New life for Iraq Study Group's plan?

It's attracting new interest on the Hill, being less divisive than other war policy options.

A majority of Congress may want some kind of redirection of the US effort in Iraq, but finding bipartisan consensus on what that change in strategy should be has not been easy – as demonstrated by the politicized Senate debate this week over proposed troop withdrawals.

That is one reason the idea of reviving last year's bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG) and adopting its recommendations has caught on with representatives of both major political parties. And as other proposals with more teeth fall in partisan defeat, the 79 recommendations of the ISG, shelved by a tepid White House last December, could be dusted off.

"What it shows is that people are reaching desperately for something that all parties can agree on and which is different from the current course," says Wayne White, a former State Department Middle East analyst who was among a group of experts consulted by the ISG.

Interest in a bipartisan report from last year suggests a high level of frustration with both the lack of progress in Iraq and the deep fissures that have developed in Washington over Iraq policy.

The ISG was a congressional initiative led by former Secretary of State James Baker, a Republican, and by former Democratic congressman and foreign-policy expert Lee Hamilton. It concluded with great fanfare last December that the US should retool the American engagement in Iraq in three ways:

• A focus on training Iraqi security forces.

• A robust regional and international diplomatic effort.

• Adoption of benchmarks that would require the Iraqi government to move toward national reconciliation.

The report also set a goal of drawing down US troops in Iraq in 2008 but did not call for a timetable for withdrawal.

Seven months later, two senators – Ken Salazar (D) of Colorado and Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee – are sponsoring legislation that would make the ISG recommendations US policy. Some Democrats criticize the idea as weak and outdated, while some Republicans reject it for pressuring the White House to change course before President Bush's "surge" strategy has had a chance to work.

But members of both parties say it is attracting interest because it expresses a desire to begin preparing for a wind-down without promoting divisive measures like a timeline for withdrawal. "Is it out of date? The answer is no," says Mr. Hamilton, who has been actively supporting the idea of adopting the ISG's findings.

As for Democrats who are holding out for measures placing binding constraints on Mr. Bush, Hamilton says he understands that tactic. But he opposes setting a rigid timetable and doesn't expect one to pass anyway.

Appearing at a Monitor breakfast Wednesday, Hamilton recognized that "Democrats want to exert all possible pressure on the president to change his policy." But he added, "If you cannot get a rigid timetable, which you cannot get, you have to go to an alternative."

He also said the ISG report does place pressure on Bush to alter his course, because it calls for laying the groundwork for "a responsible exit from Iraq."

As for each of the three key recommendations, Hamilton says the White House has never really responded to any. The buildup of US troops to about 160,000 and their focus on providing security has drained attention away from what he calls an already deficient effort to train Iraqi security forces. Bush may have signed on to "benchmarks" for the Iraqi government, but they lack any "conditionality" that would impose binding consequences for continuing failure to reach specific goals. And there has to be a "much much more robust diplomatic effort," he says.

The US will soon hold a second meeting with Iran on conditions in Iraq, according to US and Iraqi officials, and Jordan announced Wednesday that it will convene a meeting of countries hosting Iraqi refugees next week. But Hamilton and other experts say that is nowhere near the level of US engagement required.

One question mark hanging over the focus on the ISG is the extent to which Mr. Baker, a close Bush family ally, supports its resurrection and formal adoption.

The House voted by a wide margin in June to fund a second round of work by the ISG, but sources close to Baker said at the time that he would not co-chair a revived group without the backing of the White House. Officials have since said that Bush does not favor any action that would detract from his strategy, at least until Gen. David Petraeus, US commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, US ambassador to Iraq, deliver a full report on the surge to Congress by Sept. 15.

Right now for the White House, "It's September-Petraeus-Crocker, and that's it," says Mr. White, now an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington.

White says he is not opposed to the idea of revisiting the ISG findings, but believes there would have to be at least an update. "Quite a bit has changed on the ground since we were all working on this," he says.

One thing that has not changed, according to Hamilton, is the lack of progress on the part of the Iraqi government on crucial security, political, and economic issues that would allow the US to begin what the ISG called a "responsible exit" from Iraq.

But Iraqi officials warn that more pressure from Washington could actually be counterproductive. One senior Iraqi official who asked not to be named says a feeling that "Washington is breathing down our necks" contributed to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's pronouncement over the weekend that Iraq would be ready by fall to take care of its own security – a view that was quickly squelched by other Iraqi officials. They said Mr. Maliki's words reflected a widespread Iraqi frustration with a US focus on its political timetable.

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