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."
"How do you solve problems without talking to people?" Hamilton asked. The panel, he added, "flat out" rejects the idea that talks should depend on good behavior.
Still, Baker said, "the last thing in the world" he is interested in is "backing the president into any corner" on Iraq. "That's not the purpose of this," he said. Unlike the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Baker said his panel does not intend to stay around to monitor the implementation of its recommendations. After appearing on Sunday talk shows, he said, "I'm finished."
Former senior officials also questioned the focus on Iran and Syria. "They can be spoilers in Iraq, but they're not the fixers," said Dennis Ross, former chief Middle East negotiator for two administrations. "Even if Iran and Syria did exactly what we want, we'd still have an insurgency in Anbar province and we'd still have sectarian warfare driven in no small part by the Shiite militias. Ultimately, the problems we face today come from within Iraq, not outside it."
The plan would not work without a committed effort, which the Bush administration has never demonstrated, others said. "Cherry-picking ideas and sending them into the bowels of the stovepiped bureaucracy to execute will result in more of the same uncoordinated, differing priorities, mess," said retired Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, a former Middle East mediator for the Bush administration.
Other military officers expressed caution about the Iraq Study Group's proposal to pull out combat units by the first quarter of 2008 while leaving behind tens of thousands of troops to train, advise and embed with Iraqi forces.
Army Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the top U.S. field commander in Iraq, said in a telephone interview that he has read the report's executive summary and found many recommendations "very, very valuable." He added: "I dare say I believe if we had applied some of these principles a little bit earlier on in our time over here, many of the issues we're facing here today might not in fact be, and we might not have the level of violence here."
Chiarelli said that he agrees it makes sense to shift the mission to a supporting role as Iraqi forces take responsibility for security, but that it could be difficult to remove combat forces by early 2008. "I think that date may be a date we could meet . . . if we would harness all the power we have as a nation," he said, referring to diplomatic and economic efforts as well as military. "If all you do is rely on what is the easy part for us" -- meaning the military effort -- and "if we don't get buy-in in the other areas the study group has pointed to, I think that's going to be very problematic."
At his news conference, Bush brushed past the 2008 goal and said troop withdrawals would depend on conditions on the ground. "I've always said we'd like our troops out as fast as possible," he said. "I think that's an important goal."
In his opening remarks, Bush focused on the broader aspirations of the Iraq war: the "spread of freedom" and the attempt to build "societies based on liberty" in the Middle East -- concepts implicitly rejected by the Baker-Hamilton commission as unrealistic and naive. "The only way to secure a lasting peace for our children and grandchildren is to defeat the extremist ideologies and help the ideology of hope, democracy, prevail," he said.
But just days after his new defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, and his close friend Blair both said that they believe the United States and Britain are not winning the war, Bush bristled when asked if he was "still in denial about how bad things are in Iraq."
"It's bad in Iraq," Bush replied sharply, glaring at the reporter. "Does that help?"
The president added: "In all due respect, I've been saying it a lot. I understand how tough it is, and I've been telling the American people how tough it is . . . I also believe we're going to succeed. I believe we'll prevail."
Staff writers Michael Abramowitz, Thomas E. Ricks and Josh White contributed to this report.