The President Takes Charge on Iraq

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Get used to seeing the Four Seasons Amman. That's the site of Thursday's breakfast and news conference for President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and the U.S. networks are sending their news anchors there, ensuring massive coverage of an event that the White House has said is unlikely to produce any major announcement or development. But the White House, which is eager to show that the President is focused intently on Iraq, is welcoming the coverage.

On the second day of a four-day trip abroad, Bush said in Estonia on Tuesday morning that he plans to bring up the current spate of violence, which is so fierce that NBC News this week began using the term "civil war" when reporting on the conflict. "My question to him will be: What do we need to do to succeed?" Bush said at a news conference at the ornate Bank of Estonia, this Baltic nation's central bank. "What is the strategy for dealing with the sectarian violence? I will assure him that we will do everything in our power to make sure that they are able to establish a safe haven in Iraq. I will ask him what is required and what is your strategy to be a country which can govern itself and sustain itself."

Perhaps wisely, Bush is not offering himself as the Answer Man. Instead, his aim is to remind Iraqis that he wants to support them in solving their problems, not taking ownership of them. National Security Adviser Steve Hadley told reporters on Air Force One on the way to Estonia that Bush will be a good listener at the meeting. "We're not at the point where the President is going to be in a position to lay out a comprehensive plan at this point," Hadley said. Instead, Republican officials have said, the President plans to announce "a way forward" for Iraq in coming weeks based on input from Congress, an administration-wide review and the Baker commission.

Bush's aides have begun to chafe at the idea that Baker is needed as some sort of savior for Iraq. Hadley made it clear that the President hopes his Jordan foray will erase any such notion. "It's important, I think," Hadley said, "for the President to send the message to Prime Minister Maliki that while he is listening to all of these voices for ideas, is open to ideas, that in the end of the day to reassure Prime Minister Maliki that it is the President who will be crafting the way forward on Iraq and to reassure Prime Minister Maliki it will be done in a way that is cooperative with Iraq, rather than imposed on Iraq." In other words: Baker is a consultant, not calling the shots.

Asked about all the diplomatic and military crises facing the adminsitration after the drubbing Republicans took in the midterm congressional elections, Hadley said the President is "a very resilient guy" who has taken to heart his own message that the struggle against terrorism will be long. "Look," Hadley said, "it's a new Middle East that is emerging. And I think he sees it as a real opportunity, but also [its] challenges."

The first question at the news conference was about the term "civil war," which Bush continues to reject, saying there is a lot of "speculation" at a time when terrorists had vowed to foment sectarian violence. Hadley, while also refusing to accept the term "civil war," finally said: "It is what it is." It was a step toward bluntness at a time when good news for the President is in short supply. In Jordan, his team hopes, he'll once again show himself to be in command.