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Bush Calls Iraq Report One Among Many Ideas
One senior White House aide yesterday called the Baker-Hamilton report "an incredibly important piece of work" that will be reviewed carefully by the president. But he said the president is duty-bound to consider other sources of advice. "I don't think it would be responsible or respectful of the military leadership if he did not listen to what they have to say," said this source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the report had not been released.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), incoming chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, had a different interpretation of the White House's stance, saying he thought the president and his aides were worried that the report would sound too good to the public. "If there seems to be a bipartisan consensus from a named commission that 'Mr. President, what you are doing is stupid,' that is a problem" for the administration, Biden said in an interview.
But Biden voiced his own concern about the direction of the report, as evidenced by recent media leaks, especially the panel's apparent unwillingness to depart from basic support for a strong central government in Baghdad. Biden, who has been pushing for a new political settlement that gives more power to Iraq's regions, said: "I think you will find a lot less wholesale embrace of his report a month from now than people now think."
Many conservatives have been strongly critical. In the Weekly Standard, under the headline "A Perfect Failure," Robert Kagan and William Kristol dismissed the report as a "muddled reiteration of what most Democrats, many Republicans, and even Donald Rumsfeld and senior military officials have been saying for almost two years."
On Capitol Hill, however, lawmakers in both parties seemed generally upbeat about the prospects for the Baker-Hamilton recommendations, whatever they may be. Republicans in particular -- dismayed by their losses in the Nov. 7 elections -- can, without appearing to undercut their president, tout the report as an authoritative case for beginning disengagement, some sources said.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said: "Clearly a lot of weight will be attached to it because of the composition of that study group and the tremendous credibility those people have. . . . Obviously they are going to propose some things that are a change in direction."
House and Senate members differ on the degree to which Bush might be ready to embrace the report's expected call for withdrawing some U.S. troops, in hopes of encouraging Iraqi troops to become more forceful.
Bush's recent comments indicate a continued resistance to the idea, but the report will make it difficult for him to maintain that stance, lawmakers and aides said. Many Republicans will take their cue from Bush's reaction to the report, said a top House GOP aide, who would speak only anonymously because the report had not been released. But if the president appears dismissive of the idea of a phased troop drawdown, the aide said, Republicans "will not want to be seen as pliant or malleable to whatever the White House reaction is."
These Republicans feel their party paid a heavy price for Bush's Iraq policy in last month's elections, and they will use the report to insist on a change in U.S. policy if Bush appears hesitant, the aide said. "Genuinely they want to see victory" in Iraq, the aide said. "But there is a recognition that Iraq discolored voters' views of Republicans."
Democrats agreed that the study group's report will lend legitimacy to their criticisms of the Iraq war while also allowing Republicans to distance themselves from Bush's strategies. "I think it will have a really big impact because the country wants bipartisanship, they want a bipartisan solution," said Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.).
"I think the country and the Congress are going to pay a lot of attention to this report. The question is whether the president will pay a lot of attention," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.). "He seems to not want to listen."
Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who sponsored the measure that created the panel, said he still thinks the administration will take its recommendations to heart. "I think they are open," he said. "I think they are sincere. I've got to believe they are sincere because this is so serious."
Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.