By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 8, 2006
Members of Congress yesterday questioned the practicability of recommendations from the Iraq Study Group about how to reverse the chaos in Iraq, but they praised the panel's stark assessment of conditions there.
Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) said he plans to hold a series of hearings on Iraq soon after becoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee next month when Democrats take control of Congress, and he said he is prepared to use subpoenas to get relevant documents from the Pentagon.
Democrats were guarded in their treatment of the report, especially its call for engaging Syria and Iran in diplomacy. In comments after a hearing yesterday with the co-chairmen of the Iraq Study Group, Levin suggested that "there could be some kind of effort to generally support the recommendations."
But Republicans and Democrats alike on the Senate Armed Services panel quizzed former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) about specifics. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was the most dubious, singling out the group's decision not to call for sending more troops to Iraq. "I believe that this is a recipe that will lead to, sooner or later, our defeat in Iraq," he said.
Another leading presidential aspirant, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), was more receptive but expressed doubt that President Bush would act on the report. "We've now heard from the Iraq Study Group, but we need the White House to become the Iraq Results Group," she said. "That is very frustrating for some of us. We don't understand the misjudgments and missteps that have been taken in the last years."
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), along with several colleagues, took aim at one of the bipartisan commission's most controversial proposals: that the United States use diplomacy to find ways to get Syria and Iran to help stabilize Iraq. "I'm skeptical that it's realistic to think that Iran wants to help the United States succeed in Iraq," he said.
Baker and Hamilton proved to be unusual witnesses. They conceded that their 79 recommendations carry a good deal of risk, but they essentially said no one else had a better idea. "We think it is worth a try," said Baker, conveying the sense that the United States is down to its last chance in Iraq, and that the group had prescribed the least bad of several options.
"You don't have much to lose here," Hamilton added in defending the diplomatic recommendations. "Things are not going in a very good direction right now, and why not take some chance here in involving these countries?"
He also warned that a point is fast approaching beyond which Iraq could become a lost cause. "We're perilously close to that point," he said.
Baker was feisty in defending the proposals to engage Iran and Syria. "We're not naive enough to think that in this case they may want to help," he said. But if Iran refused to participate in an international conference, he said, it would show itself to be rejectionist.
He also said it is possible to use carrots and sticks to get Syria to be more helpful, citing as proof that he was able to bring Damascus into the international coalition for the Persian Gulf War. "I got it, back in '91 after 15 trips there, at a time when they were a state that sponsored terrorism," he noted.
Baker displayed little of the deference witnesses customarily show senators. At one point, he impatiently interrupted Lieberman's questioning about whether Iran would engage in talks. "We say it in the report, Senator -- it's in the report," he said, noting that the United States conferred with Tehran about events in Afghanistan.
Hamilton also told the senators that they are part of the problem. "I, frankly, am not that impressed with what the Congress has been able to do," said the 34-year House veteran. "I think the Congress has been extraordinarily timid in its exercise of its constitutional responsibilities on the question of warmaking and conducting war."
Separately, in another indication of the difficulties the commission's recommendations may encounter in Congress, Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, characterized the Iraq Study Group report as "theater" and "devoid of any basis in reality" because it offers what he considers overly ambitious plans that almost certainly cannot be carried out.
"The practical realities of these empty recommendations will be clear when we try to implement any of this stuff," Abercrombie said in an interview.
Staff writer Josh White contributed to this report.