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.
But Gates will serve at the pleasure of the president. It is not clear whether Bush now shares Gates's assessment or whether the commander-in-chief is still so wedded to his policies that he will resist the kinds of significant changes that others around him are calling for.
National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said Sunday the president is open to ideas he has previously rejected because he too recognizes that Iraq is not moving quickly enough toward success. The president's decisions are expected before the end of the year.
Although the principal onus from the report falls on Bush, the stakes now are high for the Democrats as well. The Baker-Hamilton commission report carries an implicit warning to the party now in control of Congress: Criticism of the president's Iraq policy alone is no longer sufficient.
One notable finding of the Baker-Hamilton commission was the rejection of a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, a policy favored by many Democratic elected officials and even more rank-and-file Democrats around the country. Just as the report puts pressure on Bush to change, it will require adaptation by Democratic leaders as well.
The real value of the bipartisan report may come in pushing Bush and Democratic leaders in Congress toward more cooperative efforts to develop a workable strategy for beginning to disengage from combat in Iraq without leaving that country and the region in chaos.
Bush alluded to that this morning. "The country, in my judgment, is tired of pure political bickering that happens in Washington and they understand that on this important issue of war and peace, it is best for our country to work together," he said.
Bush has contributed to the climate of distrust and polarization. Bush, Vice President Cheney and other Republicans used the fall campaign to warn that Democrats favor a strategy of capitulation to the terrorists. As Bush put it in October, "their approach comes down to this: "The terrorists win and America loses."
But the Democrats, too, approached the Iraq debate through much of the past year as an opportunity to score political points ahead of the midterm elections. Those elections are now history, and the Baker-Hamilton report now stands front and center.
As Baker noted this morning in unveiling the findings, "there is no magic formula" that will convert Iraq into a qualified success story. Managing failure, preventing things from becoming worse and gradually turning around a bleak situation in the Middle East are the immediate challenges facing the president and the Democrats in Congress.