President Bush probably had a different atmosphere in mind when he invited Iraq's first democratically elected prime minister since Saddam Hussein's fall, Nouri al-Maliki, for a White House visit.
But Mr. Maliki Tuesday returned the favor of Mr. Bush's surprise trip to Baghdad six weeks ago at a time of deepening crisis in the Middle East, with the president's vision of a region transformed by democracy under intensifying fire.
Not only does Iraq teeter closer to full-scale civil war since Maliki assumed his office in May, but the crisis in Lebanon is adding to and in many ways overshadowing the difficulties in Iraq. With Israel battling a US-listed terror group in Lebanon – but one enthusiastically elected to representative government by Lebanon's Shiites – America's Middle East policy is at its most difficult moment of the Bush presidency.
"When the Maliki trip was planned, both sides hoped it would be a more upbeat event, with improving rather than deteriorating conditions in Iraq," says James Dobbins, a former White House envoy for international crises and now director of international security studies at the RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va. "Instead, more Iraqis are dying every day in sectarian violence – but even that has been relegated to the B section of the newspaper by even more spectacular developments elsewhere in the Middle East."
The Iraqi prime minister's visit comes in a week of intense Middle East diplomacy, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the region and in Europe pressing for a multipronged security plan for the Israeli-Lebanese border. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is scheduled to consult with Bush at the White House Friday on the Middle East.
Following their White House meeting Tuesday morning, both Bush and Maliki said more US and Iraqi security forces will be transferred over the coming weeks from other regions to Baghdad – the area now seen as ground zero in the battle to stabilize the country.
Bush acknowledged that conditions in Baghdad are "still terrible," and said the plan to beef up both US and Iraqi security forces is based on recommendations of the US military command on the ground.
Noting the Iraqi people's perseverance in the face of terrible violence, Bush said, "America is proud to be allied with such people." More broadly, he said that Iraq and Lebanon, as well as the Palestinians, are all cases of "new democracies emerging, and the terrorists are trying to stop that."
Maliki came to the White House an unlikely hero. He was exiled in Syria and Iran during the Hussein regime and opposed the US invasion of Iraq. More recently, he has been critical of Israel in its battle with Hizbullah, and spoke of his "frank" discussion of Lebanon with Bush. He differs with Bush on the sequence for a solution in Lebanon, saying a cease-fire should come first, followed by long-term solutions.
Maliki is also set to address a joint session of Congress Wednesday, and to join Bush for lunch with military families at Fort Belvoir, Va.
Wednesday's events underscore what many observers see as the primary purpose of the Maliki visit: to shore up flagging congressional and public support for the Iraq project. Indeed, with a growing number of US lawmakers – including Republicans – expressing doubts about Iraq, the White House is seen to fear not so much the insurgency in Iraq as the insurgency in Washington.
The mounting congressional pessimism follows recent trips by representatives to Iraq, as well as growing alarm among Washington analysts about Iraq's evolution.
Citing Iraq's rising civilian death toll from sectarian violence, "soft" ethnic cleansing in Baghdad's religiously mixed neighborhoods, unemployment, rising corruption, and disappointing progress among security forces, former Pentagon official Anthony Cordesman says, "These trends strongly argue that the Iraqi government and US are now losing, not winning."
In a recent paper on Iraq, Mr. Cordesman, a Middle East specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says he does not believe "the struggle is lost." But he cautions that failure of the new government to advance on political compromise and to deliver beyond good intentions on security "are anything but reassuring."
The revised security strategy that Bush and Maliki discussed – which is to include an increased number of US troops on the ground in Baghdad – comes after a plan for calming the Iraqi capital that Maliki unveiled amid much fanfare early in his tenure. But nearly two months later that plan – which included broad curfews and more police on the streets – is fully discredited, with civilian killings and mass kidnappings having increased.
Any stabilization in Iraq must also come alongside continued political reforms, analysts say, although Maliki is not seen to be aggressively pursuing needed changes.
Meeting in London with Mr. Blair before continuing to Washington, Maliki did say Iraq would not slip into civil war because "political leaders are working to put an end to" what he called a "sectarian issue."
But the government has yet to move on the constitutional reforms that were promised to the country's Sunni population and leadership in order to bring them on board in December elections.
Moreover, the same analysts and even some US officials now say such reforms may simply be too difficult to debate and negotiate in the current climate.
In the days since the crisis erupted between Israel and Hizbullah in Lebanon, Maliki has repeated a demand for a cease-fire, emphasizing that Iraq has "always stood by" its Arab neighbors. Some kind of reciprocal solidarity will be necessary if Iraq is to be stabilized, some analysts say, adding that the US will have to encourage such involvement.
"The US needs to engage the neighboring states in stabilizing Iraq. It's not going to happen without that," says Mr. Dobbins of the RAND Corp. But he says such an effort will have to include Syria and Iran, two countries the US has so far rebuffed in its Iraq diplomacy.
Still, some efforts are being made with other Arab and neighboring countries. The Arab League is holding sessions in Cairo with representatives of Iraq's main sectarian groups to try to forge plans for reducing the escalating violence. Those meetings are in anticipation of a reconciliation conference the Arab League will hold in Baghdad next month.
But Dobbins says the US will have to accept that the solutions both the Iraqis and neighboring countries come up with may look less like what the administration had envisioned.
"At one point, Iraq was seen as providing some kind of democratic model for the region," he says, "but if anything, it's become a countermodel – even among the pro-democracy forces in a place like Iran."