Hawks Bolster Skeptical President

President Bush is thought to be skeptical of the major recommendations   of the Iraq Study Group, as are key members of the White House staff.
President Bush is thought to be skeptical of the major recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, as are key members of the White House staff. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Abramowitz and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 10, 2006

Steady condemnation from conservatives for the Iraq Study Group report may be providing some cover to the Bush administration as it completes its own review of strategy in Iraq, apparently with little enthusiasm for the panel's prescription of U.S. troop withdrawal and dialogue with Syria and Iran.

The criticism of the panel, co-chaired by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), has burst forth from the leading institutions of the right: the National Review, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the Weekly Standard; conservative talk radio; and scholars at some of Washington's top think tanks.

President Bush has spoken favorably of the panel's work as an opportunity to bring the country together, but he has been noncommittal on its key recommendations. Comments from the hawkish right, meanwhile, have often been an accurate gauge of the beliefs of key figures inside the Bush administration, especially Vice President Cheney.

Many Republican and Democratic lawmakers have embraced the panel's report, but the almost uniformly negative reaction from some of Bush's strongest conservative supporters means the president may have some political flexibility to depart from the group's major recommendations, according to some GOP operatives.

Notably fueling the skepticism has been Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has raised pointed questions about the Baker-Hamilton panel's unwillingness to prescribe more troops, as McCain has urged, and its embrace of a regional conference with Syria and Iran.

"It's sort of hard to suddenly say everyone agrees Baker is the way to go when the leading Republican candidate for '08 is saying no," said William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard.

Although it is clear that many Republicans regard the Iraq Study Group's report as a possible exit strategy from a war that they worry could drag the party down in 2008, such plans are colliding with clear anger from neoconservatives, who have been the most ardent supporters of the Bush administration since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"It's preposterous, period," said Kenneth R. Weinstein, chief executive of the conservative-leaning Hudson Institute, about the proposal for a new dialogue with Iran and Syria. "Talking to them is not going to bring anything but a perception of American weakness."

"The report is a monumental disappointment, for all the hype," said Richard Perle, a former Reagan-administration defense official who strongly supported the Iraq invasion. "The recommendations are either wrong or of no consequence. There is no magic bullet, but in their desire to find something, they found the wrong things."

Many of the conservatives have long distrusted Baker, viewing him as a figure of amoral, dealmaking diplomacy who unduly pressured Israel and coddled Syria when he was secretary of state.

And the Baker-Hamilton group, neoconservatives came to believe, was stacked against them from the beginning, both in the composition of the panel and in the panel's choices of experts to hear from. Neoconservatives also complained that the group sought out the views of Iran and Syria but did not speak to senior officials of such allies as Israel and Turkey.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr., a former Reagan administration hawk who heads the Center for Security Policy, said he believes the panel's output was "certainly driven" by Baker.

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