Iraq Study to Reshape National Debate About War

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 6, 2006; 12:28 PM

The Iraq Study Group's report promises to reshape the national debate about a war that even President Bush's nominee for defense secretary says the United States is not winning, but its implementation would require the president to abandon many of the goals that have been the foundation of his second-term national security policy.

Bush offered a tentative reaction this morning to the harsh findings of the bipartisan commission headed by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former Indiana representative Lee Hamilton. He described the report as offering "a very tough assessment" of conditions in Iraq and "some really very interesting proposals" for changing course. But he stopped well short of endorsing any of the recommendations.

The report marks the second repudiation of Bush's Iraq policy in a matter of weeks. Last month, the public delivered a vote of no-confidence in the president's Iraq strategy, turning the House and Senate over to the Democrats in a midterm election that was in large measure a referendum on a war that has divided the country like nothing since Vietnam.

Now the Baker-Hamilton commission has rendered a verdict on the particulars of Bush's approach by proposing a new way forward that encompasses a series of steps the administration has been reluctant to embrace.

Those recommendations include a plan for removing almost all combat forces by early 2008, pressuring the Iraqi government to accept benchmarks for progress and penalizing them if they don't, opening a dialogue with Iran and Syria and becoming more deeply engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to avoid a collapse of the administration's entire Middle East strategy.

The president clearly understood the midterm election returns. Even before the voting took place, the administration jettisoned its stay-the-course rhetoric. It took Bush only a matter of hours to announce that he was replacing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with Robert Gates, a veteran of his father's administration.

How far the president goes in changing course in the wake of the Baker-Hamilton report -- and how successful those changes turn out to be -- will shape his legacy and the political fortunes of the Republican Party. It will also influence the early stages of the 2008 presidential campaign that is off to a quick start already.

Many of the recommendations included have been floated before, some by Democratic critics of the administration, some by military leaders. Although the president has generally ignored those critics, he will have a far harder time turning back the pressure generated by the Baker-Hamilton report.

Still, in the run-up to the release of the report, the president has offered a stubborn defense of his own goals for Iraq that runs contrary to the idea that he is anxious to change course.

Last week, after meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Jordan, Bush appeared dismissive toward the pending recommendations from the Iraq Study Group for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. He said talk of a graceful exit "has no realism to it whatever" and said the United States would stay "to get the job done, so long as the [Iraqi] government wants us there."

Nor has he abandoned his rhetoric that the goal of U.S. policy is to win the war. Baker noted that the commission had pointedly avoided using certain words that he said had been "bandied about" during the midterm campaign, and the thrust of the report is that significant policy changes might make a bad situation better, but did not set out victory as a goal.

In his confirmation hearings on Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gates delivered a gloomy assessment, saying the United States is not winning in Iraq and even that it is too early to say whether the decision to invade in 2003 was a mistake. That is the kind of candor long missing in the administration's public discussions of the war.

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