By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 11, 2006
Former secretary of state James A. Baker III said for the first time yesterday that the Iraq Study Group remains committed to democracy in Iraq, as he and Co-Chairman Lee H. Hamilton offered conciliatory words to a Bush administration that has reacted coolly to the panel's key recommendations.
The group's report makes no mention of President Bush's oft-stated goal of establishing democracy in Iraq; in the five days since its release, Baker and Hamilton have talked in more modest terms, referring to Bush's recent formulation of creating an Iraq that can govern and defend itself. But in an interview on "Fox News Sunday," Baker emphasized: "We don't negate the goal of democracy."
"The goal of democracy has always been a goal and foundation and basis for American foreign policy, and it will always remain that," Baker said.
The comments appeared part of an effort by Baker and Hamilton to use the Sunday talk shows to play down talk of rifts between the panel and the Bush administration, which is finishing its own review of strategy in Iraq. In televised interviews, Baker said he understands the administration's internal studies call for some of the things his panel urged, such as changing the focus of the U.S. military presence in Iraq from combat to training.
Baker also sought to portray the panel's proposal for a more aggressive Middle East diplomatic effort as less ambitious than its critics have suggested. At a news conference last week, Bush seemed to take issue with the panel's suggestion that his administration should engage in high-level dialogue with Syria and Iran without preconditions.
Baker said that he wanted to make sure "everyone understands . . . the limited nature of what we are proposing with respect to Iran and Syria." He said the administration should find out whether Iran is willing to do what it did several years ago to help stabilize Afghanistan. He also said Syria would be required to meet several key obligations, including cooperating in the investigation of political assassinations in Lebanon and persuading Hamas to recognize Israel's right to exist.
"We're not talking about sitting down with Iran and talking to them about everything under the sun," Baker said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
White House press secretary Tony Snow dismissed speculation that the White House is hostile to the Baker-Hamilton group's recommendations, saying there is a "moment of opportunity here" for the two parties to come together on a new policy for Iraq. But he stressed in an interview: "Obviously, the president is the one who is going to be offering the final call about the way forward."
The president plans to spend much of the coming week on the Iraq review with officials at the Pentagon and State Department, and will also consult with outside experts. Snow said he expects the results of the review to be announced before Christmas, but "at this point it isn't a nail-down promise."
On the talk shows, Hamilton and Baker pushed back against some of the criticism their group has received in recent days, particularly from hawks such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who want the administration to deploy more troops in Baghdad to quell the violence.
"We do not think we have" 50,000 to 100,000 troops "to put there on a sustained basis," Hamilton said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "Furthermore, if you do that, you are going to get the Iraqis to react by saying, 'Oh well, let the Americans take it.' That's exactly what we don't want. We want the Iraqis at the point of the spear, not the American forces."
Hamilton, a former Democratic representative from Indiana, also appeared to acknowledge, but reject, criticism from some in the administration that the panel's estimate of how quickly new Iraqi units can be trained is unrealistic. The panel stated that U.S. combat brigades can be withdrawn by the first quarter of 2008.
"In the last year or so, we have sharply improved that training, and it can be done if we put the priority on it that we're emphasizing. It's the best way forward with the options that we have," Hamilton said on "Meet the Press."
Baker said on "Face the Nation" that he is not surprised by some of the criticism for his panel's work from conservatives who have been ardent supporters of the war and the Bush administration.
"The situation is such that politics as usual is not going to come up with the answer," he said. "There has to be a unity of the American people and a unity of the country behind an approach if this is going to work."
The two men's comments came after Iraqi President Jalal Talabani harshly criticized the panel's report for "dangerous" recommendations that would "undermine the sovereignty of Iraq and the constitution."