Panel May Have Few Good Options to Offer

By Michael Abramowitz and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 12, 2006

After meeting with President Bush tomorrow, a panel of prestigious Americans will begin deliberations to chart a new course on Iraq, with the goal of stabilizing the country with a different U.S. strategy and possibly the withdrawal of troops.

Tuesday's dramatic election results, widely seen as a repudiation of the Bush Iraq policy, has thrust the 10-member, bipartisan Iraq Study Group into the kind of special role played by the Sept. 11 commission. This panel, led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former Indiana congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D), might play a decisive role in reshaping the U.S. position in Iraq, according to lawmakers and administration officials.

Those familiar with the panel's work predict that the ultimate recommendations will not appear novel and that there are few, if any, good options left facing the country. Many of the ideas reportedly being considered -- more aggressive regional diplomacy with Syria and Iran, greater emphasis on training Iraqi troops, or focusing on a new political deal between warring Shiites and Sunni -- have either been tried or have limited chances of success, in the view of many experts on Iraq. Baker is also exploring whether a broader U.S. initiative in tackling the Arab-Israeli conflict is needed to help stabilize the region.

Given the grave predicament the group faces, its focus is now as much on finding a political solution for the United States as on a plan that would bring peace to Iraq. With Republicans and Democrats so bitterly divided over the war, Baker and Hamilton believe that it is key that their group produce a consensus plan, according to those who have spoken with them.

That could appeal to both parties. Democrats would have something to support after a campaign in which they criticized Bush's Iraq policy without offering many specifics of their own. And with support for its Iraq policy fast evaporating even within its own party, the White House might find in the group's plan either a politically acceptable exit strategy or a cover for a continued effort to prop up the new democratically-elected government in Baghdad.

"Baker's objectives for the Iraq Study Group are grounded in his conviction that Iraq is the central foreign policy issue confronting the United States, and that the only way to address that issue successfully is to first build a bipartisan consensus," said Arnold Kanter, who served as undersecretary of state under Baker during George H.W. Bush's administration.

But the midterm elections may have made the job even tougher by emboldening panel Democrats, said people familiar with the panel's deliberations. The elections "sent a huge signal," said one of these sources, who added that the panel is trying to come to grips with whether Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government has the capacity to solve the country's problems.

While Baker has been testing the waters for some time to determine how much change in Iraq policy will be tolerated by the White House, Hamilton perhaps faces the now even-more-difficult challenge of cajoling Democrats such as former Clinton administration chief of staff Leon E. Panetta and power broker Vernon E. Jordan Jr. to sign on to a plan that falls short of a phased troop withdrawal, the position of many congressional Democrats.

In a brief interview, Hamilton conceded the obstacles ahead and emphasized that no decisions have been made. "We need to get [the report] drafted, number one," Hamilton said. "We need to reach agreement, and that may not be possible."

When it was formed in the spring by Congress, the Iraq Study Group was little known beyond the elite circles of the U.S. foreign policy world. Now its work has become perhaps the most eagerly awaited Washington report in many years -- recommendations are expected in early December -- with many lawmakers of both parties saying they are looking for answers to the troubled U.S. mission in Iraq.

"I can only be hopeful that they'll have a positive solution," Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), who is likely to become chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in an interview Friday. Asked if he thought it was possible for the panel to please both the president and congressional Democrats, Skelton turned the question around, saying: "I wonder if the White House will not use them as a face-saving device."

Indeed, the White House, which had been skeptical that the group will have much new to say, has notably been more receptive since the elections. "If these recommendations help bring greater consensus for Republicans and Democrats, I think that could be very helpful," said Dan Bartlett, counselor to Bush. But he added: "If there were a rifle-shot solution, we would have already pulled the trigger."

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