President Bush, a longtime supporter of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and his efforts to lead that country's fledgling government, today did an about face, backing away from Maliki and suggesting it's up to the Iraqi people, if their needs aren't met, to replace his government.
"The fundamental question is will the government respond to the demands of the people? And, if the government doesn't demand -- or respond to the demands of the people, they will replace the government. That's up to the Iraqis to make that decision, not American politicians," Bush said at a press conference in Canada, where he was attending the North American Leaders summit.
Bush was reacting to critics, including Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who called Monday for a no-confidence vote for Maliki, saying Maliki is incapable of bringing about political reconciliation. Levin issued that comment after assessing his own visit to Iraq last week.
"The Iraqi people made a great step toward reconciliation when they passed the most modern constitution in the Middle East, and now their government has got to perform. And I think there's a certain level of frustration with the leadership in general, inability to work -- to come to get, for example, an oil revenue law passed or provincial elections," Bush said.
Bush has been a public cheerleader for Maliki since he was elected prime minister in 2006. And Bush has at times almost pleaded with his critics to give Maliki and his government more chances, saying the work is tough and requires more time.
Though Bush stopped far short of calling for regime change, this seems to be the furthest Bush has gone in entertaining the idea that Maliki should go. His comments clearly weren't a ringing endorsement and Bush has often said he expects Maliki and the other leaders to get their act together and solve the hard problems that continue to vex political reconciliation efforts in Iraq. More recently Bush has also said that U.S. patience isn't unlimited and that he expects Maliki to make progress.
But perhaps to soften the blow of mentioning "replacement," Bush also pointed out what Maliki's government has successfully accomplished, including passing 60 pieces of legislation and setting up a budgetary process -- though it hasn't yet dealt with the critically important oil revenue distribution problem.
Bush also pointed out that the Maliki government rejects extremists and that "bottom up" political change is "noticeable and tangible and real," he said.
"People at the grassroots level are sick and tired of the violence, sick and tired of the radicalism, and they want -- and they want a better life. And they're beginning to reject the extremists that have the desire to have a safe haven, for example, from which to launch further attacks on America," Bush said.