President Bush abandoned his call to "stay the course" in Iraq months ago. But a secret memo marks a kind of milestone that shows just how far away the administration has come from that position.
The classified document, by National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, reveals serious doubt within the administration about Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's ability to control his government and the rising sectarian violence in Iraq.
Administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, call the Hadley memo "a very hard look, a probing look" at the situation in Iraq.
One senior administration official traveling with Bush en route to a meeting with Maliki in Amman, Jordan, said during a stop in Latvia that "the broad conclusion, as identified in that very memo, is that the big deficiency is capability."
It outlines several issues Bush plans to raise with Maliki in Amman on Thursday.
"One of the central tenets of this meeting is, how do we increase his capability to turn his good intentions, as described in this memo, into concrete action," a senior administration official says.
Loren Thompson, a military analyst with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., says the memo highlights a significant turning point in administration policy.
"I think implicitly the memo demonstrates the administration has begun to doubt the viability of hits on political strategy for stabilizing the country," Thompson says.
Although the officials refer to Maliki's "good intentions," the memo questions whether Maliki is "willing and able to rise above the sectarian agendas being promoted by others."
The memo suggests new steps the United States and Iraq could take, but adds, "The above approach may prove difficult to execute even if Maliki has the right intentions."
According to a version of the Nov. 8 memo published in The New York Times, which first reported on it this morning, it outlines the steps Maliki could take to curb violence and gain greater control of Iraq. They include:
Shaking up his cabinet to get rid of sectarian leaders.
Demanding that all government workers renounce violence in order to keep their jobs.
Expanding the size of the Iraqi Army.
Suspending police units suspected of sectarian violence.
The United States, Hadley writes in the memo, could help by pressuring Saudi Arabia to take a stronger role in influencing Iraqi Sunnis to support the government and by giving Maliki greater control over Iraqi forces. They are now under the authority of the U.S.-led coalition.
Bush and Maliki are expected to discuss a proposal to share oil revenues throughout Iraq, giving Sunnis in the oil-poor west an incentive to buy into the government.
The senior administration officials say Bush and Maliki will also discuss what Maliki can do to curb violence by sectarian militias.
U.S. military officials acknowledge that some militias -- especially the Mahdi Army, at least nominally controlled by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr -- have heavily infiltrated Iraqi police units.
Taking on the Shiite militias could prove difficult for Maliki, especially if it means confronting Sadr, who controls a block of parliamentary seats.
"Maliki's political base is grounded in precisely the people that we are trying to control," Thompson says. "To some extent, those people control Maliki."