Bush Appears Cool to Key Points Of Report on Iraq

By Peter Baker and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 8, 2006

President Bush vowed yesterday to come up with "a new strategy" in Iraq but expressed little enthusiasm for the central ideas of a bipartisan commission that advised him to ratchet back the U.S. military commitment in Iraq and launch an aggressive new diplomatic effort in the region.

On the day after the congressionally chartered Iraq Study Group released its widely anticipated report, much of Washington maneuvered to pick out the parts they like and pick apart those they do not. The report's authors were greeted with skepticism on Capitol Hill, and Democratic leaders used the occasion to press Bush to change course without embracing the commission's particular recipe themselves.

The group's 96-page report roiled some in the Middle East, particularly Israel, which rejected proposals for concessions to Syria. And it drew fire from current and former U.S. officials who called its diplomacy ideas unrealistic, unattainable and even misguided. The U.S. ground commander in Iraq, while welcoming the report's broad principles, warned that meeting its goal of withdrawing combat units by early 2008 could prove to "be very problematic."

The emerging debate over the report sets a baseline for the administration's own internal review of Iraq policy, which officials hope to complete in time for Bush to give a speech to the nation before Christmas announcing his new plan for Iraq. At a news conference with visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush called himself "disappointed by the pace of success" and said that "we'll change it if we want to succeed."

"The American people expect us to come up with a new strategy to achieve the objective which I've been talking about," Bush said.

Yet, while the president called the Iraq Study Group's ideas "worthy of serious study," he seemed to dismiss the most significant ones point by point. He noted that Blair is heading to the Middle East to promote Arab-Israeli peace, but he gave no indication that he plans an aggressive new push of his own as proposed by the commission. Bush said he, too, wants to bring U.S. troops home but noted that the group qualified its 2008 goal by linking it to security on the ground.

And he repeated his refusal to talk with Iran and Syria unless Tehran suspends its uranium-enrichment program, Damascus stops interfering in Lebanon and both drop their support for terrorist groups. "The truth of the matter is that these countries have now got the choice to make," Bush said. "If they want to sit down at the table with the United States, it's easy: Just make some decisions that will lead to peace, not to conflict."

With the commission -- led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) -- having advanced 79 recommendations, Bush made clear that he intends to cherry-pick some and ignore others. "I don't think Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton expect us to accept every recommendation," Bush said. "I think they expect us to consider every recommendation."

Actually, Baker and Hamilton said on Wednesday that they do want the president to accept the commission's plan as a whole, not simply pieces of it. But they lowered their expectations yesterday and welcomed Bush's comments. "Every single statement the president has made that I have seen . . . has been positive," Hamilton told reporters. "Now, he didn't jump and embrace the report and say 'I'm going to enact all 79 recommendations.' We didn't have that expectation."

Baker and Hamilton did offer a forceful defense of their call for a more robust Middle East diplomacy as critical to helping stabilize Iraq -- perhaps the most controversial part of their report. "In order for Iraq to succeed, the neighbors are going to have to come together to reinforce and take steps to reinforce the positive steps which we hope will take place in Iraq," Hamilton said. "These problems in the Middle East are interconnected with one another."

The report, for example, lays out an elaborate plan to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict by getting Israel to return the Golan Heights in exchange for Syria recognizing Israel, dropping ties to extremists and leaving Lebanon alone. U.S. officials think that this approach is outdated, that Syria is less interested today in the Golan Heights than on winning back influence over Lebanon and terminating U.N. efforts to hold Syria to account for the assassination of Lebanese reformers.

Baker rejected the idea, advanced by some in the administration, that the Middle East has changed so dramatically in the 15 years since he was in office that engaging Syria will not work. "So don't try because it's going to be tough? Come on!" Baker said. "Don't say 'Because it isn't going to happen' that you ought not to try."

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