By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
President Bush formally launched a sweeping internal review of Iraq policy yesterday, pulling together studies underway by various government agencies, according to U.S. officials.
The initiative, begun after Bush met at the White House with his foreign policy team, parallels the effort by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group to salvage U.S. policy in Iraq, develop an exit strategy and protect long-term U.S. interests in the region. The two reviews are not competitive, administration officials said, although the White House wants to complete the process before mid-December, about the time the Iraq Study Group's final report is expected.
The White House's decision changes the dynamics of what happens next to U.S. policy deliberations. The administration will have its own working document as well as recommendations from an independent bipartisan commission to consider as it struggles to prevent further deterioration in Iraq.
"The president has asked all his national security agencies to assess the situation in Iraq, review the options and recommend the best way forward. The ISG report will be duly considered, and we look forward to their recommendations, as the president has always said," a White House official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the new initiative has not been announced. "The president indicated Monday that he is interested in hearing interesting ideas both within his administration and from the Baker-Hamilton commission."
The White House review could give the administration alternatives so that it feels less pressure to fully implement the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group report, foreign policy experts said.
Bush made the decision after his national security team held secret meetings Friday and Saturday to discuss the disparate efforts inside the administration and the implications for Iraq after the Republican defeat in the midterm elections. Further informal meetings were held Monday before yesterday's decision, officials said.
The administration said its review is not a response to the imminent report of the study group, which is led by James A. Baker III, who was secretary of state under George H.W. Bush, and Lee H. Hamilton, a Democrat and former chairman of what is now the House International Relations Committee. The group wrapped up months of hearings yesterday by interviewing three Democratic policymakers: former secretary of state Warren Christopher, former national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger and former U.N. ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke. The panel's members, gathered at the White House, also spoke yesterday by videoconference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Blair, in London, told the panel that the most decisive steps the United States can take to end Iraq's violence would be working for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and helping Iraq's fragile government improve its army, end sectarianism within its security forces and distribute revenue more fairly across the country, according to Blair's spokesman.
The panel of five Democrats and five Republicans is to hold one more meeting today before drafters begin pulling together the first version of a report, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Institute of Peace, which is running the commission. The panel may meet again to review and discuss the draft. The goal is broad consensus.
The administration's new review "was not done in response to the ISG, but it came about as a result of everybody looking at facts on the ground," a State Department official said. But the administration is basically trying to do in one month what the ISG has done over eight months.
The review will knit together separate efforts that have been underway at the State Department and the Pentagon over the past six weeks, U.S. officials said. It will also include reports by the CIA and the National Security Council. National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley will oversee the expedited review and integrate the various papers, officials said.
In a measure of the suddenness and importance of the review, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this week postponed a long-planned trip to an Asia-Pacific conference in Vietnam to take part in discussions about Iraq.
Rice has been doing "a lot of thinking" about the issue over the past two months, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday. "The primary focus is on the State Department's role in Iraq and are we pursuing the proper policies, are we seeking the right objectives, are we using the right means to achieve those objectives, following the right strategies and right tactics?" he told reporters.
Rice's trip to Baghdad last month was a turning point in her thinking, officials said.
One component of the larger effort is likely to be a military review initiated in mid-September by Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. His assessment of U.S. anti-terrorism efforts, with a core focus on Iraq, includes 16 top commanders meeting daily to brainstorm on questions such as "Where are we going? What are we trying to do? Are we going to get there this way?" according to a joint staff spokesperson.
"Nothing is off the table. They are looking at the whole spectrum of less forces, more forces," a senior defense official said. But the military is keeping close control over its review, which "is completely separate from the Iraq Study Group and not connected with any political effort that might also be going on. This is the chairman's. . . . There is no intent for it to be folded in or incorporated in someone else's bigger product," the joint staff spokesperson said.
The administration's policy review comes almost a year after it issued a 38-page "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," released with much fanfare Nov. 30, 2005. It outlined the "eight pillars" for victory, which included defeating terrorists, moving toward military self-reliance, improving the rule of law, increasing international support and strengthening the economy.
Staff writers Michael Abramowitz and Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.