Back to Baker-Hamilton

By David Ignatius
Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Lee Hamilton, the former Indiana congressman who is a one-man bipartisan commission, recently suggested a simple test for evaluating political leaders. The best choice, he told a Washington gathering, is the person who can build consensus around difficult policy issues.

By that measure, we are seeing a long list of would-be dividers but not many leaders. The United States is losing a war in Iraq, yet instead of uniting around a policy that could reduce the damage and create a sustainable strategy for the future, Congress and the White House are on a collision course over funding for the troops.

A glimmer of hope that U.S. politicians haven't all lost their minds was a statement this week by Barack Obama challenging his party's extreme wing. "I think that nobody wants to play chicken with our troops on the ground," he said in an interview with the Associated Press. "I don't think that we will see a majority of the Senate vote to cut off funding at this stage."

Obama has the political maneuvering room to be sensible now because he was skeptical about the war from the start. But that didn't stop a blast from the left-wing blogger Kos, who wrote Monday that Obama "just surrendered to Bush." If Obama is in fact ready to challenge his party's most partisan activists, perhaps he is a man who can meet Hamilton's test.

The Democrats' problem is that they seem determined to join the Bush administration in doubling down bad bets on Iraq. In the Democrats' case, the mistaken gamble is that by imposing a Washington timetable for troop withdrawal, America will compel good behavior from the fratricidal Iraqis. That idea is naive. But then, so is the Bush administration's politically divisive strategy for an open-ended troop surge in Baghdad. No matter how clever Gen. David Petraeus's battle plan, it won't work unless it can be sustained politically, in Baghdad and Washington. The crucial asset for Petraeus is time, which in turn is a function of political consensus at home. And that asset is wasting, even as the number of U.S. troops goes up.

Here we return to Hamilton, co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, and his partner on the other side of the bipartisan hyphen, former secretary of state James A. Baker III. Four months after its release, the Baker-Hamilton report still looks like the best way to unite Democrats and Republicans before there is a dangerous collision over funding for the war. The report has something for everyone: It shares the Democrats' goal of withdrawing most U.S. troops by March 2008 and stresses the need for milestones in Iraq. But it endorses the Bush administration's view that milestones should be jointly negotiated with the Iraqi government, rather than imposed by Washington. And it recognizes that troop withdrawals must be contingent on political and military conditions on the ground.

The Baker-Hamilton report focused on the need for a sustainable policy -- one that would make Iraq an American project rather than George W. Bush's war. That requires a shift in military strategy from U.S. combat operations to a counterinsurgency approach centered on training and advising the Iraqi military. But the study group, composed of five Democrats and five Republicans, also said it could "support a short-term redeployment or surge of American combat forces to stabilize Baghdad, or to speed up the training and equipping mission."

The most controversial aspect of the Baker-Hamilton report was its call for greater American diplomatic engagement in the region, including talks with Iran and Syria and a new push on the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Four months later, Bush administration officials have sat around a table in Baghdad with Syrians and Iranians, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is beginning a serious effort to midwife the birth of a Palestinian state, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is visiting Damascus. We're all Baker-Hamiltonians now.

The Baker-Hamilton report offered a way out of the partisan wilderness when it was released in December. It still does. It provides an Iraq platform on which responsible Republicans and Democrats can gather. Neither side will get everything it wants, but both can claim a measure of support for their positions. That's the essence of building consensus.

A train-wreck debate on Iraq will be destructive for both parties, not to mention the people in the Middle East. The Baker-Hamilton report is the best framework for building a policy that is sustainable, in Washington and in Baghdad. Leading Republicans and Democrats say that, in principle, they still support Baker-Hamilton. So do something about it.

The writer co-hosts, with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues at http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/postglobal. His e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com.


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