By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 19, 2006
The race is on to solve Iraq.
Since President Bush ordered a rush review of Iraq plans Tuesday, top officials from the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA have huddled behind closed doors with deputy national security adviser J.D. Crouch II to pull together ideas for the president to see when he gets back from Asia, officials said.
The independent Iraq Study Group, meanwhile, wrapped up its probe last week by interviewing former president Bill Clinton and former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright. It now begins the tough job of finding consensus among five Republicans and five Democrats to weld together recommendations.
A curtain has been drawn tightly around both efforts. But the difficulty in finding a way to salvage the most embattled U.S. policy since the Vietnam war is reflected in the fact that participants inside both reviews are still far from agreement -- with only a few weeks before their reports are due, according to sources familiar with both efforts.
The White House goal is to avoid being beaten to the punch, to finish either just as or slightly before the Iraq Study Group makes its recommendations, officials say.
The study group, made up of 10 prominent Republicans and Democrats and co-chaired by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former chairman of the House International Relations Committee Lee H. Hamilton, has opted to take a wide regional view of the Iraq crisis during its eight-month investigation. Its approach is broader than the White House review.
"Republican or Democrats, when the members got their teeth into this early on, they were really seriously unnerved by what they found -- by the scope and intractability of what is happening in Iraq," said an expert adviser to the panel.
The panel, which began meetings in April, will almost certainly urge significant change, if not radical steps. In papers written for the study group by expert advisers, a "stay the course" option with only minor fixes had been rejected by September. So had the "al-Qaeda" option that would narrow the U.S. military mission to combating foreign fighters and al-Qaeda in Iraq and end pursuit of Iraqi insurgents, according to several of the 40 U.S. experts advising the commission.
A "full-fledged victory" option and a "quick cut-and-run" option were never on the table because neither was considered viable, the sources added.
Two other options were debated by experts orally and in writing for the panel and are still on the table. One is the "stability first" option, which would focus on military efforts to secure Baghdad and on political efforts to broker ethnic and religious reconciliation. But it would lower expectations about a democratic Iraq. The second is the "redeploy and contain" option involving a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops while maintaining a commitment to contain terrorists.
But these options may also get tossed for an even broader plan, because the 10 commissioners will write their own report. Baker, who organized the 1993 Madrid peace conference, has often talked about the need to revive Arab-Israeli peace efforts to regain U.S. credibility and change the region's volatile dynamics.
In contrast, the new White House initiative involves fine-tuning what is already in place. Repeatedly burned by expectations, the Bush administration is heavily focused on what is doable in the next 18 months, with an eye toward the 2008 presidential election, according to sources familiar with discussions.
The White House is still prepared to back up Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, despite growing criticism of his performance as weak. But U.S. officials want him to take bolder steps on disarming militias to prevent a civil war and on reconciliation among the three major ethnic and religious factions to undermine the insurgency.
Officials say the State Department's Iraq coordinator, David Satterfield, gave the clearest indication of administration thinking in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week. "There is no question that, if levels of sectarian violence, if the growth of militias are not addressed and brought down significantly, that the chances of a political resolution are significantly diminished," he said.
Satterfield, who served as deputy in charge of mission in Baghdad, also said the Iraqi government must "establish consequences for bad actions, whether those actions are abuse of human rights or financial corruption, both of which sap the fabric of Iraqi society and the Iraqi state. There, much, much more needs to be done."
But Satterfield also dismissed prospects of a broad new overture bringing in Iran and Syria. Syria has already made several choices casting its fate with "the forces of violence and extremism." Dialogue with Iran has long been on the table, although the timing is "under review," he said.
In contrast, Baker met with Iranian and Syrian officials to discuss their possible roles in stabilizing Iraq.
The administration launched its review to bring together projects underway in diverse agencies, but it also did not want to be in a position of having to accept the Baker-Hamilton recommendations without alternatives. By pulling together its own revisions, it will also demonstrate that Bush is neither conceding failure in Iraq nor ceding control of his most ambitious foreign policy goal to an outside panel, according to sources familiar with administration thinking.
Members of the Iraq Study Group welcomed the White House decision, which they see in part as a response to the group's existence, sources said.
Yet with the rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq, there is growing concern among U.S. expert advisers to the study group as well as among Iraqis that the reviews may be coming too late to turn the situation around -- at least before the 2008 elections.
"It's not clear that there will still be time to fix Iraq by the time the options are delivered," said one expert who advised the Iraqi Study Group and served in Iraq.