Bitterly divided on Iraq, lawmakers in both parties are eagerly awaiting recommendations from an advisory group led by Republican and Bush family friend James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton.
But even if the bipartisan Iraq Study Group is able to forge a consensus on how to deal with Iraq — a prospect that remains unclear — the panel is unlikely to offer a solution so groundbreaking it will stave off a brewing partisan feud.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who is in line to be the chairman next year of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Monday the Bush administration didn’t see that “we’re getting deeper and deeper into a hole” in Iraq.
Two options under discussion at one point by the study group — greater cooperation with Iran and Syria, and a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops — would require a major policy shift by the Bush administration.
Republicans oppose setting any type of timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, and the United States has no diplomatic ties with Iran.
The panel’s members, gathered at the White House, spoke Tuesday with British Prime Minister Tony Blair by teleconference from London.
Blair has insisted that British troops will remain in Iraq until Iraqi forces can take control of their nation’s security. In a speech Monday, he advocated seeking Iran’s help in ending the violence in Iraq. Aides say he also wants to encourage dialogue with Syria.
Consensus reportedly required
The Iraq study panel, established by Congress in March, is not expected to unveil its findings until some time after Thanksgiving. According to a Democratic aide, Baker told a senator he won’t issue any plan unless the group finds consensus.
The panel consists of five Democrats and five Republicans, each prominent members in their political camps and holding their own ideas on how Iraq should be settled.
Yet Baker’s group has become the beacon of hope for lawmakers who want to resolve the Iraq war before the 2008 presidential elections. Polls of voters in last week’s midterm elections, which returned Democrats to power in the next Congress, found a majority — about six in 10 — disapproved of the war in Iraq. Two-thirds of independent voters said they disapproved of the war.
Later Tuesday, the study group was to meet at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington with foreign policy advisers from the Clinton administration, including Sandy Berger, Clinton’s national security adviser; Richard Holbrooke, former ambassador to the U.N.; and Warren Christopher, former secretary of state.
On Monday, Blair said Iran and Syria’s aid should be solicited to help stem the violence in Iraq. Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and stabilizing Lebanon also would help to unite the region behind peace, he said.
Bush’s chief of staff, Josh Bolten, said the White House would consider opening talks with Syria and Iran if Baker and Hamilton recommended it.
Baker’s group also has been briefed by Democrats on their plan to begin pulling out some troops right away. Levin and other Democrats agree this is a necessary first step to put political pressure on the Iraqis.
Differences over timetable
Aside from that initial step, Democrats remain divided on what should happen next, how many troops should leave and how many should stay.
Several Republicans staunchly oppose setting any timetable because they say Iraq could collapse into chaos. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said shortly before the Nov. 7 elections that the Bush administration had led Iraq to the verge of chaos. On Monday, Graham reiterated his position that more troops, not fewer troops, are needed to settle the violence there.
“That should be our goal in the coming months, to provide a better security situation on the ground,” Graham said, echoing a comment by Bush.
“I believe it is very important ... for people making suggestions to recognize that the best military options depend upon the conditions on the ground,” the president said.
Sens. John Warner, R-Va., who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, also warned against any timetable.
The White House and Pentagon in recent days have focused on whether a fresh approach in Iraq could stem the violence there. Bush announced last week he would replace Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld with Robert Gates, who led the CIA in the first Bush administration, and the Pentagon’s top uniformed leadership are leading an internal assessment on options in Iraq.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this week delayed her departure for Asia to attend meetings on Iraq on Monday and Tuesday at the White House and at the State Department.
But despite the full-court press being waged by the administration and Baker’s group, any recommendations that surface are unlikely to solve Iraq’s volatile security situation immediately or forge an easy bipartisan consensus in Congress.
According to the foreign policy and military experts advising Baker’s panel, the final plan will probably back one or several options already being debated. And, they say, the proposal will come with substantial cost because nothing is easy about solving the sectarian violence in Iraq.