Iraq Group a Study In Secrecy, Centrism

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 26, 2006

In the history of U.S. foreign policy, there's been nothing like it: a panel outside government trying to bail the United States out of a prolonged and messy war.

The innocuously titled Iraq Study Group, which has evolved into a parallel policy establishment over the past eight months, is also unique in the way it operates. For one thing, it's even more secretive than the Bush administration.

Forty experts -- on warfare, the Middle East, reconstruction and Islamic militancy -- were asked to craft options for the commission but have nary a clue what proposals will come out of the 10-member panel, led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.).

"It doesn't have to take any of our recommendations," said Clifford D. May of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. "They can come up with something entirely different. I wouldn't be surprised if that's what they do."

Interviews with a dozen participants offer insights into the process and the possible outcome of the bipartisan commission, which was organized jointly by four think tanks, was funded with $1 million by Congress and is run by the United States Institute of Peace. It was at times an intellectual free-for-all, participants said.

"I was fascinated by how the big names just let the discussion develop among the experts," said Frederick Barton of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It was anything but a congressional hearing. They really just said, 'Let us know what you think.' "

During a meeting between experts and the panel, participants said they were struck by former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor's thoughtful questions. "At the first open meeting, it was very moving, as she was the only one who spoke to daily reality. She wanted to know what could be done to help the lives of Iraqis at a time when everything was slipping into killing and decay," said Judith S. Yaphe of National Defense University.

Others recalled how another panel member, Charles S. Robb (D-Va.), a former senator and a former Marine, probed the ethnic divide in the Iraqi army.

All the experts wanted to make sure Baker, who is still closely connected to the Bush family, was in the room when they spoke. Several noted his telltale body language, which could dismiss a comment with as little as a raised eyebrow.

"We were all reading his face. If someone was expounding on something, Baker would get a distant look. He made clear he was not willing to go down that road," said an expert who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the final report has not been released. "He doesn't tolerate fools."

Some participants said the Iraq Study Group should be a model of how to bring the nation's wise men and women together to inject fresh perspective in solving the country's biggest problems. But others said that it, too, had serious flaws.

Despite Iraq's steady deterioration since the panel began its work in April, it moved at a deliberate pace -- too slow, in the view of some participants. The panel spent months analyzing U.S. policy and Iraq's situation. Experts, who were divided into four subgroups, met among themselves to answer a list of questions from the 10 commissioners -- five Republicans and five Democrats.

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