WASHINGTON -- Disappearing acts are becoming a habit with President Bush.
He pulled one Monday night, according to administration aides, by telling Cabinet members gathered at his Camp David retreat that he was turning in early and instead boarding a helicopter for the first leg of his latest secret journey to Iraq.
The security risks and elaborately staged ruse could well be worthwhile, providing Bush with an attention-grabbing opportunity to build on the momentum created with the death last week of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the cementing of Iraq's new government, analysts said. But the event itself won't be a lasting advantage for Bush unless things improve in Iraq, they said.
Anthony H. Cordesman, a national security specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, called Bush's in-person session with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki an important and well-timed "symbol of the U.S. commitment" to the new government.
But he added that its impact depends on whether the Iraqi government can gain control of the volatile security situation on the ground. If not, Cordesman said, the surprise trip could be viewed as little more than a stunt.
"If it doesn't have a lasting impact, if the U.S. relationship with the Iraqi government doesn't succeed, then basically it will be another sort of 'Mission Accomplished' event - it will be seen as grandstanding," Cordesman said.
He was referring to Bush's 2003 speech on an aircraft carrier, in which he hailed the end of major combat operations in Iraq in front of a banner that said "Mission Accomplished."
"The symbolism of it's very good. ... Unfortunately, symbolic gestures are called gestures for a reason - they don't last long," said John C. Hulsman, a foreign policy specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
"The ultimate reality of Iraq is still: Can you bring the Sunnis into the political process, and can you make Iraqis stakeholders in their own system with Americans there? No amount of photo-ops, good or bad, is going to change that reality."
Echoes of Afghan trip
The trip recalled Bush's similarly unannounced detour to Afghanistan during a trip to India in March and his quiet getaway from his Crawford, Texas, ranch for a surprise Thanksgiving 2003 visit to Iraq, where he served turkey to U.S. troops.
Bush's popularity might get a boost after the latest trip, analysts said. Some national polls showed such a boost for Bush in the wake of his 2003 visit, and the latest opinion surveys indicated that the president had earned back some lost standing since al-Zarqawi was killed.
Presidents throughout history have used unannounced visits to the front lines to rally public support at home, said Douglas G. Brinkley, a Tulane University historian. The strategy has worked well - albeit temporarily - for Bush before, he said.
For a president who likes splashy, carefully staged pictures to amplify his message, the stealthily arranged drop-in to a war zone can be a potent tool.
"They're positive, short-term public relations gambits," Brinkley said of the unannounced visits. "It's a short-term sell; it's not a major policy moment."
Still, the trip was a chance for Bush to spotlight his efforts to turn a corner in a war that has pulled down his popularity. In that regard, analysts said, it could be worth the effort expended to pull it off.
It took logistical acrobatics by Bush's team - and vows of secrecy from a small group of White House aides and journalists in the know - to spirit the president to Baghdad in secret.
Few aides knew
A small circle of Bush's advisers - led by Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and including Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley and communications director Dan Bartlett - were said to have been plotting Bush's getaway for several weeks. Once al-Maliki completed his government, their plan was put into motion.
The first step apparently was to get Bush to a spot where his departure would not be noticed. Hence the president announced he would hold a two-day summit at Camp David in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains, heavily guarded by Marines and with virtually no press access.
Only Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld knew in advance of Bush's trip, Bartlett told reporters traveling with Bush. The rest of the assembled team - including intelligence chief John D. Negroponte and CIA Director Michael V. Hayden - were said to have been kept in the dark.
Once Bush had fibbed his way out of after-dinner mingling at Camp David, he boarded a helicopter - not his standard green and white one bearing the presidential seal but a less noticeable one - to Andrews Air Force Base.
Reporters, who had been hastily summoned in person, were sworn to secrecy and stripped of their cellular telephones and wireless e-mail devices. (On the way back from Iraq, Bush thanked the journalists "for kind of maintaining the wall of silence" about the trip.)
Back at Camp David, White House aides busily kept up appearances. Bush's daily press detail was assembled for the teleconference that he had been scheduled to hold from Camp David with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad. It was only as the reporters were being escorted by minibus to the compound's entrance that they learned from news reports that Bush would be at the Baghdad end of the meeting.
Disbelief gave way to frustration as journalists who had been preparing to question Bush about the Camp David summit realized that the session - and their presence there - was part of a carefully orchestrated decoy. If the top officials who were kept in the dark felt similarly fooled, they didn't show it during the brief portion of the teleconference that reporters were allowed to see.
Bush has learned lessons from past stealth trips heavy with camera-ready imagery. In 2003, the president posed with what turned out to be a rubber Thanksgiving turkey, calling attention to the staged nature of his visit. No such use of props during yesterday's visit has been reported.
At the White House, advisers said the surprise visit gave Bush a chance to boost morale and instill pride about the war at home and in Iraq.
"It's obviously important to the president to express his appreciation to our troops," said Nicolle Wallace, a communications aide. "It's important here for Americans to see their president in Iraq having meetings with a freely elected leader of a democratic Iraq."
As for the cloak-and-dagger machinations that allowed Bush to slip away, she said, "The first, second and third reasons for keeping it secret are security."