- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 15, 2006

Seizing the political opportunity created by the death of terror kingpin Abu Musab Zarqawi, President George W. Bush flew to Baghdad Tuesday.

Mr. Bush’s trip surprised Iraqis, coalition troops and the international community. It even surprised members of his staff.

Surprise has a tactical and operational virtue — it enhances the president’s security during a visit to a war zone. Surprise also provides drama, in this case media drama building on the drama of Zarqawi’s demise. This is smart, strategic politics from an administration that too often has failed to use the power of the presidency’s bully pulpit.

When he met with new Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Mr. Bush said he wanted to “look him in the eye.” But “eye to eye” with an American president brings the eyes and ears of a global media entourage. The Bush administration knows its successful counterterror strike has created a political and media opportunity to spotlight Iraq’s emerging political successes.

Mr. Bush entered Baghdad intending to boost Iraq’s new democratic government and personally encourage Mr. al-Maliki. In his remarks following his meeting, the word “Cabinet” thumped like the commanding beat of a bass drum. “The decisions you and your Cabinet make will be determinate as to whether or not a country succeeds that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself. I’m impressed by the Cabinet that you’ve assembled. You’ve assembled people from all parts of your country, representing the different religions, and the different histories and traditions. And yet the Cabinet here represents the entire Iraqi people, and I appreciate your commitment to representing the people of Iraq.”

Last week, Mr. al-Maliki completed his Cabinet when he appointed a new minister of defense, minister of interior and minister of national security.

Mr. Bush also restated the U.S. grand strategy of countering terror and tyranny with liberty: “Iraq is a part of the war on terror. Iraq is a central front on that war, and when Iraq succeeds in having a government of and by and for the people of Iraq, you will have dealt a serious blow to those who have a vision of darkness, who don’t believe in liberty, who are willing to kill the innocent in order to achieve a political objective.”

Mr. Bush directly addressed Mr. al-Maliki, but the remarks are also aimed at domestic and international critics of U.S. policy.

In a brief address to U.S. and coalition troops, Mr. Bush emphasized this moment’s historic challenge and potential import. “These are historic times,” the president said. “The mission that you’re accomplishing here in Iraq will go down in the history books as an incredibly important moment in the history of freedom and peace — an incredibly important moment of doing our duty to secure our homeland.” He also thanked coalition troops for giving the Iraqi people “a chance to go to the polls… three different times.”

Mr. Bush’s speeches in Baghdad echoed his May 27 speech to the 2006 graduating class at West Point. That speech indicated Mr. Bush intends to build a multi-administration policy framework to fight a long war of ideological and political attrition against Islamo-fascism. To do that, the new Iraqi government must survive and thrive.

Prime Minister al-Maliki understands that. In fact, Mr. al-Maliki has also seized the media moment. On Thursday, June 8, he published an essay in The Washington Post saying Iraq would build on the “momentum gained from the death of Abu Musab Zarqawi in order to defeat terrorism and sectarianism and to deliver on the Iraqi people’s hope of a united, stable and prosperous democracy.”

Mr. al-Maliki noted the key role of Iraq’s judiciary in “relentlessly pursuing the murderers and kidnappers who have blighted Iraqi society.” The ongoing trial of Saddam Hussein has tested Iraq’s nascent democratic judiciary, but it has also served as a point of pride among Iraqis.

In his article, Mr. al-Maliki admonished Iraq’s neighbors to “not interfere in its internal matters” — a not-so-veiled warning to Iran and Syria. Mr. al-Maliki’s comment isn’t nationalist polemics. Many Iraqis believe Syria and Iran have prolonged the insurgent violence by providing havens, financing, armed support and intelligence.

Mr. Bush’s critics will dismiss Baghdad as a stunt. They’re wrong — it’s a long overdue stroke of political and media brilliance.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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