Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The President in the Palace

At around 1600 yesterday, a colleague came into my work area and announced rather matter-of-factly that the President had arrived at the Palace and was on the BBC. I assumed she meant President Talabani, who I thought was included to participate in the Camp David summit via SVTC (secure video teleconference). An hour earlier, Ambassador Khalilzad had made a rare appearance in the back office, looking for a book of quotations he had given me a few weeks ago. He said something about needing a quote to introduce the President, which again, I assumed meant introducing Talabani to the gathering of Embassy staff scheduled for later that evening after the SVTC. (I selected some self-deprecating quotes from John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, as well as something a little more inspirational by John F. Kennedy).

It wasn't until I actually turned my computer to the BBC that I realized President Bush had made a surprise visit to Baghdad to meet Prime Minister Maliki. Apparently, I wasn't the only one kept in the dark, as Maliki himself was only informed that he'd be meeting the President in person rather than by SVTC minutes before President Bush arrived. Given Maliki's normally dour personality, the enthusiastic smile on his face when he greeted the President in the rotunda of Saddam's palace, was priceless.

At 1806, an email went out to the entire Embassy inviting everybody to come welcome the President in the coffee shop/internet cafe. Although he wouldn't arrive until 2030, the doors had already opened at 1800. My friend Clark (a fellow political appointee in the Administration) and I looked at each other, grabbed some reading material and our cameras, and ran down outside to where the line was forming.

Two laps around the Palace (somebody forgot to tell us no cell phones or weapons allowed) and an hour of waiting outside in 100 degree heat later, we finally got into the former ballroom where the President would be appearing. At 1900, the crowd was already about 20 rows deep, and I was frustrated that I was not going to get much of a view of the President. Fortunately, one of the Embassy's security personnel saw us, and informed us that there was a separate section to the side of the stage for the Ambassador's staff. So I was able to get a position along the front-row of the wooden barrier when the President addressed the Embassy staff.

And so we waited. And waited. And waited.

When I spent a weekend working on the '04 campaign and was able to attend a rally with the President, the campaign provided various musical acts to entertain the throng while waiting for the President to arrive. Okay, so what if all they were all country music acts, at least it was live music. Yesterday, however, the best they could do was to pump easy listening music into the hall, including a surreal, non-Led Zepplin acoustic version of "Stairway to Heaven." But as people continued to flow into the ballroom, there was a palpable electricity in the air.

Finally, at about 2045 a voice came over the loudspeaker introducing Ambassador Khalilzad and General Casey. I thought they were each going to deliver remarks while we waited for the President to come out, but fifteen seconds later, the announcer said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States," and the room ERUPTED IN APPLAUSE! The enthusiasm of the audience (probably 1,000 soldiers and diplomats) surprised me a little, given that probably 80% of the State Department are passionate Democrats. But as the President bounded on stage, even a senior State official who spent years actively undermining the Administration's Iraq policy through wildly inaccurate leaks to the press was elbowing people to try and get in a better position to take a picture of the President.

I thought the President's remarks were excellent, hitting all the right notes concerning strategic optimism mixed with tactical patience, while emphasizing how the outcome in Iraq is vital to both our interests and ideals. The speech was interrupted several times by boisterous applause, the loudest coming when he said,
"I also have a message to the Iraqi people that when America gives a commitment, America will keep its commitment."
and after a remark that wasn't even intended as an applause line ("We will continue to hunt down people like Mr. Zarqawi and bring them to justice.")

More importantly, perhaps, the President's sincerity regarding his appreciation for our work and his dedication to the mission came through clearly. He was so comfortable with the speech material that he only looked down at the podium to check his notes 2-3 times.

After he'd finished, he came right over to where I was standing, and shook my hand. (Yes, that's me in uniform in the picture above. And no, he didn't come to our side first because he recognized me). As the President worked his way through the rest of the crowd (and he seemed to take more time with this than usual), I was able to get Stephen Hadley's attention and catch up with him for a few moments.

In the end, this was a very successful visit from the standpoint of bolstering morale. This morning everybody at the Embassy was still exhausted from expending so much adrenaline and energy the night before.

Also, it is impossible to overstate the importance of the imagery of President Bush coming to Iraq to meet PM Maliki as opposed to hosting him in DC. With all the petty partisan sniping over the war, it is easy to forget that PM Maliki's government was democratically selected in an election with 75% voter turnout. The Iraqi government is as legitimate a representation of the will of the people as the American government, the British government, the French government, etc. The fact that President Bush come to Baghdad to pay tribute and pledge support to the Iraqi government sends a very strong signal to the Iraqi people (and throughout the Arab world) that Iraq is no longer a pariah in the international community. This sign of respect will go a long ways towards helping the national unity government establishing (not reestablishing) normalcy in Iraq.

History will be the ultimate judge of whether or not President Bush was correct in his judgment about the necessity of liberating Iraq. But the freedom and hope that the Iraqi people enjoy today, despite the continuing violence, would not have been possible without the President's almost-Churchillian steadfastness. In the face of a chorus of politicians who want to cut and run from Iraq, give other nations a veto over our ability to defend ourselves, or abdicate our role as a purveyor of freedom in the world, President Bush has stood firm in his vision and refused to take the easy way out just to improve his poll numbers.

That is the definition of leadership. And whatever history's verdict of this conflict may be, last night I was proud to shake his hand.