At least for a day, competence problems had been banished. The break came when the President needed it most as the daily parade of horribles from Iraq was eroding confidence in his handling of the war, even among conservatives. Republicans on Capitol Hill had fretted that Bush would stick stubbornly to a massive U.S. presence while Iraq burned, perhaps costing the party its majority in Congress. GOP strategists planning fall campaigns are facing polling showing that Iraq was the only issue that really mattered, and so were desperate for signs that the invasion had not been a horrible miscalculation. So now the White House can ask its supporters to take a deep breath and listen anew to the President's claims of progress at a time when no one can call them hollow.
The White House responded nimbly, putting the President on television immediately and releasing an unusually detailed account of how he learned the news. Now, Bush's team hopes to capitalize by playing up a previously scheduled retreat on Iraq at Camp David, to be held early next week. U.S. officials and their counterparts in the new Iraqi government will be joined electronically to discuss how the White House can help, and how much responsibility it can cede back to the home team.
"Zarqawi is dead," President Bush said this morning, "but the difficult and necessary mission in Iraq continues. We can expect the terrorists and insurgents to carry on without him. We can expect the sectarian violence to continue. Yet the ideology of terror has lost one of its most visible and aggressive leaders." The President could afford to be muted because the magnitude of the victory was obvious. "We thought we were never going to catch a break," said a relieved Presidential adviser.
The news broke to the public at 3:37 a.m. Washington time, with the first "flash" from The Associated Press since the death of Pope John Paul II in April 2005. But the President had learned of it 11 hours earlier, in an Oval Office meeting with a few top aides. White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley told Bush that "there had been a strike in Baquba and they thought that they had gotten al-Zarqawi." Snow said the President responded with understatement: "That would be a good thing." Bush appeared relieved and pleased, and was more inquisitive than jubilant, Snow reported.
At 6:45 a.m., the President called British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who congratulated his beleaguered counterpart across the Atlantic. Then Bush talked to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for about 25 minutes, and stepped into the Rose Garden. Senior aides, including Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, Counselor Michael Gerson and Communications Director Nicolle Devenish, had been waiting with the press, and Vice President Cheney followed Bush out of the Oval Office and stood far offstage.
Later, Snow used a televised briefing to walk a cautious line of taking credit while preparing the public for future trials. "We saw scenes of celebration in Iraq. Does this mean that happy days are here again? Of course not," he said. But Snow suggested that Zarqawi's death was "a blow to the morale of the other side" and might send a helpful message within Iraq. "We have been crushing the opposition," he said, "but what happens is, the opposition's been controlling the airwaves with scattered, fragmentary acts of violence. In this war, we can win on the ground every day, but as long as terrorists continue to have isolated acts of violence that capture attention and in some cases capture fears, they win."
One top Mideast analyst, Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center of Strategic and International Studies, said in a report this morning that the death was a clear "political and propaganda victory" for the U.S. and Iraqi governments. But he added that its lasting importance depends on two things: "the overall resilience of the insurgency in Iraq, and how well the new Iraqi government can follow up with actions that a build a national consensus and defeat and undermine all the elements of the insurgency."
On Monday and Tuesday, Bush will meet at Camp David with national security officials, Cabinet members and outside experts with Iraqis beamed in by teleconference to discuss ways for U.S. officials to work with the counterparts in the new Iraqi government. Snow emphasized the discussions will be broader than just the military, including economic development, and Bush described the agenda as "how to best deploy America's resources in Iraq and achieve our shared goal of an Iraq that can govern itself, defend itself and sustain itself." Since last July 4, Bush has been saying that "as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." The President's aides hope that the 500-pound bombs dropped on Zarqawi have increased the chance that he might finally be able to carry out that pledge.