Surely it gladdened thriller writers everywhere that a small circle of aides could spirit the president of the United States out of a Camp David summit meeting without most of his Cabinet knowing.
President Bush excused himself from a meeting on Iraq, saying he was tired and wanted to go to bed to read. Instead, he ducked out to a waiting helicopter, not his usual Marine One, and quietly departed for Andrews Air Force Base.
There, wearing a baseball cap and open-necked shirt, he boarded Air Force One, which had been parked out of sight of the terminal, by the rear entrance, normally used by the lesser members of the president’s traveling party.
Already aboard was a small band of reporters, the White House “pool,” who had been sworn to double-secret silence less than 24 hours earlier and whose cell phones and Blackberries had been confiscated. Then it was wheels-up to Baghdad for a meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his new Cabinet.
Of the Bush Cabinet secretaries, only Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld had been in on the trip in advance. The other Cabinet members — and how do you suppose they felt? — found out when they showed up for breakfast, expecting the president and the ambassador of Iraq.
Al-Maliki was also surprised. He knew only that he and the senior members of his government had been invited to an urgent meeting at the U.S. ambassador’s residence, where Bush arrived after a fast and low seven-minute flight by a fleet of Black Hawks.
The substance of what al-Maliki and Bush discussed isn’t important; the symbolism is. Even though it was a lightning in-and-out visit, the trip showed great respect and great hopes for the prime minister — “the future of your country is in your hands” — and allied Bush in a very personal way with his government.
While the Bush visit was a bold gesture, the elaborate secrecy and security underscored how perilous the situation is in Iraq. Bush aide Dan Bartlett said because of the security situation, an overnight stay was “never seriously considered.”
In parting, al-Maliki offered something of a benediction: “God willing, all of the suffering will be over, and all of the soldiers will be able to return to their countries with our gratitude for what they have offered.”