WASHINGTON — After meeting with President Bush Monday, a panel of prestigious Americans will begin deliberations to chart a new course on Iraq, with the goal of trying to stabilize the country with a different U.S. strategy and possibly begin withdrawing more than 140,000 troops.
Tuesday's dramatic election results, widely seen as a repudiation of the Bush Iraq policy, has thrust the 10-member, bipartisan Iraq Study Group into an unusual position, similar to that played by the 9/11 Commission. This panel, led by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton, may play a decisive role in reshaping America's position in Iraq, according to lawmakers and administration officials.
Those familiar with the panel's work predict the ultimate recommendations will not appear novel and that there are few, if any, good options left facing the country. Many of the ideas reportedly being considered — more aggressive regional diplomacy with Syria and Iran and greater emphasis on training Iraqi troops or focusing on a new political deal between warring Shiite and Sunni factions — have either been tried or have limited chances of success, in the view of many experts on Iraq. Baker is also exploring whether a broader U.S. initiative in tackling the Arab-Israeli conflict is needed to help stabilize the region.
Given the grave predicament the group faces, its focus is now as much on finding a political solution for the United States as it is on finding a plan that would bring peace to Iraq. With Republicans and Democrats so bitterly divided over the war, Baker and Hamilton believe that it is vital that his group produce a consensus plan, according to those who have spoken with him.
That could appeal to both parties. Democrats would have something to support after a campaign in which they criticized Bush's Iraq policy without offering many specifics of their own. And with support for its Iraq policy fast evaporating even within its own party, the White House might find in the group's plan either a politically acceptable exit strategy or cover for a continued effort to prop up the new democratically elected government in Baghdad.
'A huge signal'
"Baker's objectives for the Iraq Study Group are grounded in his conviction that Iraq is the central foreign policy issue confronting the United States, and that the only way to address that issue successfully is to first build a bipartisan consensus," said Arnold Kanter, who served as undersecretary of state under Baker during the first Bush administration.
But the election may have made the job even tougher by emboldening panel Democrats, said people familiar with the panel's deliberations. The election "sent a huge signal," said one of these sources, who added that the panel is trying to come to grips with whether the current Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has the capacity to solve the country's problems.
While Baker has been testing the waters for some time to determine how much change in Iraq policy will be tolerated by the White House, Hamilton faces the perhaps now even-more-difficult challenge of cajoling Democrats like former Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta and power-broker Vernon Jordan to sign on to some kind of plan that falls short of a phased troop withdrawal, the position of many congressional Democrats.
In a brief interview, Hamilton conceded the obstacles ahead and emphasized that no decisions have been made. "We need to get (the report) drafted, number one," Hamilton said. "We need to reach agreement, and that may not be possible."
When it was first formed last spring by Congress, the Iraq Study Group was little known beyond elite circles of the U.S. foreign policy world. Now its work has become perhaps the most eagerly awaited Washington report in many years — recommendations are now expected in early December — with many lawmakers of both parties saying they are looking for answers to the troubled U.S. mission in Iraq.
"I can only be hopeful that they'll have a positive solution," Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., who will likely become the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in an interview. Asked if he thought that it was possible to please both the president and congressional Democrats, Skelton turned the question around, saying, "I wonder if the White House will not use them as a face-saving device."
Indeed, the White House, which had been skeptical the group will have much new to say, has been notably more receptive since the election. "If these recommendations help bring greater consensus for Republicans and Democrats, I think that could be very helpful," said Dan Bartlett, counselor to President Bush, though he added, "If there were a rifle-shot solution, we would have already pulled the trigger."
Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley will meet with members of the commission on Monday. During three days of deliberations, the panel will also hear by video link from British Prime Minister Tony Blair — who sources said has been anxious to talk to the panel — as well as consult with the Democratic shadow foreign policy cabinet, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger.
While Hamilton's role may be growing as a result of Tuesday's elections, it is Baker who has been the dominant force in the panel's work so far, according to people involved. And it is Baker whose special connection to the Bush family — he was the closest political associate of former President George H.W. Bush — has invited speculation that he is maneuvering to save the Bush presidency from the disaster unfolding in Iraq.
Baker, who did not respond to an interview request, has publicly expressed skepticism about President Bush's ambition of transforming Iraq into a democratic beacon of change for the entire Middle East. Speaking at Princeton University, his alma mater, last April, shortly after the study group was formed, Baker said, "We ought not to think we're going to see a flowering of Jeffersonian democracy along the banks of the Euphrates," according to the Daily Princetonian.
Baker has offered other pointed critiques of the Bush administration's Iraq policy in recent months, during appearances aimed partly at selling his new memoir. In television and other interviews, Baker has made clear his desire to chart a middle road between the Bush administration policy and what he regards as premature withdrawal from Iraq.
While Hamilton had a hand in selecting the Democrats on the group, its makeup reflects a pragmatic, centrist approach to foreign policy. Few of its 10 members are true foreign policy experts. Rather, it is the classic Washington blue-ribbon commission, a group of "old hands" steeped in the ways of the capital — two former secretaries of state (Baker and Lawrence Eagleburger), two former senators (Republican Alan Simpson and Democrat Chuck Robb), a former defense secretary (William Perry) and a former Supreme Court justice, (Sandra Day O'Connor).
Within the panel, staffers and expert consultants have waged warfare by memo as idealists argue with pragmatists over particulars: Retired CIA officer Ray Close complained in one such memo that the deliberations "had degenerated into petty squabbling" and accused "obstinate neocon diehards" of trying to fashion a "stay the course" strategy. Panel members have heard testimony from a wide range of administration officials and outside experts and traveled to Iraq for several days of interviews with senior American diplomats and military officials, as well as Iraqi leaders. Baker, who seems intrigued by the idea of achieving greater assistance in Iraq from America's adversaries, had a three-hour dinner with Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammed Javad Zarif, in New York.
Baker made clear that he was not negotiating for the United States, but that the commission wanted Iran's input and suggestions. He specifically asked about the possibilities for cooperation between Tehran and Washington on Iraq, according to Iranian sources.
Such contacts have invited skepticism from some of the prominent neo-conservatives who strongly pushed the invasion of Iraq but have come to be critical of the administration for failing to aggressively strive for military victory. They said the notion that Iran would help the United States out of its troubles in Iraq was ludicrous.
"There's no doubt that the majority of the people in this group, either as advisers or principals, either opposed the war or forgot that they were in favor of it," said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who was one of several dozen official expert advisers to the Baker-Hamilton group.
However, Gerecht and William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, said they believed their views had received a respectful hearing from the panel. Kristol related a curious anecdote from his September appearance before the panel to promote a plan to provide more troops for security in Baghdad and elsewhere.
Then-panel member Robert Gates, who quit the group Friday following his nomination as Defense secretary by Bush, asked Kristol why he thought the president was so determined to stick with Donald Rumsfeld as Defense secretary.
Kristol replied that he was mystified — at which point, as he recalled it, Baker interjected with the comment, "Well, you can't expect the president to do anything until after the election."
Contributing: Robin Wright, Walter Pincus, Glenn Kessler and Dan Eggen ontributed to this article. Ricks, the author of "Fiasco," a book on the Bush administration's policy in Iraq, appeared before the study group at its request to answer quetions about his book.