By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 21, 2007
After an initially tepid reception from policymakers, the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group are getting a second look from the White House and Congress, as officials continue to scour for bipartisan solutions to salvage the American engagement in Iraq.
With negotiations continuing this week on a new war funding bill, the administration is strongly signaling that it would accept the idea of requiring the Iraqi government to meet political benchmarks or else risk losing some assistance from the United States. That was one of the key proposals from the group headed by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former Indiana congressman Lee H. Hamilton, but it was initially dismissed by the White House when first proposed last December.
The administration is also preparing for its first substantive discussions with Iran, to begin on Memorial Day, not long after its first high-level talks with Syria in more than two years. The Iraq Study Group had strongly urged such regional diplomacy aimed at fostering a political settlement and bringing down the sectarian violence in Baghdad.
"They are coming our way," Hamilton said in a recent interview.
The comeback of the Iraq Study Group's suggestions underscores the intense desire by some in Washington to fashion a workable long-term policy on Iraq. The months since the commission issued its report have seen increased polarization, with Democrats mostly united in their desire to end American involvement in the war and President Bush struggling to buy time for additional troops to pacify Baghdad.
The urgency may be felt most acutely on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers from both parties are planning to introduce legislation soon that would make the 79 Iraq Study Group recommendations official policy of the U.S. government. Among the sponsors are several Republicans who have traditionally supported the Bush administration on Iraq -- another sign of how GOP lawmakers may be looking for an exit strategy.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who is one of the sponsors, said he is looking to the study group's ideas as a way of ensuring a long-term American commitment to Iraq, albeit with a smaller troop presence. "My sense among Republican senators is we know very well that the current course is not a sustainable course over a longer period of time," he said. "If we drift into September, [the president] may not be able to find a bipartisan basis to support a long-term limited interest in Iraq."
Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who helped create the Baker-Hamilton commission, called the recommendations a "gift to the administration" and said they offer "a road map to success." Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), another mainstream Republican, said he thought the proposals were "gaining more support in the Congress because the situation in Iraq is not going as well as we had hoped."
Officials in Washington "don't know what to do," said Hamilton, a Democrat. "They don't have a framework. They are looking. They are searching. Something has to follow the surge [of U.S. troops to Iraq] -- they are interested in our proposals as a framework for policy."
Administration officials say they are already implementing many of the Baker-Hamilton ideas, though the president himself has tacitly admitted that some of the major elements remain undone. Bush has spoken frequently in recent weeks about his interest in the Iraq Study Group's proposal to shift the American military's role in Iraq from combat to training and support and reduce the number of U.S. troops, suggesting that is the direction he wants to go after violence in Baghdad is brought under control.
"I liked what James A. Baker and Lee Hamilton suggested," Bush said in East Grand Rapids, Mich., last month. "And that is to be in a position at some point in time where our troops are embedded with the Iraqi units -- in other words, there's Iraqi units providing security with a handful of U.S. troops -- helping them learn what it means to be a good military."
Such comments highlight an evolution in administration attitudes toward the study group, which delivered its recommendations to the White House along with a withering critique of administration Iraq policy.
Although the panel's 10 prominent Americans, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, did not call for a timetable of withdrawal, they said they believed combat brigades could be withdrawn by early 2008. Members also said they could live with Bush's "surge" plan but made it clear that they saw that as only a short-term solution.
The president spoke graciously about the study when it was first released, but the report enraged some conservatives inside and outside the administration as a recipe for defeat. Many officials involved with the study think the president was not happy with being given a blueprint for Iraq policy from a group of outsiders, let alone one led by his father's former close aide Baker.
Since then, however, the White House has appeared to be inching toward concepts in the report, most notably its more active diplomacy in the Middle East. Although the effort is clearly less than the full diplomatic "offensive" that was recommended, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has since traveled to the Middle East trying to restart the peace process, met for the first time with Syria's foreign minister and has been more assertive in trying to engage Iraq's neighbors, including Iran, to help quell the nation's sectarian violence.
Meanwhile, the idea of political benchmarks for the Iraqi government is emerging as a major point of discussion as the White House and congressional Democrats try to sort out their differences over funding the war. Borrowing from dates suggested by the Iraqi government itself, the Iraq Study Group laid out a series of milestones for political progress, such as passing a law to distribute oil revenues, holding provincial elections and allowing former Baathists back into the government.
The panel said American support for Iraq should be conditioned on the Iraqi government meeting the benchmarks. The White House has resisted such conditions in the past, but aides say the president is now willing to negotiate such a plan in the new Iraq funding bill.
"Any kind of reasonable benchmarks on the Iraqi government, I think, are going to have broad bipartisan support," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a strong Bush ally, said yesterday on ABC's "This Week." On the same show, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) indicated that the kind of "accountability" the administration wants is insufficient.
"The administration is sort of being slowly compelled to adopt the bipartisan consensus that the Iraq Study Group presented them in December," said James F. Dobbins, a Rand Corp. analyst and former U.S. diplomat who served on one of the expert working groups advising the panel. "Eventually they are going to be pulled to it regarding troop reductions."
The trouble, he said, is that by coming around so late, the White House may have missed the last opportunity to rally Congress to support staying in Iraq under more limited circumstances -- rather than simply pulling out. "They are going to end up embracing all the provisions, without the benefit of bipartisanship," Dobbins said.