After meeting with President Bush tomorrow, a panel of prestigious Americans will begin deliberations to chart a new course on Iraq, with the goal of stabilizing the country with a different U.S. strategy and possibly the withdrawal of troops.
Tuesday's dramatic election results, widely seen as a repudiation of the Bush Iraq policy, has thrust the 10-member, bipartisan Iraq Study Group into the kind of special role played by the Sept. 11 commission. This panel, led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former Indiana congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D), might play a decisive role in reshaping the U.S. position in Iraq, according to lawmakers and administration officials.
Those familiar with the panel's work predict that the ultimate recommendations will not appear novel and that there are few, if any, good options left facing the country. Many of the ideas reportedly being considered -- more aggressive regional diplomacy with Syria and Iran, greater emphasis on training Iraqi troops, or focusing on a new political deal between warring Shiites and Sunni -- have either been tried or have limited chances of success, in the view of many experts on Iraq. Baker is also exploring whether a broader U.S. initiative in tackling the Arab-Israeli conflict is needed to help stabilize the region.
Given the grave predicament the group faces, its focus is now as much on finding a political solution for the United States as on a plan that would bring peace to Iraq. With Republicans and Democrats so bitterly divided over the war, Baker and Hamilton believe that it is key that their group produce a consensus plan, according to those who have spoken with them.
That could appeal to both parties. Democrats would have something to support after a campaign in which they criticized Bush's Iraq policy without offering many specifics of their own. And with support for its Iraq policy fast evaporating even within its own party, the White House might find in the group's plan either a politically acceptable exit strategy or a cover for a continued effort to prop up the new democratically-elected government in Baghdad.
"Baker's objectives for the Iraq Study Group are grounded in his conviction that Iraq is the central foreign policy issue confronting the United States, and that the only way to address that issue successfully is to first build a bipartisan consensus," said Arnold Kanter, who served as undersecretary of state under Baker during George H.W. Bush's administration.
Emboldened Dems may offer resistance
But the midterm elections may have made the job even tougher by emboldening panel Democrats, said people familiar with the panel's deliberations. The elections "sent a huge signal," said one of these sources, who added that the panel is trying to come to grips with whether Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government has the capacity to solve the country's problems.
While Baker has been testing the waters for some time to determine how much change in Iraq policy will be tolerated by the White House, Hamilton perhaps faces the now even-more-difficult challenge of cajoling Democrats such as former Clinton administration chief of staff Leon E. Panetta and power broker Vernon E. Jordan Jr. to sign on to a plan that falls short of a phased troop withdrawal, the position of many congressional Democrats.
In a brief interview, Hamilton conceded the obstacles ahead and emphasized that no decisions have been made. "We need to get [the report] drafted, number one," Hamilton said. "We need to reach agreement, and that may not be possible."
When it was formed in the spring by Congress, the Iraq Study Group was little known beyond the elite circles of the U.S. foreign policy world. Now its work has become perhaps the most eagerly awaited Washington report in many years -- recommendations are expected in early December -- with many lawmakers of both parties saying they are looking for answers to the troubled U.S. mission in Iraq.
"I can only be hopeful that they'll have a positive solution," Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), who is likely to become chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in an interview Friday. Asked if he thought it was possible for the panel to please both the president and congressional Democrats, Skelton turned the question around, saying: "I wonder if the White House will not use them as a face-saving device."
Meeting will attract high-level audience
Indeed, the White House, which had been skeptical that the group will have much new to say, has notably been more receptive since the elections. "If these recommendations help bring greater consensus for Republicans and Democrats, I think that could be very helpful," said Dan Bartlett, counselor to Bush. But he added: "If there were a rifle-shot solution, we would have already pulled the trigger."
Bush, Vice President Cheney and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley will meet with members of the commission tomorrow. During three days of deliberations, the panel will also hear, via video link, from British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- who, one source said, has been anxious to talk to the panel -- as well as consult with members of the Democratic shadow foreign-policy cabinet, including former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright, former ambassador to the United Nations Richard C. Holbrooke and former national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger.
While Hamilton's role may be growing as a result of Tuesday's elections, it is Baker who has been the dominant force in the panel's work so far, according to people involved. And it is Baker whose special connection to the Bush family -- he was the closest political associate of then-President George H. W. Bush -- has invited fevered speculation that he is maneuvering to save the Bush presidency from the disaster unfolding in Iraq.
Panel offers pragmatic view
Baker, who did not respond to an interview request, has publicly expressed skepticism about George W. Bush's ambition of transforming Iraq into a democratic beacon of change for the entire Middle East. Speaking at Princeton University, his alma mater, in April, shortly after the study group was formed, Baker said, "We ought not to think we're going to see a flowering of Jeffersonian democracy along the banks of the Euphrates," according to the Daily Princetonian.
Baker has offered other pointed critiques of the Bush administration's Iraq policy in recent months, during appearances aimed partly at selling his new memoir. In television and other interviews, Baker has made clear his desire to chart a middle road between the Bush administration's policy and what he regards as premature withdrawal from Iraq. "He's a pragmatist, a realist," said a Baker colleague, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the insistence on secrecy surrounding the panel's work. "He believes in America's moral values, but he also believes in trying to keep an essential balance with national security interests. When the pendulum swings too much one way or the other, we get into trouble."
Though Hamilton had a hand in selecting the Democrats on the group, its makeup reflects Baker's pragmatic, centrist approach to foreign policy. Few of its 10 members are true foreign policy experts. Rather, it is a classic Washington blue-ribbon commission, a group of "old hands" steeped in the ways of the capital -- two former secretaries of state (Baker and Lawrence S. Eagleburger), two former senators (Republican Alan K. Simpson and Democrat Charles S. Robb), a former defense secretary (William J. Perry) and a former Supreme Court justice, (Sandra Day O'Connor).
Reports of infighting
Within the panel, staffers and expert consultants have waged warfare by memo as idealists argue with pragmatists over particulars: Retired CIA officer Ray Close complained in one such memo that the deliberations "had degenerated into petty squabbling" and accused "obstinate neocon diehards" of trying to fashion a "stay the course" strategy.
With the assistance of the U.S. Institute of Peace and other Washington think tanks, panel members have heard testimony from a wide range of administration officials and outside experts, and have traveled to Iraq for several days of interviews with senior U.S. diplomats and military officials, as well as Iraqi leaders. Baker, who seems intrigued by the idea of gaining greater assistance in Iraq from U.S. adversaries, had a three-hour dinner in New York with Javad Zarif, Iran's ambassador to the United Nations. Zarif hosted the dinner at his elegant ambassador's residence.
Baker made clear that he was not negotiating for the United States but that the commission wanted Iran's input and suggestions. He specifically asked about the possibilities for cooperation between Tehran and Washington on Iraq, according to Iranian sources.
Such contacts have invited skepticism from some of the prominent neoconservatives who strongly pushed the invasion of Iraq but have come to be critical of the administration for not aggressively striving for military victory. They said the notion that Iran would help the United States out of its troubles in Iraq is ludicrous.
Panel suffering from selective amnesia?
"There's no doubt that the majority of the people in this group, either as advisers or principals, either opposed the war or forgot that they were in favor of it," said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who was one of several dozen official expert advisers to the Baker-Hamilton group.
However, Gerecht and William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, said they believe their views received a respectful hearing from the panel. Kristol related a curious anecdote from his September appearance before the panel to promote a plan to provide more troops for security in Baghdad and elsewhere.
Then-panel member Robert M. Gates -- who quit the group Friday after Bush nominated him as defense secretary -- asked Kristol why he thought the president was so determined to stick with Donald H. Rumsfeld as the Pentagon chief.
Kristol replied that he was mystified -- at which point, as he recalled it, Baker interjected with the comment, "Well, you can't expect the president to do anything until after the election."
Staff writers Robin Wright, Walter Pincus, Glenn Kessler and Dan Eggen contributed to this report. Ricks, the author of "Fiasco," a book on the Bush administration's policy in Iraq, appeared before the study group at its members' request to answer questions about his book.