NY Times: Panel Urges Basic Shift in U.S. Policy in Iraq


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

December 7, 2006

Panel Urges Basic Shift in U.S. Policy in Iraq

WASHINGTON, Dec. 6 ‹ A bipartisan commission warned Wednesday that ³the 
situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating,² and it handed President Bush both
a rebuke for his current strategy and a detailed blueprint for a fundamentally 
different approach, including the pullback of all American combat brigades over 
the next 15 months.

In unusually sweeping and blunt language, the panel of five Republicans and five
Democrats issued 79 specific recommendations.

These included a call for direct engagement with Syria and Iran as part of a 
³new diplomatic offensive,² jump-starting the Israeli-Palestinian peace effort, 
and a clear declaration that the United States would reduce its support to Iraq 
unless Baghdad made ³substantial progress² on reconciliation and security.

Mr. Bush has refused to deal with Syria and Iran, and as recently as last week, 
he assured Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki that the American commitment to 
Iraq would be undiminished until victory was achieved.

But the commission, led by James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton, argued that 
while Americans might be in Iraq for years, the Iraqis must understand that the 
American military commitment was not ³open ended.² It is time, the panel said, 
for the United States to ³begin to move its combat forces out of Iraq 

The detailed prescription called for much more aggressive diplomatic efforts in 
the Middle East than the Bush administration has been willing to embrace. Its 
calls for reconciliation and reform in Iraq and an overhaul of the American 
military role would also mark major departures in the American strategy.

Members of the commission said they believed that their recommendations would 
improve prospects for success in Iraq, but they said there was no guarantee 
against failure.

³The current approach is not working, and the ability of the United States to 
influence events is diminishing,² Mr. Hamilton said at a news conference on 
Capitol Hill. ³Our ship of state has hit rough waters. It must now chart a new 
way forward.²

Administration officials said they expected President Bush to announce his own 
³way forward² this month. They were careful not to take issue with the report¹s 
findings in public, and said Mr. Bush had yet to make firm decisions. But some 
suggested that the diplomatic strategy in the report better fit the Middle East 
of 15 years ago, when Mr. Baker served as secretary of state.

What played out on Wednesday morning, from the White House to Capitol Hill, was 
a remarkable condemnation of American policy drift in the biggest and most 
divisive military conflict to involve American forces since Vietnam. It was all 
the more unusual because Mr. Baker was secretary of state to Mr. Bush¹s father, 
and because the bipartisan group managed to come up with unanimous 

The report was delivered in an atmosphere of mounting anxiety about the war, a 
month after midterm elections that brought the Democrats to power in Congress 
and prompted Mr. Bush to oust Donald H. Rumsfeld as defense secretary.

On Wednesday the Senate voted overwhelmingly to confirm Robert M. Gates as the 
next defense secretary, after hearings in which he acknowledged that the United 
States was not winning the war and that the region could be on the brink of much
broader conflict.

Mr. Baker, Mr. Hamilton and their eight colleagues presented their 
recommendations to Mr. Bush and to leaders of Congress beginning early on 
Wednesday, and then spoke to Mr. Maliki via conference call. Mr. Bush called the
assessment ³tough² and said each recommendation would be taken ³seriously.²

Mr. Bush, one commission member said, ³was very gracious and did not push back.²

Commission members said they believed that their report, which was downloaded 
more than 400,000 times from the computer servers of the United States Institute
of Peace in the first five hours after its release, had fundamentally changed 
the debate. Now, said one member, the former Justice Sandra Day O¹Connor, ³it 
really is out of our hands.²

Leon E. Panetta, a commission member who served as chief of staff to President 
Clinton, said, ³The country cannot be at war and as divided as we are today.²

The panel was careful to avoid phrases and rigid timelines that might alienate 
the White House. But the group also clearly tried to box the president in, 
presenting its recommendations as a comprehensive strategy that would work only 
if implemented in full.

That appeared to be a warning to Mr. Bush, who in recent days has said he would 
consider the independent panel¹s findings alongside studies by the Joint Chiefs 
of Staff and the National Security Council, and has suggested that he would pick
the best elements of each.

The commission did not embrace the goal of ³victory in Iraq,² which President 
Bush laid out as his own strategy a year ago, nor did its report echo the White 
House¹s early aspiration that Iraq might be transformed into a democracy in the 
near future. ³We want to stay current,² Mr. Hamilton said briskly.

As the stated goal in Iraq, the panel chose instead the formulation that Mr. 
Bush has adopted most recently: to establish a country that can sustain itself, 
govern itself and defend itself. ³That was the latest elaboration of the goal,² 
Mr. Baker said, ³and that¹s the one we¹re working with.²

The findings left Washington awash in speculation over whether Mr. Bush would 
embark on a huge policy reversal. To do so would mark an admission that three 
and a half years of strategy had failed, and that his repeated assurances that 
³absolutely, we¹re winning² were based more on optimism than realism.

The committee rejected a stricter timeline for withdrawal advocated by one 
member, William J. Perry, a defense secretary under President Clinton, though 
Mr. Perry persuaded the commission to set clear goals for the withdrawal of 

Jack D. Crouch II, the president¹s deputy national security adviser, was said by
administration officials to be putting together options for Mr. Bush, and they 
said the president was determined to come up with an approach that, one senior 
aide said, ³borrowed from the panel¹s findings, but is distinctly his own.²

Democrats largely embraced the findings. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the 
Democratic leader, said the group had done ³a tremendous and historic service² 
by declaring ³there must be a change in Iraq, and there is no time to lose.²

But other Democrats were clearly disappointed that the commission did not 
embrace calls for a rapid withdrawal, as Representative John P. Murtha 
recommended a year ago, or a partition of the country, as Senator Joseph R. 
Biden Jr., the Delaware Democrat soon to lead the Senate Foreign Relations 
Committee, has said is necessary.

Mr. Bush can easily accept some of the findings, including a call for a fivefold
increase in American trainers working alongside Iraqi forces.

The commission¹s report included blistering critiques of current policy. It 
said, for example, that intelligence agencies had far too few people with an 
understanding of the roots of the insurgency in Iraq.

³We were told there are fewer than 10 analysts on the job at the Defense 
Intelligence Agency who have more than two years¹ experience in analyzing the 
insurgency,² the report said.

The speed and phasing of the military pullback was the most contentious issue 
with the commission, and the result is unlikely to satisfy critics on either 
side. The panel, for example, adopted the core of a proposal made by Mr. Perry 
to vastly increase training of Iraqi forces while simultaneously pulling back 
combat brigades, a ³train and retreat² scenario that some in the military say is
already under way.

Another Democratic member, former Senator Charles S. Robb of Virginia, argued 
for a surge of additional troops to stabilize Baghdad, an idea the commission 
was not willing to embrace fully. Instead, it left open the possibility of 
supporting a ³short-term redeployment or surge of American combat forces to 
stabilize Baghdad, or to speed up the training and equipping mission, if the 
U.S. commander in Iraq determines that such steps would be effective.²

But the key proposal, No. 21, is that the United States should tell the Iraqis 
that failure to meet their own milestones will only accelerate American 
withdrawal, or result in a reduction of American support.

³If the Iraqi government does not make substantial progress toward the 
achievement of milestones on national reconciliation, security and governance, 
the United States should reduce its political, military or economic support for 
the Iraqi government,² the report says.

Advocates of that approach said it was a long-overdue effort to shift 
responsibility onto the Iraqis. ³If Iraq continues to fail, or failed worse, it 
means you have put the lion¹s share of the blame on the Iraqis,² said Richard N.
Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a critic of the decision 
to invade Iraq when he served in the State Department.

Critics of the panel¹s conclusion called the approach naïve. ³The study group is
threatening to weaken a weak government,² said Anthony H. Cordesman of the 
Center for Strategic and International Studies, one of the groups that helped 
sponsor the study group, which was established by Congress. And, he added: 
³There is no ŒPlan B.¹ The report does not address what happens if events spiral
out of control.²

The most controversial element of the diplomatic strategy is the panel¹s case 
for engaging Iran, though Mr. Baker and Mr. Hamilton, the chairmen, acknowledged
in an interview that they thought it unlikely the Iranians would cooperate. Mr. 
Baker insisted that even if that effort failed, ³the world would see their 
rejectionist attitude.²

Kate Zernike contributed reporting.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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