By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
If President Bush and the Iraqi government are hoping for some solutions from the congressionally commissioned Iraq Study Group, they might want to start thinking about a Plan B.
Former secretary of state James Baker and former congressman Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), the study group's co-chairmen, called a briefing yesterday to give a "progress report" on their activities. A dozen television cameras and scores of reporters filled the hall -- only to discover that Baker and Hamilton had revived Jerry Seinfeld's "show about nothing" format.
"We're not going to speculate with you today about recommendations," Baker announced at the session, hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Can the war in Iraq be won?
"We're not going to make any assessments today about what we think the status of the situation is in Iraq," said Hamilton.
Could they at least explain their definitions of success and failure in Iraq?
"We're not going to get into that today," Baker replied.
After more such probing, Hamilton became categorical. "We've made no judgment of any kind at this point about any aspect of policy with regard to Iraq."
A few minutes later, one of the organizers called out: "We have time for one or two more questions."
"But no time for any answers," one of the reporters muttered.
"This is pitiful," contributed one of the cameramen, as reporters' smiles escalated into audible chuckles.
Baker was bothered by the questioning. "Malicious," he whispered to Hamilton, unaware that it could be heard on the audio feed.
As a general rule, it's a bad idea to call a news conference if you have nothing to say. It's worse if you announce that answers are urgently needed but then decline to provide any.
"The next three months are critical," Hamilton warned at the start. "Before the end of this year, this [Iraqi] government needs to show progress in securing Baghdad, pursuing national reconciliation and delivering basic services."
But no matter how urgent the situation in Iraq, the solutions will have to wait at least until Nov. 8 -- and possibly much later -- because of a more urgent consideration: domestic politics. We're "going to report after the midterm election," Baker announced.
Bill Jones of Executive Intelligence Review asked the obvious question. "The situation in Iraq seems to be degenerating from day to day" and may not be a "salvageable situation" by November, he said. "Shouldn't the urgency be propelled by developments in Iraq rather than the calendar here?"
Baker didn't think so. "We think it's more important, frankly, to make sure whatever we bring forward is taken, to the extent that we can take it, out of domestic politics," he said.
Baker, a troubleshooter for President Bush, said "We have said from Day One that we were going to report after the midterm election." In fact, Baker said on Day One -- the commission's launch on March 15, 2006 -- that "we have not set a time frame" and that "we may come forward with some interim reports."
The only thing the two would say yesterday is that they had met with lots of people, including several Iraqis on a 3 1/2 -day visit to Iraq recently.
"How much were you able to leave the Green Zone while you were in Baghdad?" a woman in the audience asked.
Baker admitted that only one of the 10 members, former senator Charles Robb (D-Va.), left the capital's heavily fortified enclave to see the violence-torn land. "It was recommended to us that it would probably be something that we ought not to do but they were willing for us to do it if we insisted," reasoned Baker. "We didn't insist because we didn't want somebody to write a story that we were cowboyin' down there in Iraq."
And besides, cowboy Hamilton added, "we had a very brief period in Iraq."
Hamilton, who also served as vice chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, spent considerable time praising Baker and the other members with some of the same phrases -- "sense of purpose," "able people" -- members of that commission used on each other.
But the reporters were determined to extract a nugget of useful information from the pair, who stood in twin gray suits.
"I understand you don't want to get into the recommendations," said the Wall Street Journal's Yochi Dreazen, but "do you think Iraq is still winnable in any substantive sense, or is the issue for your panel now minimizing the scale of U.S. loss and the suffering the U.S. may have going forward?"
"Secretary Baker and I simply are not able at this point even to give you a good idea of where the study group exists with regard to recommendations," Hamilton reiterated.
"Can you at least explain certain definitions?" pleaded Spencer Ackerman of the New Republic. For example, he asked, "what does a responsible exit mean?"
"That's the very question that Mr. Hamilton just said we're not going to get into," Baker repeated.
It didn't qualify as a recommendation, but the two did have some advice for the Iraqi government. "The people of Iraq have the right to expect immediate action," Hamilton said.
Providing, of course, they don't expect it from the Iraq Study Group.