In the history of U.S. foreign policy, there's been nothing like it: a panel outside government trying to bail the United States out of a prolonged and messy war.
The innocuously titled Iraq Study Group, which has evolved into a parallel policy establishment over the past eight months, is also unique in the way it operates. For one thing, it's even more secretive than the Bush administration.
Forty experts -- on warfare, the Middle East, reconstruction and Islamic militancy -- were asked to craft options for the commission but have nary a clue what proposals will come out of the 10-member panel, led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.).
"It doesn't have to take any of our recommendations," said Clifford D. May of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. "They can come up with something entirely different. I wouldn't be surprised if that's what they do."
Intellectual free-for-all described
Interviews with a dozen participants offer insights into the process and the possible outcome of the bipartisan commission, which was organized jointly by four think tanks, was funded with $1 million by Congress and is run by the United States Institute of Peace. It was at times an intellectual free-for-all, participants said.
"I was fascinated by how the big names just let the discussion develop among the experts," said Frederick Barton of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It was anything but a congressional hearing. They really just said, 'Let us know what you think.' "
During a meeting between experts and the panel, participants said they were struck by former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor's thoughtful questions. "At the first open meeting, it was very moving, as she was the only one who spoke to daily reality. She wanted to know what could be done to help the lives of Iraqis at a time when everything was slipping into killing and decay," said Judith S. Yaphe of National Defense University.
Others recalled how another panel member, Charles S. Robb (D-Va.), a former senator and a former Marine, probed the ethnic divide in the Iraqi army.
All the experts wanted to make sure Baker, who is still closely connected to the Bush family, was in the room when they spoke. Several noted his telltale body language, which could dismiss a comment with as little as a raised eyebrow.
"We were all reading his face. If someone was expounding on something, Baker would get a distant look. He made clear he was not willing to go down that road," said an expert who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the final report has not been released. "He doesn't tolerate fools."
A model for future consultation?
Some participants said the Iraq Study Group should be a model of how to bring the nation's wise men and women together to inject fresh perspective in solving the country's biggest problems. But others said that it, too, had serious flaws.
Despite Iraq's steady deterioration since the panel began its work in April, it moved at a deliberate pace -- too slow, in the view of some participants. The panel spent months analyzing U.S. policy and Iraq's situation. Experts, who were divided into four subgroups, met among themselves to answer a list of questions from the 10 commissioners -- five Republicans and five Democrats.
The panel will reconvene early this week to begin final deliberations. Its report is still weeks away.
Some experts were disgruntled that their ideas did not make it out of the working groups. Brookings Institution fellow Michael E. O'Hanlon advocates the "soft partition" of Iraq's Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities with land swaps and help with housing and jobs, so people could relocate to places where they are less threatened. He said he wishes he had testified before the panel so that his suggestion was not filtered out. "Some good ideas were killed in the cradle," he said.
Besides the experts, the commission also heard from others, including President Bush, former president Bill Clinton, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem and Javad Zarif, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations.
The panel was deliberately skewed toward a centrist course for Iraq, participants said. Organizers avoided experts with extreme views on either side of the Iraq war debate.
Neoconservatives, who supported and crafted much of the original Iraq strategy, say the panel was stacked against them. Michael Rubin, political adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority, resigned because he said he was a token.
"Many appointees appeared to be selected less for expertise than for their hostility to President Bush's war on terrorism and emphasis on democracy," Rubin wrote in the Weekly Standard. Baker and Hamilton "gerrymandered" the experts only "to ratify predetermined recommendations," he wrote. "Rather than prime the debate they sought to stifle it."
Only two of the 40 experts -- May and former CIA analyst Reuel Marc Gerecht -- are neoconservatives.
"My frustration was that there was often a feeling in the [experts'] room that President Bush should have asked them for their advice much earlier but didn't, so now they were all going to say, 'I told you so,' " May said. "I said, 'If you're going to say that this mission can't succeed and will face defeat, let's not have a failure of imagination.' "
In an interview, Gerecht said the goal of consensus among 10 Republicans and Democrats means that there will be no dramatic recommendations. In an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, he wrote: "Its recommendations will probably be the least helpful of all the blue-ribbon commissions in Washington since World War II because it cannot escape from an unavoidable reality: We either declare defeat and withdraw completely tout de suite, or we surge troops into Baghdad and fight."
Although the experts have had their last meeting, the debate continues in what one participant described as "catty chatting" in a Web chat room. The panel also gets copies of those discussions.
"Unfortunately, our deliberations have been degenerating lately into petty squabbling over picayune issues of tactics, and I'm afraid I show that I have lost my patience a little bit here," wrote former CIA analyst Ray Close in an e-mail about the experts' deliberations. "Some of our most obstinate neocon diehards are still trying to fashion a strategy that is no more than an ersatz version of 'stay the course until victory.' They have been wasting our time, in my view."
The only hint of a possible outcome came during an ad hoc vote. On Sept. 18, experts assembled to present two options to the panel: "Stability First," to stabilize Baghdad and make intense reconciliation efforts with insurgents, and "Redeploy and Contain," to gradually withdraw troops while containing terrorist threats.
The chairmen then called for a quick vote by the experts. Accounts vary, though most agree that the "Stability First" option won -- by a large margin, some said.
In a reflection of shifting U.S. sentiments on the war, the chairmen called for a second vote at their last meeting with the experts in October. This time, participants said, the vote was almost evenly divided between stability and gradual withdrawal. Sticking around to stabilize Iraq won by only a tiny margin.