To the rescue: 10 Washington veterans, five Republicans, five Democrats, battle-scarred by decades of political wars. Now they're trying to find a way out of a real one.
"Our report will not be particularly meaningful if it has dissenting views," says James Baker, co-chairman of the so-called Iraq Study Group, commissioned by President Bush. "And we are working very, very hard to achieve a consensus report."
But how to bridge the divide between staying the course and withdrawing, starting in four to six months?
People close to the commission say their prescriptions will be tough, including a phased withdrawal, tied to deadlines for Iraq's government to control the violence; and a regional conference involving Iran and Syria.
"It's been the most remarkable commission I've ever seen in foreign policy," says David Gergen, a former White House adviser to Presidents Clinton, Reagan, Ford and Nixon. "It's almost as if the White House is outsourcing its foreign policy plan to a group on the outside."
The key to making it work?
A shared history among commission members, often as opponents. Republican Baker and Democrat Vernon Jordan negotiated the rules for the last presidential debates. Former Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta and Baker ironed out budget compromises during the Reagan administration. Many were also involved in the Bush vs. Gore Florida recount. And Democrat Lee Hamilton co-chaired the 9/11 commission.
The longtime combatants say this time they've checked their politics — and egos — at the door.
"When you've been around Washington long enough," says Gergen, "there develops a certain feeling among people who are kindred souls, who have been in the battles, too, and may have been on the other side, but they become, in effect, brothers."
They've heard from Presidents Bush and Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. All told, they've talked to almost 150 witnesses.
Their biggest problem?
Several say that the country expects a strategy for success in Iraq, when victory may no longer be an option.