On January 2, there was a strange piece of news buried in a back paragraph of a front-page New York Times story by the reportorial team of David E. Sanger, Michael R. Gordon, and John F. Burns. It had the wonderful headline, “Chaos Overran Iraq Plan in ’06, Bush Team Says” (as if they were just standing around, when the tsunami of chaos happened to hit…) and here was the passage:
“By May 2006, uneasy officials at the State Department and the National Security Council argued for a review of Iraq strategy. A meeting was convened at Camp David to consider those approaches, according to participants in the session, but Mr. Bush left early for a secret visit to Baghdad, where he reviewed the war plans with General Casey and Mr. Maliki, and met with the American pilot whose plane’s missiles killed Iraq’s Al Qaeda leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He returned to Washington in a buoyant mood.”
The italics are mine. And yes, the week after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi took an American missile in the teeth, the President made a visit to Baghdad, so quick and secret that even he hardly knew he was there. At the time, the American death toll had just hit 2,500. As a signal of trust, the new Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, was given a full five-minutes notice that he was about to have the President of the United States look him “in the eye.”
All of this was covered in our news, including a presidential meeting with cheering American troops and Bush’s comments on his return flight–that seem as up-to-date as last night’s surge speech–“I assured [the Iraqis] that we’ll keep our commitment. I also made it clear to them that in order for us to keep our commitment and be successful, they themselves have to do some hard things. They themselves have to set an agenda. They themselves have to get some things accomplished.” This is the sort of thing that, almost seven months later, gives you confidence that the “new way forward” is, in fact, the traditional way backward.
At a moment when the Iraqi situation was already visibly devolving into chaos, civil war, and catastrophe, that the President came home “buoyant” remains a striking detail, more so perhaps because of the fervor with which he described his own mood at the time. “I was,” he claimed, “inspired.”
But what was it that actually “inspired” him that week in June 2006? The death of Zarqawi certainly. The President, whose approach to his war is unnervingly personal, had built up Zarqawi’s importance not just to the American public but evidently in his own mind until the man stood practically co-equal with the ever-missing Osama bin Laden. So, it may not be surprising that he would have wanted to meet the pilot whose plane’s missiles killed Zarqawi–but it’s still news, all these months later, and revealing news at that.