One War, No Answers

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, November 30, 2006

Does anybody have a good plan for Iraq?

Not President Bush. He arrived in Jordan yesterday for a crucial meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, only for the White House to discover that the Iraqi was a no-show. "It was going to be more of a social meeting anyways," Bush aide Dan Bartlett told reporters at the Raghadan Palace in Amman.

Neither does the Pentagon appear to have a solution. Gen. Pete Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called a news conference yesterday to advise the American public not to expect big conclusions from a major Iraq study he ordered. "There's not an end product," he announced.

Nor, apparently, do the Democrats have the answer. Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), a Democratic point man on Iraq, called his own press briefing in the Capitol yesterday to call for (drum roll, please) "a high-ranking special envoy to work with the Iraqi government."

And what of the congressionally appointed Iraq Study Group? After nearly nine months of studying, the commission will finally give some recommendations next week. Its deliberations are so relaxed that its co-chairmen, James Baker and Lee Hamilton, found time on Monday to pose for an Annie Leibovitz photo shoot for Men's Vogue. (The current issue has features on "the new Bond temptress," the "Alpha Suit" and "power" wristwatches.)

Political Washington is in a state of suspended animation these days: waiting for Bob Gates to replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense, waiting for the Baker-Hamilton commission, waiting to see whether Bush will raise or lower troop levels. But with good ideas in short supply, and hopes falling that the Men's Vogue Study Group will produce a magic solution, leaders of both parties seem unable to do much more than heap blame on Maliki and argue about whether or not to call the Iraq carnage a civil war.

Yesterday's installment began when Reed, a former Army Ranger from the 82nd Airborne, hopped onto the stage in the Senate press gallery. Demanding "immediate and tangible" actions by Maliki, the senator stipulated that "the critical issue is what the Iraqi government is going to do to keep their government together, quell the violence and provide the services to the people that a government should and must provide."

Having established that, Reed made his entry into the great nomenclature debate. What's happening in Iraq, he said, "is a working definition of a civil war."

Other than his envoy suggestion, Reed had little in the way of fresh ideas for Iraq. But he made it clear that he didn't expect ideas from the Baker-Hamilton group or the Pentagon either. "I don't think we can afford to wait for the Iraqi Study Group report," Reed advised, questioning "how much detail and specific guidance they can give and still reach a consensus."

His hopes were not much higher for the Pentagon. Asked about Pace, the Joint Chiefs chairman, Reed smiled. "I think he's been extremely loyal to the secretary and the administration." Previewing the general's news conference, the senator said it "will probably be the best sort of indication of whether there is a new sense of candor or whether his position remains the same."

Pace opted for the latter. Under the watchful eye of Bryan Whitman, Rumsfeld's spokesman, he energetically offered his view that Iraq is not in a civil war but provided little other information, because "we need to be circumspect about what we say in public."

How about current efforts to increase troops in Baghdad? "That is a province of General Casey," he demurred.

Gen. John Abizaid's warning that violence must be controlled within six months? "I doubt that General Abizaid meant to pick a particular point on the calendar," Pace said.

Abizaid's caution that the military couldn't sustain a big increase of troops in Iraq? "The United States military can today and tomorrow handle any additional challenge."

Over in Amman, White House aide Bartlett was delivering the less-cheerful tidings that Maliki would be skipping the meeting that Bush had rearranged his schedule to attend -- and that the postponement to today had nothing to do with a leaked White House memo saying Maliki was either ignorant or incompetent.

"Since the king of Jordan and Prime Minister Maliki had a bilateral themselves, earlier today, everybody believed that negated the purpose for the three of them to meet tonight," Bartlett argued.

He continued this line of logic: "They had a very good conversation, and afterwards they felt, well, since we had good conversations, we addressed issues, there was not an agenda for the three for a trilateral that they felt was necessary."

No agenda? It was an odd way to characterize the Iraq war, civil or otherwise. But Bartlett and his colleagues were not the only ones feeling unhurried.

NBC's Andrea Mitchell discovered that the Baker-Hamilton commission had taken time from its deliberations for "a class photo . . . shot by celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz." The Washington Post's Robin Wright learned yesterday that Men's Vogue would be publishing the spread.

"Through coverage of art and architecture, travel and food, politics and finance, books and sports, custom tailoring and fine watches," the magazine's mission statement says, it "will define a new male sensibility -- smart, worldly, mature, and ready to discover more." Such as how to fix Iraq.

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