and special correspondent K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad contributed to this report.