Baker Panel Preparing Iraq Alternatives

The Associated Press
Tuesday, October 10, 2006; 4:39 AM

WASHINGTON -- James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state with a long-standing reputation of service to Republican presidents and the Bush family in particular, has joined a list of prominent Republicans raising questions about the administration's Iraq policy.

Co-chairman of a bipartisan commission studying what to do next in the wartorn country, Baker said his panel is preparing to recommend that President Bush consider options other than his "stay-the-course" strategy in Iraq.

"Our commission believes that there are alternatives between the stated alternatives, the ones that are out there in the political debate, of stay the course and cut and run," the former secretary of state said.

Partisan critics of Democratic proposals to consider drawing down U.S. troops in Iraq at times call that kind of talk a "cut and run" strategy.

Baker did not disclose specific proposals that might be adopted by the commission, which plans to issue its report after the November congressional elections. But his remarks Sunday on the ABC's "This Week" were the latest in which a high-profile Republican has seemed to say it is time for the administration to consider other alternatives in Iraq.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said that when the commission makes its proposals, "We are going to take them seriously." Asked if the administration would make changes after the election, Snow said "There are tactical and strategic changes and adjustments that are made all the time. That's the nature of a war."

The mounting U.S. costs of the Iraq war _ more than $300 billion and more than 2,700 American troops dead _ has taken a toll on Bush's popularity ratings and on Republican prospects for retaining control of Congress in the Nov. 7 elections.

Agreeing in part with Bush, Baker said "if we picked up and left right now" Iraq would be plunged into "the biggest civil war you've ever seen," with Turkey, Iran, Syria and other neighboring countries getting involved.

But he made it clear that the commission would advise changes in U.S. strategy, nevertheless.

"We're going to come up, hopefully, with some recommendations that the Congress and the president and the country can look at," he said.

Just last week, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., returned from a trip to Iraq to say the war there was "drifting sideways." Warner, usually an administration loyalist, said that if Iraqis do not made progress in three months to reduce ethnic fighting and bolster reconstruction efforts, Congress would have to make "bold decisions."

Just last week, Bush's first secretary of state, Colin Powell said, "Stay the course isn't a good enough answer, because to stay the course you have to have a finish line."

Other Republicans who have been critical of aspects of Bush's Iraq policies have included Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut. Chafee and Shays face difficult re-election races next month.

Baker also questioned the administration's policy of not talking to Iran or Syria, whom the United States has accused of helping terrorism.

"I don't think you restrict your conversations to your friends," said Baker, who noted he had made 15 trips to Damascus as secretary of state.

"It's got to be hard-nosed," Baker said. "It's got to be determined. You don't give away anything, but in my view it is not appeasement to talk to your enemies."

Baker was a close adviser to Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, serving him both as White House chief of staff and secretary of state. He came to the aid of the current president during the Florida recount during the contested election of 2000, has a long track record of loyalty to the Bush family and the GOP and has developed a reputation of being conservative but pragmatic.

Baker said Sunday he would like "to take this thing out of politics" by delaying the release of the commission's recommendations until after the elections, and possibly until a new Congress takes office in January. The panel's other co-chair is former Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, who was co-chairman of the Sept. 11 commission.

© 2006 The Associated Press