The Path to Compromise

From Hundreds Of Sources, Panel Forged Consensus

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By Peter Baker, Robin Wright and Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 7, 2006

After all the testimony and fact-finding, after all the white papers and working groups, after the flak-jacket, bombs-in-the-background visit to Baghdad, it came down to the same issue that has animated the broader national debate about Iraq for months: Stay or get out.

The Iraq Study Group was starting final deliberations last month when the issue threatened to disrupt the careful consensus its members had tried to forge. Former defense secretary William J. Perry had drafted a proposal calling for a timetable to withdraw U.S. troops, according to accounts by insiders. Former secretary of state James A. Baker III resisted a firm date, wanting to leave that to the president.

"I'm not going to sign anything that is going to paper over the problem," Perry said.

"Well, if that's the case, that's the case," Baker replied.

In the end, though, Baker and Perry walked off together to settle their differences rather than let them split the commission. With suggestions from other members, they crafted careful language that they both could support, a recommendation to pull out nearly all U.S. combat units by early 2008 -- a goal, not a timetable, but a date nonetheless.

The fissure and its resolution culminated a process marked by that rarest of qualities in a polarized era: bipartisanship. At a time when Washington prefers confrontation to compromise, five Republicans and five Democrats sat down to tackle the country's most urgent crisis and came up with a document they all could sign. It proved to be a nine-month study of how to bridge not only Iraq's deep divide but also America's.

Whether the end result will prove meaningful is another question. A plan emerging from the middle invariably unsettles those at either end who view it as wholly inadequate. Even some of the authors consider the report released yesterday a "messy compromise," as one put it. But the story of how a little-noticed commission created by Congress evolved into a political powerhouse and a symbol of national unity harks back to a different time, when for better or worse "Wise Men" advised presidents and shaped policy.

The Iraq Study Group had its origins in a September 2005 trip to Iraq by Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), a quiet legislative veteran with a strong moral streak and a driving interest in international human rights. "I saw some things that were dramatically different," recalled Wolf, who had visited twice previously. "You could just feel that things had shifted."

So he conceived the idea of a bipartisan commission that would cut through the domestic rhetoric and offer sober counsel. The Bush administration reacted coolly but ultimately did not block it. In fact, not many took notice. The announcement of the commission in March generated just a single paragraph in the next day's newspaper. Congress did not authorize $1 million in funding until June.

Baker and his co-chairman, former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), recruited an all-star establishment lineup, including former Cabinet secretaries and senators, a former Supreme Court justice and a backroom powerbroker. Average age: 74. "The only thing we have in common is gray hair," joked former attorney general Edwin Meese III. But they shared a common commitment, he added. "We parked our partisanship at the door."

What would arguably prove to be one of the most anticipated study groups in modern times started tentatively. "At first, they were a little bit uncertain of what they were going to do and even whether it would amount to anything," said Daniel P. Serwer, the group's executive director. "There were a lot of initial questions: What was our role? How can we manage? We're not Iraq experts -- where are we going to get the expertise?"

Under the auspices of the U.S. Institute of Peace and three other think tanks, the commission created four working groups consisting of 44 foreign policy analysts and Iraq specialists to advise it. During its first phase, it set out to define U.S. goals and learn about Iraq. Over nine months, 31 papers were prepared for the panel. Testimony was taken from hundreds of U.S., Iraqi, Arabic and European officials, including President Bush, Vice President Cheney and former president Bill Clinton, as well as scholars, journalists and military officers.


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