The strategy is the same when the White House, any White House, wants to push an unpopular plan. First, look for the weakest link in the...

WASHINGTON — The strategy is the same when the White House, any White House, wants to push an unpopular plan.

First, look for the weakest link in the opposition; play to your opponents’ egos by dangling “secret” information; and if all else fails, attribute the idea to a desperate ally. That formula played out recently as the Bush administration tried to blunt Democrats’ anger over the proposed increase in U.S. forces in Iraq.

The first week of January, the administration began pulling in various Democrats and Republicans to private briefings in the West Wing to try out their argument for a troop “surge.”

Even the highest-ranking members of Congress can be seduced by inclusion in a special briefing: Getting inside information while sitting in an antique chair in the West Wing gives one the feeling of being a VIP at a very exclusive club.

And so, looking to peel off one of the gazelles from the Democratic pack, the White House pounced on Rep. Rick Larsen. He was invited in a bipartisan group of 15.

The four-term congressman from Lake Stevens sits on the Armed Services Committee, has a sizable military population in his district, had a stronger opponent in his re-election than other Democrats in the delegation, and is more junior than them. A perfect target.

But Larsen asks a lot of questions, and despite his avuncular manner, doesn’t like to be pushed. He was against the troop increase and didn’t fold.

The next week, a day before Bush’s speech announcing the troop build-up, the White House called over an elite group of committee leaders, including Rep. Norm Dicks of Bremerton, the delegation’s dean, and Rep. Adam Smith of Tacoma.

Smith and Dicks voted for the war in 2002. And Smith is a new subcommittee chairman on Armed Services.

Bush proffered them special information: He said the plan for increased U.S. troops was the idea of Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who had suggested it to Bush himself in late November.

That information, if true, meant the Iraqi government was finally ready to do its part. Though still skeptical about the escalation, Dicks and Smith were impressed.

However, when reports of the plan leaked out, Larsen smelled a ruse.

Larsen told Dicks that nobody at the White House had mentioned any Iraqi-driven plan to him a few days earlier.

He speculated that the explanation had been drummed up by Bush’s political advisers at the last minute to try to placate more senior members.

News stories confirmed that al-Maliki himself was denying responsibility for the plan.

Larsen, Dicks and Smith are now dug in against the escalation. And Larsen says he does not trust the Iraqis to show up to fight.

The White House “changed the sales pitch,” Larsen said, adding: “I don’t buy it.”

Letter from Washington is an examination of the culture of politics and power in the nation’s capital. Alicia Mundy can be reached at 202-622-7457 or at amundy@seattletimes.com.