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Panel May Have Few Good Options to Offer

Bush, Vice President Cheney and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley will meet with members of the commission tomorrow. During three days of deliberations, the panel will also hear, via video link, from British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- who, one source said, has been anxious to talk to the panel -- as well as consult with members of the Democratic shadow foreign-policy cabinet, including former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright, former ambassador to the United Nations Richard C. Holbrooke and former national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger.

While Hamilton's role may be growing as a result of Tuesday's elections, it is Baker who has been the dominant force in the panel's work so far, according to people involved. And it is Baker whose special connection to the Bush family -- he was the closest political associate of then-President George H. W. Bush -- has invited fevered speculation that he is maneuvering to save the Bush presidency from the disaster unfolding in Iraq.

Baker, who did not respond to an interview request, has publicly expressed skepticism about George W. Bush's ambition of transforming Iraq into a democratic beacon of change for the entire Middle East. Speaking at Princeton University, his alma mater, in April, shortly after the study group was formed, Baker said, "We ought not to think we're going to see a flowering of Jeffersonian democracy along the banks of the Euphrates," according to the Daily Princetonian.

Baker has offered other pointed critiques of the Bush administration's Iraq policy in recent months, during appearances aimed partly at selling his new memoir. In television and other interviews, Baker has made clear his desire to chart a middle road between the Bush administration's policy and what he regards as premature withdrawal from Iraq. "He's a pragmatist, a realist," said a Baker colleague, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the insistence on secrecy surrounding the panel's work. "He believes in America's moral values, but he also believes in trying to keep an essential balance with national security interests. When the pendulum swings too much one way or the other, we get into trouble."

Though Hamilton had a hand in selecting the Democrats on the group, its makeup reflects Baker's pragmatic, centrist approach to foreign policy. Few of its 10 members are true foreign policy experts. Rather, it is a classic Washington blue-ribbon commission, a group of "old hands" steeped in the ways of the capital -- two former secretaries of state (Baker and Lawrence S. Eagleburger), two former senators (Republican Alan K. Simpson and Democrat Charles S. Robb), a former defense secretary (William J. Perry) and a former Supreme Court justice, (Sandra Day O'Connor).

Within the panel, staffers and expert consultants have waged warfare by memo as idealists argue with pragmatists over particulars: Retired CIA officer Ray Close complained in one such memo that the deliberations "had degenerated into petty squabbling" and accused "obstinate neocon diehards" of trying to fashion a "stay the course" strategy.

With the assistance of the U.S. Institute of Peace and other Washington think tanks, panel members have heard testimony from a wide range of administration officials and outside experts, and have traveled to Iraq for several days of interviews with senior U.S. diplomats and military officials, as well as Iraqi leaders. Baker, who seems intrigued by the idea of gaining greater assistance in Iraq from U.S. adversaries, had a three-hour dinner in New York with Javad Zarif, Iran's ambassador to the United Nations. Zarif hosted the dinner at his elegant ambassador's residence.

Baker made clear that he was not negotiating for the United States but that the commission wanted Iran's input and suggestions. He specifically asked about the possibilities for cooperation between Tehran and Washington on Iraq, according to Iranian sources.

Such contacts have invited skepticism from some of the prominent neoconservatives who strongly pushed the invasion of Iraq but have come to be critical of the administration for not aggressively striving for military victory. They said the notion that Iran would help the United States out of its troubles in Iraq is ludicrous.

"There's no doubt that the majority of the people in this group, either as advisers or principals, either opposed the war or forgot that they were in favor of it," said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who was one of several dozen official expert advisers to the Baker-Hamilton group.

However, Gerecht and William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, said they believe their views received a respectful hearing from the panel. Kristol related a curious anecdote from his September appearance before the panel to promote a plan to provide more troops for security in Baghdad and elsewhere.

Then-panel member Robert M. Gates -- who quit the group Friday after Bush nominated him as defense secretary -- asked Kristol why he thought the president was so determined to stick with Donald H. Rumsfeld as the Pentagon chief.

Kristol replied that he was mystified -- at which point, as he recalled it, Baker interjected with the comment, "Well, you can't expect the president to do anything until after the election."

Staff writers Robin Wright, Walter Pincus, Glenn Kessler and Dan Eggen contributed to this report. Ricks, the author of "Fiasco," a book on the Bush administration's policy in Iraq, appeared before the study group at its members' request to answer questions about his book.

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