Huge task before Iraq Study Group
The 10-member group, which met with White House officials Monday, is to make recommendations after Thanksgiving.
For the bipartisan panel of luminaries known as the Iraq Study Group, the most important thing now may be hammering out a framework for peace in Washington, not drawing up new lists of options for US policy toward Iraq.Skip to next paragraph
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After all, despite all the Washington talk about cooperation since last week's elections, profound differences about the way forward remain between many Democrats and Republicans, as well as among them. Yet all sides say they are willing to listen to one another, and look for common ground.
Enter the Iraq panel, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker III and former Democratic congressmen Lee Hamilton. Timing – plus the nature of its members – may have thrust the group into a central role in perhaps the most important policy debate now facing the nation.
"Maybe an outside group can craft a policy that both sides can accept, though they don't want to have responsibility for drafting it," says William Martel, an associate professor of security studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.
The 10-member Iraq Study Group was created by Congress last spring. At the time the move generated little notice, apart from a flurry of activity among Washington think tank experts eager to serve as advisers to the panel.
Now its final report, expected before the end of the year, is something Washington is eagerly anticipating.
On Monday group members met with White House officials, including President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. They were to interview British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Tuesday via videoconference.
As to Mr. Bush's appearance before the group, presidential spokesman Tony Snow characterized it as a conversation in which both sides shared views. "This is not a deposition," Mr. Snow said.
Bush himself said he was not sure what the Iraq Study Group's report would say but that he looked forward to seeing it. "I'm not going to prejudge" the group's work, said Bush.
The full Iraq Study Group is set to meet the week after Thanksgiving to begin the contentious process of drawing up final recommendations. Messrs. Baker and Hamilton did not want to produce any lists before the election that could have been leaked for political gain.
Bush's nominee to replace Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former Director of Intelligence Robert Gates, was a panel member. Last Friday, Baker and Hamilton announced that Gates had resigned from the group and been replaced by former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. The panel remains split between five Democrats and five Republicans.
Given its nature, the Iraq Study Group seems unlikely to produce a report calling either for a continuation of current policy or an immediate and rapid drawdown of US forces in Iraq.
In appearances promoting a recent book, Baker, for his part, has been somewhat critical of the administration's slowness to react to Iraq's intensifying violence.
When he was secretary of State, Baker was open to talking even with US adversaries, to the point where he endured hours-long harangues from the late Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad. As commission co-chairman, Baker has already met with Javad Zarif, Iran's ambassador to the US.