Steady condemnation from conservatives for the Iraq Study Group report may be providing some cover to the Bush administration as it completes its own review of strategy in Iraq, apparently with little enthusiasm for the panel's prescription of U.S. troop withdrawal and dialogue with Syria and Iran.
The criticism of the panel, co-chaired by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), has burst forth from the leading institutions of the right: the National Review, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the Weekly Standard; conservative talk radio; and scholars at some of Washington's top think tanks.
President Bush has spoken favorably of the panel's work as an opportunity to bring the country together, but he has been noncommittal on its key recommendations. Comments from the hawkish right, meanwhile, have often been an accurate gauge of the beliefs of key figures inside the Bush administration, especially Vice President Cheney.
Many Republican and Democratic lawmakers have embraced the panel's report, but the almost uniformly negative reaction from some of Bush's strongest conservative supporters means the president may have some political flexibility to depart from the group's major recommendations, according to some GOP operatives.
Notably fueling the skepticism has been Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has raised pointed questions about the Baker-Hamilton panel's unwillingness to prescribe more troops, as McCain has urged, and its embrace of a regional conference with Syria and Iran.
"It's sort of hard to suddenly say everyone agrees Baker is the way to go when the leading Republican candidate for '08 is saying no," said William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard.
‘It’s preposterous, period’
Although it is clear that many Republicans regard the Iraq Study Group's report as a possible exit strategy from a war that they worry could drag the party down in 2008, such plans are colliding with clear anger from neoconservatives, who have been the most ardent supporters of the Bush administration since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"It's preposterous, period," said Kenneth R. Weinstein, chief executive of the conservative-leaning Hudson Institute, about the proposal for a new dialogue with Iran and Syria. "Talking to them is not going to bring anything but a perception of American weakness."
"The report is a monumental disappointment, for all the hype," said Richard Perle, a former Reagan-administration defense official who strongly supported the Iraq invasion. "The recommendations are either wrong or of no consequence. There is no magic bullet, but in their desire to find something, they found the wrong things."
Criticism of Baker
Many of the conservatives have long distrusted Baker, viewing him as a figure of amoral, dealmaking diplomacy who unduly pressured Israel and coddled Syria when he was secretary of state.
And the Baker-Hamilton group, neoconservatives came to believe, was stacked against them from the beginning, both in the composition of the panel and in the panel's choices of experts to hear from. Neoconservatives also complained that the group sought out the views of Iran and Syria but did not speak to senior officials of such allies as Israel and Turkey.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr., a former Reagan administration hawk who heads the Center for Security Policy, said he believes the panel's output was "certainly driven" by Baker.
"It seems so transparently in keeping with his modus operandi: the quest for the deal without regard for the content or the repercussions," he said.
The full report was endorsed by each of the 10 panelists, including former attorney general Edwin Meese III, a hero of the conservative movement. Yet Baker has clearly been mindful of the criticism. He showed up Thursday for a group interview with print reporters laughingly brandishing a copy of the conservative New York Post from that morning, its headline blaring "Surrender Monkeys," in reference to him and Hamilton.
He proceeded with a robust defense of the panel's proposal for a broad-based U.S. diplomatic initiative in the Middle East and renewed engagement with Syria and Iran -- the clear focus of the conservative anger. Baker made plain his disdain for some of the neoconservative ideas, including the argument heard before the 2003 Iraq invasion that the road to Arab-Israeli peace lay in overthrowing Saddam Hussein's government in Baghdad.
"What we really are saying, the road to peace in Iraq lies through Baghdad. The road to Arab-Israeli peace runs through Jerusalem," he said. "We are not linking the two, but we are proposing a comprehensive strategy to improve our prospects in Iraq and improve our prospects in the Middle East."
He offered an impassioned plea for engaging Syria at a high level, something the Bush administration has refused to do, and said the administration does not know what can be achieved if it does not even try. Baker dismissed the whispers from the White House that he is out of touch with the new realities of the Middle East.
"Talking to Syria gives us an excellent opportunity to revitalize the Arab-Israeli peace process," Baker said. "The Syrians are the transit point for arms shipments to Hezbollah, and if you can flip the Syrians, you will cure Israel's Hezbollah problem. "
Baker went on: "The Syrians will tell you, as they told us, that they do have the ability to convince Hamas to acknowledge Israel's right to exist. . . . If we accomplished that, that would give [Israeli Prime Minister] Ehud Olmert a negotiating partner on the Palestinian track."
Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon aide who resigned in protest from an Iraq Study Group expert panel, said he believes Baker's assessment is unrealistic. He said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gains strength from positioning himself as a rejectionist and foe of the United States, so it is wrong to believe that Syria would think it would gain from an alliance with Washington.
"Sometimes realists have to deal with reality," said Rubin, now a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "Iran and Syria will press to exploit every advantage they have."
He said the report, as a strategy document, was a "Cliff Notes high school paper."
Eliot A. Cohen, a Johns Hopkins University professor of military strategy, said the Baker-Hamilton recommendations reflect "preoccupations that go back to when [Baker] was secretary of state and are completely detached from today's reality. The idea that Sunni are putting power drills in the heads of Shia and vice versa because of the Arab-Israeli conflict is bizarre."
Iraq Study Group member Leon E. Panetta, a Democratic former congressman and White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton, said the criticism from hawks and conservatives is "the price of statesmanship" for Baker. "He's been through it," he added. "He understands it.
"I think the feeling was, how do you rescue this administration from the grip of ideology and force it to face the real world?" Panetta said. "That's where he was coming from: 'How can I help the president in a way protect his legacy and do the right thing?' "