'Has Beens' on Center Stage

WASHINGTON, Dec. 6, 2006 — -- After delivering its long-awaited report to President Bush, the Iraq Study Group took its 79 recommendations to congressional leaders this morning.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said he felt vindicated by the report, and that he believed the report would result in the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.

Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell said, "This is an opportunity for us to work in a bipartisan way with Democrats and the White House."

At the White House, Bush said, "We will take every proposal seriously, and we will act in a timely fashion. We probably won't agree with every proposal."

Bush refused to take questions from reporters. That was left this afternoon to Press Secretary Tony Snow who said he would not "give the president's evaluation of any of the 79 recommendations."

Later, as he quoted from the report Lee Hamilton, the panel's co-chairman, told reporters on Capitol Hill that "the situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating." But, he added, "in our view not all options have been exhausted."

Hamilton noted that the report sends a sharp warning to the Baghdad government: "If the Iraqi government does not make substantial progress toward the achievement of milestones, the United States should then reduce its political, military or economic support to the Iraqi government."

Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman, focused on military options, saying "the primary mission of U.S. forces in Iraq should evolve to one of supporting the Iraqi army, which would take over primary responsibility for combat operations. As this transition proceeds, the United States should increase the number of troops embedded in and supporting the Iraqi army. And U.S. combat forces could begin to move out of Iraq."

Hamilton said that barring unexpected developments such as Iraq descending into anarchy, "by the first quarter of 2008, all U.S. combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq."

Hamilton's counterpart, former Secretary of State James Baker, emphasized the need for diplomatic initiatives in the Mideast, for regional talks with Iraq's neighbors and a new try at resolving the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Baker said there should be an international Iraq support group that includes Iran and Syria. That could be a difficult option for Bush to accept. So far, he has rejected unconditional talks with both countries.

At his afternoon briefing, Press Secretary Snow rejected one-on-one talks with Iran unless it suspends uranium enrichment. But Snow appeared to leave open the possibility of an international conference involving Iran and other regional powers.

Asked about the chances for success if the White House and Congress accept all the recommendations, Baker said there is "no crystal ball." But, he said, "if we do what we recommend in this report, it will certainly improve our chances for success.

Hamilton said, "We do not know if it can be turned around, but if our recommendations are implemented, there is at least a chance."

Although Baker has been personally close to Bush and his family, he rejected the president's approach of the past: "We do not recommend a stay-the-course solution. In our opinion, that approach is no longer viable."

Baker noted that the recommendations are not binding on the president or Congress, but that it is the only report agreed to by notables from both parties. Hamilton said the report could gain credibility with the American people because it is a nonpolitical document.

Asked why the president and Congress should pay more attention to this report from civilians than to recommendations from military leaders, Hamilton said the panel is made up of distinguished public servants.

Baker joked that "this panel of has-beens" has provided "the only bipartisan report that is out there."

Baker acknowledged there may be foreign opposition to regional talks. He said Iran might not agree, but he believed that Syria might be more likely to engage in a conference that would include the United States.

Hamilton said, "Both Iran and Syria have a lot of influence in the region. Iran probably today is the national power that has the single greatest influence in the region. We will be criticized, I am sure, for talking with our adversaries, but I do not see how can we solve these problems without talking with them. You cannot look at this area of the world, and pick and choose among the countries that you're going to deal with."

Baker added "for 40 years we talked to the Soviet Union during a time when they were devoted to wiping us off the face of the earth."

One panel member, former Defense Secretary William Perry, said that while the eventual goal is a major reduction of U.S. troops, the report recommends a temporary increase of approximately 10,000 troops during the transition from combat status to training and advising Iraqi forces.

Another signer of the report, former Attorney General Ed Meese, said that even after the bulk of U.S. combat troops have left Iraq, some will still be needed to protect the American troops who act as trainers and advisers.

Other panel members also weighed in at the press conference:

Former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta said this group tried to set aside code words such as "cut and run" in the hopes of making recommendations that would have wide acceptance. Panetta said, "This country cannot be at war and be as divided as it is today." He urged Bush to work with Congress on a bipartisan approach.

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said she and the rest of the group agree with Bush's goal of an independent Iraq. She said she believes that if a large segment of Americans gets behind the report, "We can make progress."

Alan Simpson, a former senator, said the American people "see Congress and this administration as dysfunctional." He said he views that with sadness. Simpson said too many Americans do not want compromise, but that he hopes they will accept the compromises in the report: "It sure as hell is better than sitting there where we are now."

Former Sen. Charles Robb said, "This represents a dramatic change in the way we have been doing business. … It represents a clear break from the past tradition from being the principal combat unit to a role of combat support."

Having delivered the report, the Iraq Study Group will now try to sell its recommendations to the public and to Congress. Some panel members will soon be testifying before congressional committees. There are no plans for further meetings with the president.