By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 12, 2007
Despite an overwhelming House vote last month to revive the Iraq Study Group, the White House has blocked reconvening the bipartisan panel to provide a second independent assessment of the military and political situation in Iraq, said several sources involved in the panel's December 2006 report.
Co-Chairman Lee H. Hamilton, several panel members and the U.S. Institute of Peace, which ran the study group, were willing to participate, according to Hamilton and the congressionally funded think tank. But the White House did not give the green light for co-chairman and former secretary of state James A. Baker III to participate, and Baker is unwilling to lead a second review without President Bush's approval, according to members of the original panel and sources close to Baker.
White House support is critical for any follow-up review. "It is not likely to happen unless the White House approves it," Hamilton, a Democratic former congressman from Indiana, said in an interview. "The group can't go ahead without its concurrence or acquiescence, as we need travel support and access to documents."
The White House does not want independent assessments to rival the upcoming Sept. 15 reports by Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, U.S. officials said.
The White House indicated that it sees no need for an immediate follow-up to the report, noting that it is implementing a strategy consistent with many of the panel's recommendations. "The next report due in September by General Petraeus must include an assessment of our objectives as they relate to Baker-Hamilton. September will be the appropriate time to determine how that strategy is progressing," said National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe. "We look forward to remaining in contact with members of the group."
The House voted 355 to 69 last month to allocate $1 million for the U.S. Institute of Peace to reestablish the group of 10 prominent Republicans and Democrats, which included former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor, former defense secretary William J. Perry and, until his appointment, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.
Congressional sponsors called the White House's reluctance a missed opportunity. "The ISG provides an opportunity to bring the country together. . . . If you had a serious illness, you would want a second opinion. We are at war. You want to have the best minds looking at a problem," said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who proposed the ISG and co-sponsored the bill to reconvene it. "Having another independent, bipartisan assessment will take out the venom in the debate."
Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), another co-sponsor, warned that the White House's move would cost further support among Republicans.
"It's really shortsighted," he said. "It's going to further isolate the president. . . . You can't rely just on Petraeus and Crocker. They are good people, but they're still in the thick of battle and you need the view from the outside. The fact the White House doesn't want it indicates they are afraid of what the ISG might say."
The White House did not initially embrace the ISG report. But it has gradually adopted key recommendations, including the controversial proposal to pursue diplomatic talks with Iran and Syria, the countries that have most aided or abetted Iraq's insurgents and illegal militias. Last month, 23 Democrats and 34 Republicans co-sponsored a House bill to implement all the ISG recommendations as the way forward in Iraq.
But other groups are pursuing independent reviews of U.S. policy and Iraq's performance. The Iraqi Security Forces Independent Assessment Commission -- made up of 14 former generals and defense officials -- is examining Iraqi military capabilities. The panel, which is mandated by Congress, is chaired by retired Gen. James L. Jones. The group is currently in Iraq; its report is due in October.
The Government Accountability Office is doing a separate congressionally mandated study on the 18 benchmarks set for the Iraqi government to meet. And the U.S. Institute of Peace is reconvening many of the experts the ISG originally relied on to discuss Iraq's future.