By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
On his third trip to Iraq, in September 2005, Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) knew the American mission was imperiled.
"We were up in Tikrit and went to a hospital, and it was guarded with guns and security to the point they were pushing weapons into women's faces," Wolf said. "I saw we can't be successful if we're going into an operating room with pistols and weapons."
That's when the congressman from Vienna first began to think about the need for "fresh eyes" to scrutinize U.S. policy regarding Iraq. Quietly, he went to the White House and presented his plan: a bipartisan commission of well-respected policymakers to bore deeply into the Iraq dilemma and recommend solutions.
"If you ordered an Erector Set and you were trying to build it before Christmas and you got stuck and someone else came along, they might just see immediately what needs to be done," Wolf said. "Or if you had a health-care problem, you'd want a second opinion. It's all about fresh eyes on a target."
The result is the Iraq Study Group, led by Republican former secretary of state James A. Baker III and Democratic former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (Ind.), who was a vice chairman of the panel that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The group has taken on greater relevance after midterm elections marked by widespread voter dissatisfaction with Iraq, and it will play a decisive role in reshaping the U.S. position on Iraq, according to lawmakers and administration officials.
Initially, the White House was cool to the idea, Wolf said. But he was able to win over Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld followed, as did national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley. "Rice's support was key," Wolf said. "But I had to have the support of everybody or there would be no way to do this."
The composition of the study group was also crucial.
"You had to get a group not connected to the administration, people who were not going to be campaigning and who could come to a consensus," he said. "We wanted a bipartisan group, people senior enough that they weren't looking to get placed in a law firm or good job. The test was: Do you love your country?"
The study group, composed of five Democrats and five Republicans, was created in March to assess the situation in Iraq, its impact on the surrounding region and its consequences for U.S. interests. The group's work has been guided by several smaller committees of experts on topics such as the economy and reconstruction, military and security, and political development.
Wolf got Congress to appropriate $1 million for the project. To select the panel's members, he turned to the U.S. Institute for Peace, an independent nonpartisan organization created and funded by Congress. One of its goals is to promote stability after a conflict.
"It's a tremendous dilemma, a difficult situation" in which Congress "was looking for alternatives and the fall election was reinforcing the polarization of attitudes," said Richard H. Solomon, president of the institute. "We were creating the study group to build a political middle."
Wolf said he hopes that the group's recommendations, expected to be delivered to President Bush and Congress next month, will reconnect a nation splintered by war.
"When our country is together, we're strong -- Truman and Roosevelt showed that," he said. "When we're divided, I think the country's going to be in trouble. I hope something good comes from this, that we can develop consensus."