In Theater of War, It's Iraq Study Group's Turn to Take the Stage

Reporters Jim Axelrod of CBS News, left, and Barbara Slavin of USA Today, shown with J. Robinson West and Richard H. Solomon of the U.S. Institute of Peace, compete to question commissioners.
Reporters Jim Axelrod of CBS News, left, and Barbara Slavin of USA Today, shown with J. Robinson West and Richard H. Solomon of the U.S. Institute of Peace, compete to question commissioners. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Dana Milbank
Thursday, December 7, 2006

Minutes after the Iraq Study Group placed an improvised explosive device beneath the Bush administration's Iraq policy yesterday, panel member Lawrence Eagleburger was asked how President Bush reacted to the recommendations.

"His reaction was, 'Where's my drink?' " the former secretary of state cracked after the commission's White House visit and Capitol Hill news conference. Reaching for his own cola, Eagleburger continued: "He was a little loaded. It was early in the morning, too, you know."

The retired diplomat certainly did not mean that the president had fallen off the wagon. But if any event would call for a stiff one, this was it: A bipartisan group of elder statesmen -- some of them friends of Bush's father, no less -- had just concluded that the Iraq war, the centerpiece of Bush's presidency, was a disaster with no easy way out.

The words tossed out at the news conference were bleak. "Grave and deteriorating," co-chairman Lee Hamilton told the cameras. Reciting a list of woes -- more than 2,900 Americans dead, $400 billion gone and "great hardship" for Iraqis -- the former congressman became dramatic: "Our ship of state has hit rough waters."

The other co-chairman, James Baker, got Bush through the Florida recount of 2000 but was of no help yesterday. "Struggling in a world of fear, the Iraqis themselves dare not dream," George H.W. Bush's secretary of state said, using the words "no longer viable" to describe the current Iraq policy and "brutal violence" to describe Iraq.

Thanks to prolific leaking, there were few surprises in the report. But the panelists had some surprisingly harsh assessments of the president. When Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times asked the commissioners what they would do to get Bush to embrace their recommendations, Republican former senator Alan Simpson condemned the "100-percenters in America" who refuse to compromise. "A 100-percenter is a person you don't want to be around. They have gas, ulcers, heartburn and B.O."

Bush reacted with the dyspepsia of a man who was just told to drop his objections to withdrawing combat troops, to talking with Iran and Syria, and to forcing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. "This report gives a very tough assessment of the situation in Iraq," he acknowledged from the Cabinet Room.

The unpalatable menu of options for Bush went a long way toward redeeming a Baker-Hamilton commission that had flirted with frivolity. In September, the group called a news conference to announce that it had nothing to announce. Then Hamilton and Baker agreed to pose for Men's Vogue (commissioner Sandra Day O'Connor judiciously killed a plan to involve all 10 panelists in the shoot).

There were moments yesterday when the study group again struggled for gravitas. No sooner had the commissioners taken the stage in the Hart Office Building than Simpson passed around his copy of the report for his colleagues to autograph, "just like a high school annual," as he put it. Though the relevance to the Iraq crisis was not clear, Simpson told the 250 reporters and camera crews about O'Connor's distaste for split infinitives.

All the panelists took a turn at the microphone except for Vernon Jordan, who sat with his hands folded on the table, and Eagleburger, who doodled: first something resembling a sailboat, then a grocery cart, then finally a tyrannosaurus on wheels. The elder statesmen also risked the elderly statesmen label when The Washington Post's Robin Wright asked a question from the second row without a microphone. A chorus of "Can't hear you!" rained from the dais.

But thanks to the work of the Edelman PR firm, the panelists managed an impressive rollout. They arrived at the Capitol in a motorcade of armed Suburbans and black sedans, then were whisked through their itinerary by handlers telling them, "We're falling behind schedule." When Jordan heard the call of nature, he got a two-man escort to the restroom.

Hamilton clearly enjoyed the hero's welcome. Taking a cellphone call in the Capitol basement, he let slip to Fox News's Molly Hooper that it was former president Bill Clinton on the line. At the news conference, he boasted that "I think we have 15 or 20 invitations to testify."

Baker bristled when reporters questioned the study group's credibility. When ABC News's Jonathan Karl, pointing out that only one of the 10 panelists ever left the Green Zone in Iraq, asked why their views should carry weight, Baker looked down the row of commissioners with a smile and a wink. He took out some lip balm and applied it, then smiled some more. "This report by this bunch of has-beens up here is the only bipartisan report that's out there," he finally shot back.

Whatever else the "has-beens" accomplished, they made sure that any credibility questions will be directed not at them but at Bush. Hamilton lectured: "You cannot look at this area of the world and pick and choose among the countries that you're going to deal with." Leon Panetta counseled Bush to "look at the realities of what's taking place." Eagleburger said after the event that when the group met with Bush, "I don't recall, seriously, that he asked any questions." Even the loyal Baker had to advise his friend's son that "it is time to find a new way forward."

At least he didn't say Bush has B.O.

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