President Bush told Middle East experts at a private meeting this week that a three-way division of Iraq would only worsen sectarian violence and was not an option for solving the country’s problems, the analysts said Tuesday.
Rejecting a policy alternative that has been gaining support in the U.S. and abroad, Bush told the experts that dividing Iraq would be “like pouring oil on fire,” said Eric M. Davis of Rutgers University, one of the experts who met with the president Monday over Texas brisket and iced tea at the Pentagon.
The experts said in interviews that Bush signaled that he intended to make no policy changes in Iraq, despite warnings from military leaders and election-year arguments from Democrats that the war is a drain on resources and a distraction from the administration’s campaign against terrorism.
Although only a minority has been in favor of dividing Iraq into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish sections since the 2003 invasion, the unrelenting pace of sectarian killings and a stalled reconstruction effort have sparked rethinking among many U.S. officials, their allies and Iraqis.
Some Iraqi Shiite and Kurdish leaders recently expressed support for the idea. In the United States, so have Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a potential 2008 presidential candidate, and former State Department officials Peter Galbraith and Leslie H. Gelb.
Davis said that when he began enumerating the reasons it would be a mistake to divide Iraq, Bush interrupted. “He was going, ‘Yes, yes,’ while I was making that point,” Davis said.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a Mideast analyst at American Enterprise Institute, said Bush asserted that the partition idea was “not even a starter,” and that he also made it clear that “as long as he’s president, we’re in Iraq.”
Carole O’Leary, an American University research professor and Iraq expert, said Bush “was adamant that, despite any conspiracy theories out there in the Islamic world or anywhere else, the United States is not in there to break up the place.”
White House Press Secretary Tony Snow elaborated later Tuesday.
“It may provide kind of a nice construct -- break it apart, and then it won’t be a problem,” Snow said. “Iraqis look upon themselves
Bush met with the experts during two days of sessions with Cabinet officials and others focusing on Iraq, terrorism and national security issues.
The sessions were held as White House strategists are taking every opportunity to focus -- for the third election cycle in a row -- on national security as the winning issue.
Republicans seized on the results of the Connecticut Democratic primary last week, in which the pro-Iraq war Sen. Joe Lieberman lost to political newcomer Ned Lamont, as evidence of a “defeatist” Democratic Party. The GOP, struggling to overcome sour approval ratings on Iraq and other issues, then circled around the British investigation of an alleged plot to bomb U.S.-bound airliners as a campaign issue.
Democrats said the alleged terrorist plot showed that the U.S. was not any safer since the Sept. 11 attacks.
The political dynamic was evident throughout this week’s presidential meetings. Photo opportunities depicted a president at work while he reiterated election-year themes, such as the controversial domestic spying program that the White House says is crucial for investigating terrorists.
“America is safer than it has been,” Bush said Tuesday after a meeting at the National Counterterrorism Center outside Washington. “But it’s not yet safe.”
Vice President Dick Cheney touched on the same themes Tuesday at a fundraising event in Arizona.
“Here in the U.S., we have not had another 9/11,” Cheney said. “No one can guarantee that we won’t be hit again. But the relative safety of recent years was not an accident. It’s because we’ve waged an effort on every front -- diplomacy, finance, intelligence, homeland security and, when necessary, military action.”
Bush has brought in experts for previous sessions apparently designed to show that, contrary to what critics say, he is open to new ideas. Snow said the idea was to avoid appearances before “amen choruses.”
“These are not meetings where he comes in and gets cheerleaders,” Snow said.
But the analysts who attended the Pentagon lunch, which lasted nearly two hours, said it was arranged as a fact-gathering session, rather than a policy debate. Although at least three of the four experts have criticized U.S. policy in the Middle East, none has called for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
The fourth analyst, Vali R. Nasr, of the Naval Postgraduate School, said Bush wasn’t interested in a specific policy discussion.
“I didn’t give an opinion about policy,” said Nasr, who is the author of “The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future.” “They didn’t ask if it was a good policy or not.”
Nasr added that “nothing I heard suggests an immediate policy shift.”
Gerecht, of the American Enterprise Institute, said that though there was no policy debate, “I think it’s fair to say that there is an awareness that there are some serious problems and they need to deal with them.”
The experts each volunteered that they were impressed by Bush’s knowledge of the complexities of the situation in Iraq. American University’s O’Leary said she was not sure Bush or his aides learned anything new.
“I believe he was very open to what everybody said,” she said. “It just happened that what we expressed, each of our sets of points, are things that they’re already thinking about.”