The unannounced visit of President Bush to Baghdad yesterday is the visible signal that the White House believes a turning point has been reached in Iraq. This would be good news not just for the Iraqis but for the Bush administration as well, which could definitely use some positive coverage of the war. In an election year, Iraqi and American politics have become inextricably intertwined.
Having called a brainstorming meeting at Camp David with his cabinet and several outside military experts and historians, Mr. Bush proceeded to sneak out after dinner on Monday night by helicopter, and later took off for Baghdad on Air Force One with a group of highly surprised pool reporters in tow.
Not even Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki had been informed. It is for very good reasons that security around the president is this tight, but this clearly is a moment to be savored in a long struggle for Iraq's future, and Mr. Bush wanted to mark it with his presence.
There is a good deal to be said for cautious optimism about the situation in Iraq at this time. The death of terrorist mastermind Abu Musab Zarqawi, killed in a U.S. bombing raid on June 8, may not put an end to the insurgency in the short term, but it does remove one of its most vicious masterminds, and will surely cause morale among insurgents to plummet.
As House Majority Leader John Boehner aptly put it, "I think Zarqawi's death -- or as I like to say, taking the head off the snake -- will, in fact, help us." Zarqawi was responsible for terrorist bombings against American targets as well as the murder of fellow Muslims in great numbers, during religious ceremonies at that. He personally beheaded several Westerners during the days of the horrendous terror campaign in 2005 and killed 60 Jordanians, his own countrymen.
Cruelty and inhumanity do not win you popular support, and Zarqawi's demise can only be seen as giving a moral boost to U.S. policy and to the new Iraqi government. In tracking the terrorist down, the government of Jordan was reportedly highly instrumental and helpful.
Equally importantly, the elimination of Zarqawi coincides with the news that the Iraqi government finally has managed to fill the power ministries -- Defense and Interior. These pieces were missing in the initial announcement of the new government, formed after five long months of negotiations, and gave some cause to doubt that it could remain stable.
The key to Iraq's future now lies in the hands of the al-Maliki government, which needs to demonstrate that it will be able to take charge of Iraq's security situation down the road. Part of this important test will be the ongoing sweep of insurgents that has built on information derived from Zarqawi's hiding place as well as an anti-insurgent offensive in Baghdad planned to start today.
Meanwhile, back on the farm -- that is, Capitol Hill -- Iraq will dominate the agenda. In the Senate, the fiscal 2007 Defense Authorization Bill is up for debate and contains, among other things, an amendment by Sen. John Kerry advocating the withdrawal of all combat troops from Iraq by the end of this year. It's the second time the senator from Massachusetts has attempted to get this language adopted, hoping to capitalize on American weariness with the war.
Tomorrow, House Republicans are planning the first full-fledged debate on Iraq since the war started, hoping that recent events will rekindle American support for the president's policy in preparation for the November midterm elections. A June 7 Associated Press poll found that 59 percent of Americans said that it was a mistake to go to war in Iraq.
A draft resolution by the House International Relations Committee declares that "the United States will complete the mission in Iraq and prevail in the Global War on Terror and the struggle to protect freedom from the terrorist adversary." This resolution has been in the works since last November when the debate over Iraq turned into a debate over Rep. John Murtha and his motives for advocating an immediate withdrawal of American troops.
Foreign policy does not usually dominate American elections, but
with tight margins it could certainly have an effect in November.
Irrespective of Washington power plays, however, there is
absolutely no doubt that Iraq is a better place because of
Zarqawi's death. It's hard to think of better news since Saddam
Hussein crawled out of his hole and surrendered.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Times