Bush Calls Iraq Report One Among Many Ideas

Members of the Iraq Study Group, including former secretary of state Lawrence S. Eagleburger, left, and former defense secretary William J. Perry, were meeting at the White House last month to finalize their suggestions.
Members of the Iraq Study Group, including former secretary of state Lawrence S. Eagleburger, left, and former defense secretary William J. Perry, were meeting at the White House last month to finalize their suggestions. (By Ron Edmonds -- Associated Press)

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By Michael Abramowitz and Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Congress seemed eager yesterday to embrace the new Baker-Hamilton report as a possible way out of the morass in Iraq, while the White House is increasingly insistent that the document is but one of several suggestions President Bush will review as he ponders changes to a policy widely seen as not working in Iraq.

"I don't think that the Hamilton-Baker report, or Baker-Hamilton report, is the last word," Robert M. Gates, Bush's choice for defense secretary, said yesterday at his nomination hearing on Capitol Hill.

The bipartisan Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by Republican former secretary of state James A. Baker III and Democratic former congressman Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana, had not even formally released its recommendations, but the battle was on in Washington to shape the debate over a report that could determine "the way forward" in Iraq, as the panel bills its work on the cover of the book to be released this morning.

Neoconservatives were taking shots at the group over media accounts that it will recommend a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops by early 2008. Liberal Democrats were taking heart that a panel stacked with ostensible allies of the Bush administration is set to deliver a stern indictment of the White House's Iraq policy.

Meanwhile, centrists in both parties were looking to the report as a possible vehicle to forge agreement out of a bitter national debate over Iraq. Its expected embrace of some form of redeployment of the 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq will give Republicans as well as Democrats new leverage to press the White House for a change in course, the lawmakers said.

"The president has an opportunity to seize this moment and build a bipartisan foundation to address the deep, deep problems in Iraq and the deep divisions over Iraq in this country," said Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), a Vietnam War veteran whose foreign policy ideas are respected in Congress. "This presents an exit strategy for the president, for all of us."

Ken Duberstein, a top Washington lobbyist who was White House chief of staff for President Ronald Reagan, called the release of the Baker-Hamilton report a "pivot moment" in the Bush presidency.

"It is an acknowledgment that we have to redefine what victory in Iraq is achievable," Duberstein said. "It is a signal to the Republicans and the Democrats alike on the Hill that there will be bipartisanship and engagement, that this will not just be decided by the administration."

The administration seems to have distanced itself from the commission in recent weeks. White House officials were never wildly enthusiastic about a group co-chaired by a key figure, Baker, from the administration of the president's father. But there was hope that it might be a useful vehicle to provide political cover to do what the White House was interested in doing anyway.

As details of the commission's deliberations surfaced, including ideas long rejected by Bush, that optimistic view seems to have faded in the White House. By yesterday, Bush aides figured the commission was helpful mainly as a way of marginalizing more radical proposals by war opponents, such as a rapid troop withdrawal or partitioning Iraq.

In his public comments, Bush has gone from embracing the upcoming report to casting it as merely one data point among many. His decision to authorize parallel internal administration reviews became a strategy to keep the Iraq Study Group from becoming the primary author of a course change that the president would be pressured to accept -- much as what happened with the Sept. 11 commission.

"It's very hard for me to, you know, prejudice one report over another," Bush said in an interview Monday with Fox News Channel. "They're all important."

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