James A. Baker III, the Bush family's favorite fixer, held forth at a Washington, D.C., news conference on Tuesday, ostensibly to present a mid-course report on the work of his little-known Iraq Study Group. In fact, he did no such thing, keeping his cards close to his chest and saying next to nothing about the work of the task force thus far. Still, if anyone can get close enough to President Bush to explain the importance of changing course in Iraq -- that is, if anyone can get past Dick Cheney, the administration's Cerberus, with that message -- it would be Jim Baker.
Whether Baker will come to the conclusion that it's time to leave Iraq is anybody's guess. So far, Baker isn't saying. And he's told all of his fellow commissioners, as well as the several dozen Iraq and Middle East experts on the Iraq Study Group's working groups, not to breathe a word about what they're thinking. But according to sources on the ISG, who spoke only on deep background, the ISG is, in fact, inching closer to calling for getting the heck out of Iraq, and soon.
The hush-hush task force was created in March by Congress -- at the behest of Representative Frank Wolf, the Virginia Republican. According to my sources, Wolf, in turn, had the support of realist-minded Republicans on Capitol Hill, including Senator John Warner, who worry that the Republican Party might implode in 2008 if the Iraq debacle isn't fixed by then. They're concerned that Bush, stubborn and susceptible to the arguments of surviving neoconservatives in the administration, is ready to cruise through January, 2009, insisting on victory in Iraq.
Co-chaired by Lee Hamilton, the former 17-term Indiana Democrat who also served as co-chair of the 9/11 commission, Baker's ISG is heavy with political insiders: Sandra Day O'Connor, Ed Meese, William Perry, Robert M. Gates, Vernon Jordan, Leon Panetta, Chuck Robb, and Alan Simpson. But it's Baker, described by one of the ISG's experts as the Bush family's “consigliere,” who runs the show.
Baker, flanked by Hamilton, and with Panetta, Gates, Perry, Simpson, Meese, and Gates sitting in the front row, managed to speak and answer questions on Tuesday for 45 minutes without saying much. He wants to stay “under the radar.” He wants to stay “out of domestic politics” and not be “patently political.” He is “forward-looking.” But he was utterly mum on details of what they're thinking. All he would say is that he intends to forge a consensus among the group: “Our report will not be particularly meaningful if it has dissenting views.” The ISG's report will come out only after the November, 2006, elections; according to ISG sources, that means sometime early in 2007.
Over the past six months, Baker and the ISG have met with more than a hundred U.S. and Iraqi officials, foreign diplomats, military men, and private sector experts. They've visited Iraq, where they had tête-à-tête's with three dozen leaders of all Iraqi factions. And in coming days they will meet Saudi, Syrian, and Iranian officials. All of that may have gained them interesting, and conflicting, testimony about what to do in Iraq. But the real work of the ISG is being hammered out by four expert working groups, and the real decisions are going to be made by Baker.
According to participants, the ISG was initially considering four options, ranging from sending more troops to secure a political-military victory to making an orderly withdrawal and redeployment. Eventually, the only realistic options appeared to be either Option Three -- which called for staying the course, Bush-style, but making a series of significant adjustments and corrections -- and Option Four -- which can be summed up as redeployment out. In internal deliberations, many of the experts made it clear that Option Three was not really viable – that is, even after making a series of adjustments to staying-the-course, failure in Iraq would still be likely. That leaves Four. Whether Baker, a consummate realist and smooth practitioner of realpolitik, can swallow that, isn't clear.
In a recent interview with the Texas Monthly -- and speaking for himself, not for the ISG -- Baker had this to say: “If you're talking about extricating yourself, there has to be a strategic plan that would permit a reasonable and responsible type of drawdown, one that wouldn't invite the kind of chaos that would be invited if we just picked up and left.” How to get out without chaos: aye, there's the rub. One ex-U.S. official I spoke with yesterday, who's been observing the Washington debate on Iraq from the inside, said flatly that getting out without chaos simply isn't possible, but that get out we must.
How to calibrate a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, how fast or slow to make it in order to do the least additional damage, how to persuade Iraq's Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds to minimize civil war, and how to engage and involve Iraq's neighbors to help stabilize Iraq during and after a U.S. withdrawal: that's the work of the ISG's Iraq experts. How to sell that to the Bush administration, to Republicans in Congress, and to the public -- without making it look like a humiliating defeat for the president: well, that's Jim Baker's job. If he wants it.
Robert Dreyfuss is a Prospect senior correspondent and the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam. His web site is www.RobertDreyfuss.com.
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