It is a cliche that nothing happens in Washington without political implications. So it is with the upcoming report of the Iraq Study Group, headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton. The 10-member bipartisan commission will not release its findings until Dec. 6, but the broad outlines have already leaked to the media.
As expected, it is a compromise between those who want a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops and those who believe that would be a strategic mistake. The group reportedly will nudge President Bush in the direction of troop reductions without setting a specific schedule. The panel will also urge greater diplomatic efforts in the Middle East.
President Bush is under no legal obligation to follow any of the recommendations. But the high profile of the group and the fact that former Secretary of State James Baker is co-chairman will put new pressures on the president to change his rock-hard stance.
Thomas Mann, of the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, told ABC News: "The report seems likely to increase political pressure on the administration to try to broker a regional agreement with direct discussions with Iran and Syria, and to begin a gradual deployment of U.S. forces. A growing number of Republicans in Congress will welcome that pressure."
Even though White House aides say the president has not seen the report, he has already tried to blunt its impact.
Speaking to reporters Thursday in Amman, Jordan, Bush, without mentioning the study group by name, said "I know there's a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there's going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq. We're going to stay in Iraq to get the job done, so long as the government wants us there."
The president hit on a key word when he spoke of a "graceful" exit. That is precisely what some group members were offering with the recommendations. Weeks ago, Jim Baker told ABC News that the report could not recommend a "cut and run" strategy if there was to be any hope of influencing the president. Now the president seems to be ruling out an exit anytime soon whether it is graceful or not. And the commission's report apparently does not speak of total withdrawal. Instead it recommends a major, but gradual, reduction of U.S. forces which could result in their mission evolving from combat to support and advising.
Bush also noted in Amman that he will be getting advice from other sources as well as the study group: "As part of the review, I've asked our military leaders in the Pentagon and those on the ground in Iraq to provide their recommendations on the best way forward."
Still, the civilian panel's report is the one that will grab headlines over the next week. Democrats have eagerly awaited its release. Sen. Hillary Clinton was especially eager to see it, telling ABC News last week" "the sooner the better." "Too much damage has already been done," she said.
Potential presidential candidates from both parties will read the recommendations to see whether they bolster or counter the views they have advocated. Republican Sen. John McCain may find it unpleasant reading. He has called for a temporary troop buildup to stem violence in Baghdad.
Other Republicans may find that the recommendations for troop reductions will give them, as the New York Times reported, "political cover" to put distance between themselves and the president's seemingly rigid stance.