Fresh thinking on Iraq

Three years into a war in Iraq that many Americans describe as "a mess," comes an attempt to bring fresh thinking to it. At the urging of Congress, a bipartisan panel will roll up its sleeves and plunge in. Instead of invoking eyeball-rolling, this independent study group deserves Americans' full support.

For starters, it would be hard to top the members of the Iraq Study Group in experience and respect.

Set up by three competent think tanks and with bipartisan backing in Congress, the panel is co-chaired by Republican James Baker III and Democrat Lee Hamilton. Remember that Mr. Hamilton jointly led the 9/11 Commission, which shattered stereotypes by producing a readable, best-selling report that forced intelligence reform in Washington.

As secretary of state under George H.W. Bush, Mr. Baker assembled the coalition for the first Gulf War.

The situation on the ground in Iraq points to the monumental challenges - and limits - facing this commission. But the need for independent thinking couldn't be greater. All administrations come to live in a bubble where they listen mostly to themselves. That's particularly true in this case. As the new book "Cobra II" reinforces, the White House ignored even internal warnings on troop strength, guerrilla warfare, and postwar planning.

It's encouraging that the administration welcomes the group's fresh eyes on Iraq, proposed to President Bush last November by Republican Congressmen Frank Wolf of Virginia and Christopher Shays of Connecticut. The White House promises assistance with travel to Iraq and access to officials and documents.

At the same time, the partisan politics surrounding the war cry out for a panel that will put country above party. In an election year when Iraq and terrorism will take center stage, cooler heads must prevail.

"One of the things that has made Iraq such a tragedy is you've got the administration, which is kind of locked into its view; you've got Congress, which is scrambling all over the place; and politics, which has invaded this issue on all sides. The good thing here is we can stand back and assess this," says commission member Leon Panetta, former chief of staff to President Clinton.

And not just assess, but actually make recommendations, of which there appears to be a dearth - or which can't be heard for all the partisan screaming.

The Iraq Study Group will examine four areas in Iraq: politics and government, economy and reconstruction, the strategic environment in and around the country, and security. That puts the spotlight on important issues, such as the economy, that seem to be getting lost as Iraq looks over the precipice at civil war. By necessity, it means facing tough and sensitive subjects, such as how long US troops should stay in Iraq.

America needed dispassionate thinking on Iraq yesterday. The study group must act with speed and not shy away from difficult recommendations. Mr. Panetta points out that his colleagues - who include former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Defense Secretary William Perry, and former CIA chief Robert Gates - will not be satisfied to simply assess. The US stands at a crossroads in Iraq. Signposts are needed.

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