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."
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.