After all the testimony and fact-finding, after all the white papers and working groups, after the flak-jacket, bombs-in-the-background visit to Baghdad, it came down to the same issue that has animated the broader national debate about Iraq for months: Stay or get out.
The Iraq Study Group was starting final deliberations last month when the issue threatened to disrupt the careful consensus its members had tried to forge. Former defense secretary William J. Perry had drafted a proposal calling for a timetable to withdraw U.S. troops, according to accounts by insiders. Former secretary of state James A. Baker III resisted a firm date, wanting to leave that to the president.
"I'm not going to sign anything that is going to paper over the problem," Perry said.
"Well, if that's the case, that's the case," Baker replied.
In the end, though, Baker and Perry walked off together to settle their differences rather than let them split the commission. With suggestions from other members, they crafted careful language that they both could support, a recommendation to pull out nearly all U.S. combat units by early 2008 -- a goal, not a timetable, but a date nonetheless.
The fissure and its resolution culminated a process marked by that rarest of qualities in a polarized era: bipartisanship. At a time when Washington prefers confrontation to compromise, five Republicans and five Democrats sat down to tackle the country's most urgent crisis and came up with a document they all could sign. It proved to be a nine-month study of how to bridge not only Iraq's deep divide but also America's.
Whether the end result will prove meaningful is another question. A plan emerging from the middle invariably unsettles those at either end who view it as wholly inadequate. Even some of the authors consider the report released yesterday a "messy compromise," as one put it. But the story of how a little-noticed congressional commission evolved into a political powerhouse and a symbol of national unity harks back to a different time, when for better or worse "Wise Men" advised presidents and shaped policy.
‘Things had shifted’
The Iraq Study Group had its origins in a September 2005 trip to Iraq by Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), a quiet legislative veteran with a strong moral streak and a driving interest in international human rights. "I saw some things that were dramatically different," recalled Wolf, who had visited twice previously. "You could just feel that things had shifted."
So he conceived the idea of a bipartisan commission that would cut through the domestic rhetoric and offer sober counsel. The Bush administration reacted coolly but ultimately did not block it. In fact, not many took notice. The announcement of the commission in March generated just a single paragraph in the next day's newspaper. Congress did not authorize $1 million in funding until June.
Baker and his co-chairman, former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), recruited an all-star establishment lineup, including former Cabinet secretaries and senators, a former Supreme Court justice and a backroom powerbroker. Average age: 74. "The only thing we have in common is gray hair," joked former attorney general Edwin Meese III. But they shared a common commitment, he added. "We parked our partisanship at the door."
A panel without a mission
What would arguably prove to be one of the most anticipated study groups in modern times started tentatively. "At first, they were a little bit uncertain of what they were going to do and even whether it would amount to anything," said Daniel P. Serwer, the group's executive director. "There were a lot of initial questions: What was our role? How can we manage? We're not Iraq experts -- where are we going to get the expertise?"
Under the auspices of the U.S. Institute of Peace and three other think tanks, the commission created four working groups consisting of 44 foreign policy analysts and Iraq specialists to advise it. During its first phase, it set out to define U.S. goals and learn about Iraq. Over nine months, 31 papers were prepared for the panel. Testimony was taken from hundreds of U.S., Iraqi, Arabic and European officials, including President Bush, Vice President Cheney and former president Bill Clinton, as well as scholars, journalists and military officers.
By summer, the expert advisers had developed the first options paper centered on different goals. The experts originally explored four options: "Victory in Iraq," "Defeat Al Qaeda and Stabilize Baghdad," "Make Peace Work" and "Redeploy and Contain," as they were called in a July memo. The first and third were quickly discarded. The last two pitted a more limited military mission against a phased withdrawal over nine to 12 months.
Into the hot zone
The turning point came in September, when seven of the 10 members traveled to Baghdad aboard a C-130 military transport, decked out in bulletproof vests and helmets as the plane corkscrewed to a landing to avoid enemy rockets. They then flew aboard Blackhawk helicopters to the Green Zone as other choppers fired flares to draw off any heat-seeking missiles.
The four days there made a powerful impression on the panel members, most of whom knew nothing more about Iraq than what they had seen on television and read in the newspaper. "I'll never forget the helicopters coming in at night delivering wounded to the hospital in the Green Zone," recalled member Leon E. Panetta, who was Clinton's White House chief of staff. "We've all seen 'MASH,' and yet it was happening right there."
Explosions outside the Green Zone rattled the guest house and trailers where they slept. "You knew somewhere either a car bomb has gone off or something has happened," Panetta said. "And then in the morning, you could sometimes see the smoke."
Little appetite for troop withdrawal
Only one member, former senator Charles S. Robb (D-Va.), a retired Marine, left the Green Zone, venturing out to look at the impact of the operation intended to secure Baghdad. By the time they returned home, many of the commissioners had concluded that the war was going worse than they had realized. One internal working paper said that 30,000 to 40,000 Iraqis have been dying each year since the 2003 invasion.
The trip "altered their thinking," said Paul Hughes, a commission aide who had served in Iraq and escorted the members on their trip. "Every one of them came out and said there is no immediate exit. There is no way America could turn and walk away from Iraq."
Referring to the insistence of Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) on a prompt withdrawal, Hughes said that "the Murtha cut-and-run option was a non-starter."
Robb was especially interested in sending more U.S. forces, according to one participant, and the panel considered proposals to deploy 100,000 to 200,000 additional troops. Ultimately, though, the panel discovered that there might be only 20,000 available, prompting vigorous discussion that led members to conclude that a substantial surge was unworkable.
A burning question
"By September, you did not hear anyone supporting the idea of victory or more troops very much," said Marina S. Ottaway, a member of the working group with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "There had been a lot of pretending for a while, but that ended in the fall."
Yet many were slow to support even a phased withdrawal. In a straw poll in September, only two of the commission's 44 advisers favored the idea. Over the next eight weeks, as casualties mounted, support for withdrawal grew exponentially. In e-mails, Wayne White, a former Middle East intelligence analyst, implored holdouts to accept that the United States had badly damaged whole swaths of Iraq and had lost Anbar province to al-Qaeda.
"It sounds great to pump one's chest and declare that we cannot abandon Anbar and such areas to these elements," he wrote. "But . . . can anyone offer a refreshing, new and promising military strategy for beating them soundly with our already-overstretched forces in Iraq, Iraq's woeful police and disappointing army?"
In the last straw vote, on Nov. 3, half of the 44 advisers supported withdrawal.
With leaks, great expectations
By then, with the midterm elections upon them, commissioners had cut out the advisers and were talking only among themselves. Baker's tour on behalf of a book he had written raised the panel's public profile, and leaks about the deliberations heightened expectations about the coming report.
The 10 members gathered in Washington on Nov. 27 to begin final deliberations. Baker thought that a major troop withdrawal should happen by the 2008 elections and that it would take six months to complete, according to insiders. But he opposed the specific timetable Perry advanced. Panetta helped resolve the disagreement by suggesting that they adopt a date put forward by Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Iraq commander, who had just proposed finishing training and equipping Iraqi forces by the first quarter of 2008.
Every line in the 96-page report was carefully debated, and all members agreed in the end. "When we struck consensus, there was a real sense of relief," said former U.S. diplomat Edward P. Djerejian, who co-wrote the drafts with fellow adviser Christopher A. Kojm. "People started cracking jokes."
Vernon E. Jordan Jr., a Clinton confidant who served on the panel and hosted all 10 members at his Washington house Tuesday night for a celebratory dinner of crab cakes, beef and souffle, said the debate was the kind Washington used to have. "Nobody was storming out of the room, nobody was screaming at anybody," he said. "What I have seen over the years is civility taking a back seat and giving way to hostility. . . . The good of this report is that civility has been rediscovered."