A remarkable conversation with President Bush about Iraq, 2007

Larry T. writes:

I just read War Journal. My Five Years in Iraq, by Richard Engel.

Engel is an interesting guy. He moved to Cairo after graduating from Stanford university to learn Arabic and become a journalist. He lived and worked in Iraq before, during and after the 2003 invasion. His employer was NBC/MSNBC. The book seems fairly even-handed and Engel appears to be trying to be a real journalist instead of a partisan hack. This is an account of a meeting he had with President Bush in 2007. Although Engel does not think Bush is a moron, the neocon delusion is on full display.

Here is the section of the book that Larry T. sent:


…I was ready to give “the talk,” my 1,300-years-of-Iraqi-history- in-thirty-minutes. It’s a little speech I’ve used to bore countless NBC producers when they first arrive in Baghdad. I assumed I’d be doing it again, but for a much more influential audience.

At 3 P.m., I heard the president’s chopper come in for a landing, right on time. Johndroe brought me to a narrow hallway outside the Oval Office. Bush’s political advisor and deputy chief of staff Karl Rove was waiting there too. He didn’t say hello. President Bush opened the door to the Oval Office and extended his hand.

“Sir, I’m Richard Engel,” I said, and shook his hand. He had a good, firm grip.

“I know who you are,” he said with a broad smile. He was wearing a suit. I wasn’t. I was carrying a notebook like a schoolboy who’d gotten lost on a White House tour. I was thirty-three years old. My parents would have been proud of their dyslexic son, who they feared would end up pumping gas for a living.

President Bush showed me into the Oval Office and over to three chairs opposite the presidential desk. A photographer snapped pictures as we took our seats. There were about a dozen other men in the room. The only person who introduced himself was Dan Bartlett, presidential counselor, director of strategic communications, and speechwriter.

The others sat on couches flanking the chairs where I sat with the president and didn’t say a word.

Bush was affable and friendly. He started the conversation.

“So I think some journalists have spent time analyzing the situation. I met John Burns from The New York Times. I thought he had spent a lot of time thinking, reflecting on the situation.”

I told him I respected John’s work. John and I were together in the Palestine hotel during the invasion. We were among a hand

of reporters who’d stuck it out. I told the president I’ve always tried to look at stories from an “on the ground” perspective.

“If I didn’t think much of your work, you wouldn’t be here,” Bush said. He was very matter-of-fact. I liked it. He was easy to like.

Bush instantly seemed smarter than he appeared on television.

He didn’t have the stammer or contorted facial expressions I’d seen countless times on TV, as if he were straining with his entire body to excavate the right words from a deep recess in his brain. In person, he was relaxed and cool, leaning back in his chair, legs crossed at his knees. He wasn’t exactly poetic, but spoke in decisive, short, muscular sentences with engaging confidence. We were in his element. He had huge home court advantage.

Bush’s small talk was direct, even somewhat rude. It was the opposite of the Arab style, where you sit, drink tea, smoke cigarettes, and talk around any sensitive issues for at least ten minutes until you reach a degree of comfort with each other’s physical presence. Bush’s small talk was the American original “let me get to know you in one minute or less so I know I’m not wasting my time.” He shot rapid-fire, blunt questions.

“Where you from?”

“New York.”

“You speak Arabic?”


“How long have you been over there?”

I told him I had moved to Cairo after graduating from Stanford University with $2,000 in my pocket. I explained how I learned Arabic while living in poor neighborhoods surrounded by the Muslim Brotherhood and working as a freelance print reporter. My first big story I said, was the 1997 terrorist attack in Luxor, Egypt, where Islamic fundamentalists butchered fifty-eight tourists, most of them from Japan, Switzerland, and Germany, while they were visiting the Temple of the Pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut. Bush nodded as I spoke.

“So you speak Arabic, live in the Middle East. Are you Jewish?” he asked.

I was somewhat taken aback by the question. It is not something I publicize living in the Middle East, especially with some of the company I have to keep. But I wasn’t going to lie to him. It’s also a relevant, if impertinent question. How and why would a Jewish kid from New York learn Arabic and live and work with Muslim fundamentalists in the Middle East for more than a decade? I’d want to know.


“Half,” I said. “My father is Jewish. My mother is not, but in the region they would consider that not to be Jewish.” Judaism is passed through the mother’s side.

“I get it,” he said, and shifted in his chair. Small talk was evidently over.

“So what do you think?” he asked.

“I think this government does not have the same vision as you do,” I said. I told him I thought Prime Minister Maliki was part of the problem. I told the president I thought he was overemphasizing the success of the elections, and that many Iraqis believed the “purple-finger moment” was a disaster for the country. They liked voting, but the wrong people won.

“Sistani, he’s a good guy,” Bush said. He seemed to jump around from topic to topic. I do the same thing. I wondered if he was dyslexic or had attention deficit disorder like me.

“But he’s old,” I said about Sistani, who was seventy-seven at the time. Sistani has long been the greatest stabilizer among the Shiites. He could easily have rejected the American presence in Iraq after the 2003 invasion and made the occupation impossible. That’s what happened to British forces after World War 1. Once the Shiite clergy turned on them, British troops didn’t have a chance. Instead, Ayatollah Sistani accepted the process and the American invasion as a necessary step to get rid of Saddam, and then modified the political process to suit the Shiite community. Sistani kept the vast majority of Shiites in line. But Sistani was the wizard behind the curtain. He never spoke or appeared in public. He remained publicly silent, endorsing the broad strokes, while Sadr’s Mahdi Army, Iran, and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim’s Badr Brigade were taking over.

I told the president that Sadr and Hakim had totally different goals, and that there was another game under way in Iraq that had nothing to do with his vision for a unified federal democratic Iraq that is at peace with its neighbors and is a U.S. ally in the war on terrorism. Bush leaned in, his curiosity visibly piqued. He wanted to know more about Sadr and Hakim. He wanted details. He was much more in touch with the inner workings of Iraqi politics than I expected. He knew all the players, Maliki, Hakim, Allawi, jaafari, and Sadr. I thought he’d delegated the political ins and outs to Iraq policy experts. Clearly, he hadn’t.

“Sadr wants to be a nationalist leader along the lines of [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah. He wants to unite all Iraqis,” I said. “He wants to play a big role in Iraq. He wants to keep Iraq together so Shiites can run the whole country. Hakim is focused on the south. He wants to rule a small, oil-rich ministate allied with Iran.”

“Well, that’s not what he told me,” Bush said with a laugh. Hakim had just visited the White House.

“I doubt he would,” I said.

“Hakim sat right where you’re sitting,” Bush said. “I called him your excellence, no, your emine-”

He couldn’t find the word.

“Your eminence?” I asked.

“That’s it.”

I told him Hakim had a reputation in Iraq as a liar. I’d interviewed him several times. He was terrible, always speaking in platitudes and slogans, never giving a straight answer. You couldn’t have a conversation with him. When I asked Hakim a question, any question, he’d reflect in silence and eventually respond with a statement that sounded rehearsed and disingenuous.

I was laying it all out, insulting the men the president was counting on to democratize Iraq. Hakim, Sadr, Maliki and his aides weren’t up to it, or interested. Maliki had been part of the Dawa party’s secret “military planning wing” while living in Iran and Syria. Hakim was a member of the Badr Brigade. Sadr ran a death squad. Even Allawi’s government, the most secular and pro-American of them all, was linked to dozens of corruption investigations.

But I hadn’t come to the White House to tear apart the Iraqi politicians and the missteps of the Americans who believed them. I wanted information from Bush. What was his plan for the surge, and beyond?

The surge was a completely new strategy. It not only called for thirty thousand more troops, but envisioned a new approach to stabilizing Iraq. It was to be led by General David Petraeus, whom I’d first met in 2003 when he commanded the 1st Airborne Division in Mosul. Petraeus, a West Point graduate who’d also earned a Ph.D. in international affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton, wanted to push U.S. forces off the big Wal-Mart FOBS, and get them living in Baghdad and other hostile areas on small combat outposts. His plan was Death to the Fobits*. Petraeus wanted to set up hundreds of tiny, lilly pad bases across Iraq where U.S. and Iraqi troops would live together, doing joint patrols and training. The model, a commander told me, was like “oil on paper.” Each little base would be like a drop of oil.’

“When you drip oil on a piece of paper, the spots spread out and eventually connect into each other and cover the entire area. That’s the plan for Iraq,” the commander had said. To accomplish it, Petraeus needed more men. The thirty thousand extra troops the president had just committed were barely enough for the new strategy.

“Obviously you know the new security plan, it’s your plan, but what I want to know is what’s next?” I asked the president. “I think it will buy some calm, but then what?” Then I told the president what I’d wanted to say to him since the day I’d watched Saddam’s statue fall in Baghdad on April 9, 2003. “Sir, you need to become a diplomat. Since you have been in office, you have focused on war. I think now you need to have a peace process and put the region back together,” I said. “You have been a war president. You need to become a diplomat.”

I told him I thought America needed a major diplomatic initiative on the scale of the historic negotiations that led to the treaties at the end of World War I that defined the modern Middle East. I told him I believed it was possible, and necessary, to try to rebuild the region, badly cobbled together after that war and then torn apart by the war in Iraq. The president had a war plan, but never a plan for peace. Bush needed to find one.

In my opinion, I told the president, the time to have reached a peace deal was right after the invasion. In the spring of 2003, the U.S. military destroyed Saddam Hussein’s armed forces in twenty-one days. It sent an unmistakable message to our friends and enemies. Iran watched the U.S. military eliminate, with relative ease, the same army it had slammed its head against for a decade in the 198os. Saddam’s army killed a half million Iranians. We had eliminated the same army in less than a month and lost only 150 troops. Iran now had this devastatingly powerful force, the most technologically advanced in the history of warfare, on its border. After the invasion, we had Iran’s attention. Iran was ready to talk and would have been flexible.

Syria had also watched U.S. troops flatten Iraq’s army, roll up on its border, and turn the gun turrets toward Damascus. Syria was all ears too. But instead of taking the hard-fought opportunity, our message to Iran and Syria was “Shut up or you are next.” I felt it was both arrogant and monumentally stupid. Not surprisingly, Syria and Iran sent their intelligence agents into Iraq to make U.S. troops stumble and stay bogged down in Mesopotamia. Keep Washington fighting in Iraq so they will leave us alone. If Iraqi troops were massing in Mexico and the U.S. military assessed that it couldn’t defeat them, I imagine we’d also do everything in our power to keep them busy south of the border.

I told the president I thought he still had some time to negotiate and put the region he’d pulled apart back together, but that the price would be much higher. He would have been negotiating from a position of strength in 2003. Now in 2007, he was trying to dig himself out of the Iraq hole. in 2003, the United States could have dictated terms to Iran and Syria. Now we needed favors.

Bush didn’t flinch. He didn’t seem upset that I was presumptuous enough to suggest that he radically change course, or that I was effectively telling him that he didn’t have a clue how to manage the aftermath of the Iraq war. But he did seem convinced that diplomatic conferences would be a waste of time. “We can have meetings. Talking is not the problem. We can talk to Iran,” he said. “But Iran wants nuclear weapons and I’m not going to let that happen. Not on my watch. We tried to have dialogue with Syria, right after the war, didn’t get much.”

“You talked with them?” I asked.

“[Syrian President Bashar] Asad didn’t deliver. We’d ask for ten al-Qaeda guys. They’d give us one.”

I wasn’t impressed. As far as I was concerned, a slow start with Syria was a positive development. The president said Damascus was handing over al-Qaeda suspects. Why not build on that? Why stop just because you are not happy with the pace of the cooperation? Of course they are going to lie, hide their intentions, and deliberately attempt to be confusing. It’s part of negotiations in the Arab world. The president had obviously never bought any carpets in Damascus. It’s a pain in the ass, but worth it.

“So you are a three-state guy?” he asked.

“No, I’m a federal guy. Three federal states with a weak central government that distributes resources and protects the borders.”

“Me too.”

“What I really am is a grand-bargain guy. I’m up for a big Treaty of Paris deal.”

“It’s too much. Too complicated. Too broad.”

He said his mission was for Condi to keep up shuttle diplomacy, Petraeus to stabilize Iraq and contain Iran, maintain troops in Iraq, and support moderates in the region like Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora. It seemed like it would take a long time. The status quo never lasts that long. It’s a Rumsfeldian known unknown.

“I don’t think you are going to have a chance to wait it out,” I said. “I think there will be another 9/11-type attack and it will probably be carried out by an Iraqi.”

“We are all very worried about that.”

I’m not sure if he meant that he was worried about another massive terrorist attack, or that it would be carried out by a disgruntled Iraqi.

“You know many people in the region liked the Baker-Hamilton report?” I asked. I was trying to say, I’m not alone. Many academics and newspaper editors I’d spoken to in the region were calling for sweeping negotiations, a grand Middle East swap meet, the Grand Bargain. What did we have to lose? We had no peace in Iraq, and no peace process. Without a peace process there can be only more war.

“I want to get to Baker-Hamilton, we’re just not there yet,” Bush said. “I didn’t agree with pulling back to bases. It didn’t make sense to me.”

I agreed with him on that. What was the point to having troops in a country and not doing anything with them? As long as the soldiers were in Iraq, they had an obligation to make the country safer. The troops wouldn’t like being ordered to hide on the FOBS and listen to the screams outside. They would feel like cowards. It would have destroyed their morale. Troops want to fight when they are deployed in a war zone. That’s what soldiers do.

The president told me the surge would lead to negotiations and bring him to Baker-Hamilton. It sounded good. If the surge brought calm, and he followed it up with a major diplomatic push, he might, just maybe, be able to pull himself out of this mess. But I wanted proof. If he wanted peace and negotiations, why wasn’t he already working for it?

“I think the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is your way out of this thing,” I said.

“Condi is having talks with [Palestinian president Mahmoudl Abbas and [Israeli prime minister Ehud] Olmert. But you can’t rush it. It can’t be done on our timetable. Look what happened last time when everything was rushed,” Bush said.

He was talking about the July 2000 Camp David peace talks under President Bill Clinton when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak came close to reaching a final status peace agreement. After it failed, the peace process died. Critics said Bush then ignored the issue. I asked him why. “I didn’t trust Arafat,” Bush said.

“Yes, it was clear you didn’t want to deal with him.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“But now you have Hamas in power.”

Hamas won the Palestinian general elections in January 2oo6, in part because there was no progress with peace talks. Whenever there was progress, Arafat’s more moderate Fatah party had the upper hand. After the talks failed, Hamas, a militant offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, offered itself as the Islamic alternative. Islamic resistance, Hamas promised, was the solution.

“I think the election of Hamas was a good thing,” Bush said. I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly.

“It was, why?” The Israeli and U.S. governments classify Hamas as a terrorist group. How could a U.S. president, especially Bush, consider the election of a declared enemy to be a good thing?

“It proved to Abbas he was failing,” Bush explained. “I told Abbas, ‘You lost the election because you aren’t providing for your people, jobs, education, what people want.’ Now they know they have to compete.”

it seemed to be a remarkably idealistic way of looking at world politics. Bush was saying democracy was worth almost any cost, even the election of Hamas in the backyard of a U.S. ally and in one of the most volatile regions in the world. He was saying Hamas’s election was a good thing because, in the long run, it would teach Abbas and other moderates the lessons of democracy and good governance.

“But in the Middle East, the Islamic parties have faith and Islam,” I argued. “They have the pulpit. It’s an unfair advantage in elections. ”

“In Egypt, [President Hosni] Mubarak has the pulpit, the TV,” he said. It wasn’t convincing. In Egypt, the president does control the media, which gives him an advantage over political rivals. But the increasingly irrelevant and little-watched state television can’t compete with the power of mosques and preachers on every street corner who promise salvation and eternal paradise. The Muslim Brotherhood, by far the most powerful political organization in Egypt, has a slogan that is simple and all-encompassing, “Islam Is the Solution.” It’s the party’s universal answer to any question or political grievance.

Egyptian politicians are corrupt.

Islam is the solution.

There are no jobs in Cairo.

Islam is the solution.

Israel is on our border.

Islam is the solution.

Dirty water from the Nile is making my child sick.

Islam is the solution.

Islam trumps Mubarak TV any day of the week.

I asked the president if he was going to restart the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Arafat had been dead for more than two years. If he was the problem, the problem was gone.

“The problem is Olmert. This is a man who came to power on a promise that he was going to unilaterally define a Palestinian state. You can’t pressure democracies,” Bush said.

“Why? Because they fall apart?”

“Yeah. I was the first president to call for Palestine. I think I deserve some credit for that. [Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon was here and we talked about the withdrawal from Gaza and he said the only two people who support it are in this room.”

“Do you think the Saudis will develop a nuclear weapon?” I asked. I was also jumping back and forth. We had a good rhythm together. It felt like a real conversation. The meeting was sup- posed to have lasted fifteen minutes. We were forty-five minutes into it.

“Not as long as we are in Iraq,” he said. “The Arab states, they want us to stay.”

“Many people in the region believe you have helped the Shiites by bringing them to power in Iraq and that they are being used to help Iran,” I said. Iraqi Sunnis, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia all worried, with reason, about Iran’s expansion after the collapse of Iraq.

“Me? I’m Iran’s worst nightmare,” Bush said. He seemed genuinely surprised that anyone could think he was helping Iran.

“Would you attack Iran?” I asked.

“[Leading Israeli politician and former Soviet dissident Natan] Sharansky told me, if a man is holding a gun and pointing it at you, you don’t help him. Don’t hold up his gun,” Bush said, pantomiming someone holding up a shotgun.

Sharansky’s book The Case for Democracy. The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror argued that freedom leads to stability. The book made a tremendous impact on the Bush administration.

“You’d make [Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad a hero if you attacked, even with a few missiles, you know that?” I asked.

“Yes, but you can’t rule anything out. As a president I can’t rule out any option,” Bush said, and sat back in his chair. At that moment I was convinced that if intelligence reports indicated that Iran was close to developing a nuclear weapon, he’d pull the trigger and launch an attack.

“There are a lot of people in Iran who are pro-American, who don’t support Ahmadinejad,” Bush explained. “We have a lot of supporters in Iran.”

Again, he was stressing the value of democracy, as if it were a panacea for the world’s ills. it struck me as similar to the Muslim Brotherhood’s universalistic argument that “Islam Is the Solution.” For Bush the mantra was “Democracy Is the Solution.”

The Palestinian authority has collapsed.

Democracy is the solution.

Iran is belligerent.

Democracy is the solution.

Iraq is in chaos.

Democracy is the solution.

“Maliki has always been scared that you are going to remove him, or that there will be a coup,” I said.

“I guess that’s good that he’s worried. If he’s not getting it done, someone else will.”

In public Bush had called Maliki “the right man for Iraq.” In private, he didn’t seem to have the same confidence.

I told him about a conversation I’d had with Iraq’s national security advisor, Moufaq al-Rubaie. Along with the U. S. troop surge, the Iraqis were starting their own offensive in Baghdad. “Iraqis are calling their new Baghdad security plan ‘Operation Law Enforcement. ‘The name is critical,” I said. “It is not ‘Operation Dismantle Militias’ or anything like that. They have no intention of dismantling them. Rubaie told me his plan is to incorporate the militias into the security services.”

“Who told you that? That’s not my understanding.” Bush seemed annoyed for the first time.

“You are creating a leaner, meaner Mahdi Army. The plan of the Mahdi Army is to stop fighting and lay low. They know if they hide, they won’t be chased down. Rubaie made it clear the government would not confront the militia head on, but ‘prune it’ by arresting or killing the really radical elements that the Mahdi Army can’t control anyway. The plan is to cut away the deadwood, then incorporate the militia into the security services. They are using you, Mr. President, to make the militia leaner and stronger and become Hezbollah.

” I think they have a very different vision than you do. So what is your vision?” I asked again.

“Petraeus is now over there with his new plan in Iraq, which I think is going to work.”

“Are you going to make Casey the fall guy?”

“No, not me. I wouldn’t do that, and I told him that.”

“Okay, so the new Baghdad security plan, then what?”

“Why are you so pessimistic? You make it sound impossible.”

“I don’t get to meet you often. This is the first time and I don’t know if I will meet with you again, so I want to be frank with you, otherwise I’d be wasting your time.”

“Okay,” he said, and smiled. “I know people are saying we should have left things the way they were, but I changed after 9/11. I had to act. I don’t care if it created more enemies. I had to act.”

I don’t know if he meant he’d created more political enemies, or real enemies. I certainly had the impression he was talking real enemies, the kind who shoot and bomb you. I wondered how a president could say he didn’t care if his defense strategy created more enemies. It didn’t make sense to me; neither did his argument about the intrinsic value of democracy in the Middle East.

“In the Middle East, democracy is a tool, especially among Shiites,” I said. “They are not egalitarians. In the United States, democracy is based on a belief that if you get a group of average people together, they will collectively come up with a just solution. There is a belief that all people are equal. For religious Shiites in Iraq it is different. There is an ayatollah who is inspired by God, and people who surrender their decision-making authority to him. It is not democracy. The elections are a tool to obtain power. If you asked them to jump up and down on one foot for ten minutes and promised that it would give them power, they would have done it, but I don’t think it makes them great democrats. I really think you need to get the peace process with the Israelis and Palestinians moving.”

“Condi goes back and forth.”

“Mr. President, you need to get involved. it’s your vision. You’re the president. It has to be you. Condi doesn’t have the juice. You’re the one in charge. You’re the one they want to deal with.”

“Maybe we should have some more meetings, but they are too broad. Nothing will get done.”

“I understand they can be too broad, too much on the agenda, too much to handle. So do it one-on-one. But you’ve got to do it.”

I asked him how long the United States would stay in Iraq.

“We’re not leaving Iraq for a long time. This is the great struggle of our times. This is the great war of our times. It is going to take forty years.”

“Forty years?”

Bush said in forty years the world would know if the war on terrorism, and conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, had reduced extremism, helped moderates, and promoted democracy.

“I’m sort of jealous,” he told me, suddenly turning the conversation personal again. “I’m envious of what you’ve been doing.” He said he liked that I was able to travel and explore, the adventurous nature of it. I thought, Here was a man who hadn’t traveled much before he was president and had suddenly woken up to the world and wanted to explore and change it.

“Are you some sort of thrill seeker?” he asked.

“No, no thrill seeker. I don’t like driving fast or bung jumping. I just think this is important.”

“It is. You ever been to Iran?” he asked me.

“I haven’t.”

“Yes, I know, We would have noticed.”

“Yes, but not even in my somewhat wayward youth,” he joked, and looked down at his watch. It was time to wrap it up. We’d been together for an hour and a half without pausing for a second. Bush’s detractors say he doesn’t have an attention span. He does.

“Be careful out there. Keep safe,” he said.

I thanked the president for his time, picked up my unused notebook, and left. My mind was swirling with thoughts as I took a taxi to the airport to fly back to New York. Could this work? I wondered. Could we all look back in forty years and think perhaps President Bush was on to something? He was clearly counting on it and wanted to be vindicated by history. My impression was that Bush thought of himself as a visionary, a bold statesman like Winston Churchill, and that he believed passionately that democracy and personal freedom led to stability. I feared he wanted to be a martyr for democracy; that he believed he was a victim, sacrificing himself for the cause at the expense of popularity. He seemed willing to go down fighting, hoping that history would prove him right. It seemed to me that he was not, as many had accused, a front man for Dick Cheney’s policies. This was his policy. He was the skipper. We were just passengers. The president had done a lot of reading. Since he’d invaded Iraq, he’d earned two Ph.D.s worth of information about the country and the Middle East. He’d met all the players and had access to information that only a president could have. But he still had no idea how to deal with Arabs.

[end of excerpt of Engel book.]

Larry T. adds:

*”Fobits” are the Americans in charge in Iraq, who spend most of their time on military bases and seldom go “beyond the wire.” Engel says Fobits run the war.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at May 16, 2009 12:31 AM | Send

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