Sometime between now and March 15, 2007, everything you know about the Iraq debate will change. It won't be because of any dramatic shift in the fortunes of a disastrous war: If current trends continue, the five coming months offer the escalation of the Iraqi civil war, the 3,000th American service death, and more disgraceful blather from the Bush administration that we're about to turn it all around.
But March 15, 2007, is the sell-by date of that argument. That's the deadline for a panel of Washington graybeards, led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and 9-11 Commission co-chairman Lee H. Hamilton, to ascend to a podium in downtown Washington, D.C., and issue its recommendations for the future of the U.S. mission in Iraq. (It's possible that the report may be submitted as early as December.) Assembled by Virginia Republican Congressman Frank Wolf earlier this year, the so-called Iraq Study Group has been reviewing every aspect of the war, interviewing its architects, generals, and contractors, traveling to Iraq to consult with the United States' Iraqi interlocutors, and asking our few remaining allies for their perspective. Its work has been shrouded in secrecy. Its only press conference, held September 19, was notable primarily for Baker and Hamilton's steadfast refusal to answer any substantive questions about how it defines terms like "victory" and "defeat," much less what it will recommend the United States do.
Its findings, however, will represent a seismic shift. All indications to this point show that the Iraq Study Group will treat withdrawal as a serious option. When blessed by the foreign-policy adults in the Democratic and Republican parties, extrication will no longer be a fringe liberal position -- rather, it will be the perspective of the Washington centrist consensus. David Ignatius in The Washington Post has already called the panel a deus ex machina for a Bush administration flailing on what to do next in Iraq. War hawks also understand the panel's potential to reconfigure the debate: Writing in the Weekly Standard, Office of Special Plans veteran Michael Rubin claimed that "many appointees [to the Iraq Study Group] appeared to be selected less for expertise than for their hostility to President Bush's war on terrorism and emphasis on democracy."
But viewing Baker and Hamilton's work as primarily intended for a Bush administration unwilling to change its approach is a mistake. It's true that the day after the midterm victories by the Democrats, Bush accepted the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and replaced him with a member of the commission, his father's CIA director, Robert M. Gates. But the commission itself is under no such illusion that it will have much more than cosmetic impact on the administration. When I asked someone close to the Iraq Study Group if the group intends to save Bush from himself, the source laughed. The greatest utility Baker and Hamilton's report will provide, he suggested, is for Bush's would-be successors. In one fell swoop, the commission is likely to transform the nascent 2008 presidential primary fields. By blessing withdrawal, it will unite the Democratic Party -- and rip the Republican Party wide open, along its most volatile fault line.
Ignatius' enthusiasm for the Baker-Hamilton commission is hardly unique. The trauma of Iraq, mixed with widespread Washington disillusionment with Bush over the war, has led to general giddiness over the prospect of a team of establishment wisemen riding in to rescue the country.
That's as it was intended. Last March, Wolf established the panel in frustration with the direction of the war and the disingenuous rhetoric about it from the White House. With institutional support provided by the nonpartisan, congressionally funded United States Institute of Peace, Baker and Hamilton joined with the leading elder statesmen of both parties: Gates; Democratic rainmaker Vernon Jordan; Reagan-era Attorney General Edwin Meese III; retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor; Bill Clinton's chief of staff Leon Panetta and Defense Secretary William Perry; Alan K. Simpson, the former senator from Wyoming; and ex-Virginia Governor and Senator Chuck Robb.
Each member commands instant deference from the Washington elite, a position enhanced by the one stance that Baker has publicly endorsed: bipartisanship, which is catnip to elite organs like the Post editorial page. Speaking to George Stephanopoulos, the former secretary of state promised to "take this thing out of politics," and declined to issue his report before the midterm elections. The pundits swooned. "To get most American troops out of Iraq over the next year will require more patience at home, and a lot less partisan bickering," gushed Ignatius.
The bipartisan cache Baker and Hamilton have accrued will be a massive spoonful of sugar for the harsh medicine it is to dispense. While the panel has labored mightily to operate behind the scenes -- its late-August trip to Iraq went completely under the press radar -- over the last few weeks, word has started to leak out about what recommendations it will issue. Sources close to the commission caution against reading too much into its expert-group reports. But the Baker panel clearly is flirting with the most radical upending of Iraq policy conceivable.
While the commissioners tried to stay silent, some have tipped their hands. In September, commissioner Leon Panetta wrote an op-ed for his hometown newspaper, the Monterey County Herald. His column drips with disgust over how the war "could give al-Qaeda a base for terrorism throughout this critical region." He has nothing but praise for the U.S. troops and civilians in Iraq, but Panetta is under few illusions about the utility of the mission. Although he doesn't say outright that the cause is lost, he sees the midnight hour approaching fast. "The present effort to secure Baghdad cannot succeed without political reconciliation. Some believe we will know the answer to that in the next three to six months," Panetta wrote.
On October 12, Eli Lake, the national-security correspondent for The New York Sun, broke the first big Baker-Hamilton Commission story: Its working groups on politics and military strategy had ruled out "victory" as Bush defines it -- a U.S.-assisted defeat of the Iraqi insurgency and subsequent sectarian reconciliation. In two papers, "Stability First" and "Redeploy and Contain," the options presented by the panel's working groups to the commissioners are stark. The former calls for abandoning Iraqi democracy as a war aim and substitutes instead a massive push to put a multilateral face on the occupation. The latter, as the title suggests, calls for a staggered withdrawal from Iraq. According to Lake, if the former -- the internationalization of the occupation -- is unobtainable, withdrawal must occur. Two commission sources told me Lake's reporting is accurate.
The first intended audience for the Baker-Hamilton Commission is the Bush administration, from whom tout Washington is hoping against hope for a massive adjustment of course. But as Baker himself has acknowledged, "There'll probably be some things in our report that the administration might not like." Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times observed, "It's unclear how willing Bush is to change his strategy."
Actually, the answer is very clear: Bush has shown absolutely no willingness to change his strategy beyond the cosmetic and politically necessary step of jettisoning his long-held "stay the course" rhetoric. Witness his post-election press conference: Bush used the Baker commission as a totem, vowing to listen to its recommendations, but he simultaneously equated defeat in Iraq with withdrawal. Baker-Hamilton isn't going to change that -- nor will the arrival of Gates at Defense. For one thing, Bush has the prickliest of relationships with the wisemen of his father's administration, as Bob Woodward meticulously documents in State of Denial. For another, it's not easy to take back a statement like "We're not leaving, so long as I'm the president," which Bush issued in August from the White House podium.
The impact on the administration of Gates' arrival as defense secretary is unclear. Gates generally possesses hawkish instincts -- he was accused by his subordinates at the CIA in the 1980s of politicizing intelligence to promote Ronald Reagan's Cold War impulses and was a major figure in the Iran-Contra scandal. However, he has not tipped his hand on what he believes the right course for the war will be. His major selling point is that at this point in the Bush presidency, any holdover from his father's administration -- except, of course, Cheney -- is widely seen as representing a return to internationalist GOP moderation. (While Gates may not be a Scowcroftian dove, his relationship with Cheney has been frosty, as well.) According to some press accounts, Gates has privately told friends how distraught he is over the incompetence and mismanagement of the war by Rumsfeld and his crew. What course changes Gates will advocate remains unclear. He may provide a facade of moderation rather than substantive course corrections.
As for the Baker-Hamilton report, keeping "this thing out of politics," as Stephanopoulos suggested, is the last thing the panel will do. While it has bypassed the midterms, it will play right into the 2008 primaries. Simply put, the panel's recommendations are a dream come true for the Democratic field, and a nightmare in the making for the Republicans.
The biggest single issue dividing the Democratic Party going into the 2008 elections is Iraq. Senator Hillary Clinton, the front-runner, has calibrated her position on the war with what the Atlantic Monthly's Josh Green called "fugue-like" complexity in a recent profile. She voted for it; vociferously criticized Bush for practically everything about it; and feints toward the exits while still warning about the dangers of "failure." Liberals inclined to either like Clinton or respect her impulses find her lack of leadership on the war maddening. Bloggers have been known to call Clinton a "Vichy Democrat."
Even though voters have turned against the war, opposing it too vociferously has proven dicey for Democrats. Criticize it too harshly and you're unpatriotic. Stick with it and you become detached from reality. Quibble on the margins and you become inconsistent. John Kerry learned in 2004 how untenable criticism of the war is while supporting its aims. It was no accident that both Kerry and running mate John Edwards repudiated the war and apologized for authorizing it shortly after losing. Both had their eyes fixed on 2008 -- and becoming the anti-Hillary: the candidate with the most compelling message against the war to contrast with Clinton's hawkish impulses and Iraq-related vacillations. The long-shot candidacy of proudly dovish Senator Russell Feingold made sense only in the context of Iraq. And the probable entry of Barack Obama, who dissented on Iraq every step of the way, speaks to the Democratic difficulty in coming up with a blemish-free opposition to the war. What's more, if the party opts to make withdrawal its official position, Al Gore, the man kicked out of the Washington establishment by his fervent opposition to the war, looks ever more like a tribune of wisdom.
How this would play in a general election is a big unknown. But Baker-Hamilton could help, by blessing withdrawal far in advance of primary season. The report will reinforce the trends of the midterm election, which, according to a senior Democratic House leadership aide speaking a week before the vote, will do much to stiffen Democratic spines against the war. And the commission, says the aide, will "echo and rationalize what conclusions people have already come to about the need for a different direction. That doesn't mean just providing political cover, but like many commissions it'll be two steps behind where the public already is."
The effect of the commission's report on the Democratic presidential field will be immediate: It would clear the field for other divisions to shape the primary contest. All of a sudden, the differences between Clinton, Obama, Feingold, Kerry, Edwards, et al., would boil down to the relatively pedestrian question of whether the troops should leave in six months or 12 -- allowing freewheeling debate on issues beyond Iraq to determine the nomination.
Of course, that's the theory. Some liberal activists may still prefer to make the 2002 vote on the war a key issue. "I don't know many people for whom it's the only litmus test, but it says something about your political character if you take the path of endorsing the war versus if you don't," says Eli Pariser of MoveOn.org. "A question many people will ask themselves is, 'Do we want to hire someone who made such a bad decision versus one who didn't?'" Pariser says he's hesitant to prognosticate what impact the Baker-Hamilton Commission will have on the Democratic field. Nonetheless, even if it can't get rid of every Democratic grievance on the war, it will bring the Democratic Party a silver bullet: a mainstream-blessed position on the war in line with both the liberal base and a growing portion of the electorate at large.
For the Republican Party, the reverse is true: if Baker-Hamilton includes withdrawal as an option, Republicans -- and especially their presidential hopefuls -- will scatter. Here the Democrats possess an institutional advantage: Its voters are firmly against the war. The Republican base, however, has no equivalent clarity. Right wingers such as Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania may have clung to the Iraq War during the midterms, but he was one of very few Republicans on the campaign trail to enthusiastically back the occupation. Bush's fellow Texan, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, recently said she would not have voted for the war if she knew in 2002 what she knows in 2006. Many elected Republicans have disassociated themselves from "staying the course," although, with the exception of apostate Congressman Walter Jones, who represents a Marine-heavy North Carolina district, practically none have called for withdrawal. Some have attacked the war by proxy. In Kentucky, Congresswoman Anne Northrup called for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation -- a move that didn't spare her defeat at the hands of pro-withdrawal Democrat Jon Yarmuth.
This basic confusion about what Iraq means for a conservative or a Republican voter is likely to throw the 2008 contest into turmoil, especially if the Iraq Study Group holds out withdrawal as a serious option. The field, as it stands, features hardcore Iraq warriors like Senator John McCain, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, as well as lesser lights with unclear positions, like Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and even the dovish Senator Chuck Hagel. Some GOP strategists -- particularly those close to the neoconservatives -- believe that no GOP candidate, with the exception of Hagel, will renounce the war, regardless of Baker-Hamilton conclusions. But Richard Viguerie, a longtime Republican activist who is against the war, sees an old knight in shining new armor: "Newt." According to Viguerie, the former speaker of the House's support for the war is fairly elastic. "Newt can play better than most others, as the need arises. Newt can change pretty quickly, and I would think he's more likely to adapt his position to primary voters than other candidates are," he says. "Newt is more likely than anyone else to back disengagement while still keeping the flags flying high." (Gingrich's press aide did not return repeated phone calls.)
And that speaks to the larger problem for GOP candidates: Republican voters themselves hold mutable views on the war. "If the president turns around and changes his mind about Iraq, Republicans will go 'OK,'" says Grover Norquist, an architect and beneficiary of the demolished Republican congressional majority. "It's not like being pro-life, where if he changed his mind on that issue, the base says no way. No one voted for Bush because of the invasion of Iraq or a need to maintain the occupation. … [S]hould the president shift his position, … the party will follow, and the movement will follow." Some go even further. For Richard Viguerie, "conservative voters and the grass-roots activists are really one and the same in their view of Iraq as the American people as a whole: They're not sure why we're there. ... The American people, as well as conservatives, have no problem extricating themselves from Iraq, and the sooner the better."
Already the fissures are showing. In September, John Warner, the senior Virginia senator who chaired the Armed Services Committee, began flirting with a new congressional authorization for the occupation, which would force Bush to outline a new strategy for a continued presence and put it to a very hostile vote in a Democratic Congress.
What this would mean for the 2008 GOP nomination isn't entirely clear. Romney has yet to put forward a forceful position on the war. Even Giuliani, whose hawkishness has never been in doubt, speaks more of the war on terrorism than the war in Iraq, allowing himself some crucial wiggle room. But the candidate with the most to gain -- and, perhaps, lose -- from a GOP drift toward withdrawal is Arizona Senator John McCain, who may be even more hawkish than Bush on Iraq. Partially that's an outgrowth of his national-greatness militarism. But it's also smart primary politics -- for now. "McCain's only known conservative position is his support for the war," says Norquist, who has long been at loggerheads with McCain on virtually everything. "He's broken with the movement on everything else." Due to McCain's conservative apostasies on everything from campaign finance reform to torture, he may be vulnerable to attacks from his right -- save on his support for the war.
Most McCain enthusiasts view this as his strength. "I think John McCain has shown he is willing go against the Republican establishment, or any establishment, when he thinks it's justified," says Cliff May of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, who is one of the Iraq Study Group's expert advisers. One McCain adviser believes it is inconceivable that McCain will abandon the war, Baker or no Baker, and that this loyalty will endear him even further to GOP stalwarts -- especially if his primary rivals go wobbly. However, if the GOP base sours on the war once it unmoors itself from Bush, McCain could find himself with no selling points, aside from his character, to bring to the Republican faithful. Still, another McCain adviser views the Iraq Study Group as the last chance for McCain to repudiate the war before the primaries. Indeed, while McCain has hardly rushed for the exits, on election night he softened a bit on CNN: "I understand the frustration that Americans feel. I feel that frustration as well," he said.
The field -- and the GOP base -- doesn't have much time to find a position. Baker and Hamilton have vowed to issue their report by March 15. Once this happens, Democrats will have their best-ever shot for a strong and popular antiwar message. Republicans will need to figure out, once and for all, what they believe about the war: Do they stay in Iraq despite the manifold failures and against the tide of public opinion? Or do they embrace withdrawal, and leave themselves open to the next wave of flip-flopper ads?
The most obvious locus for the impact of the Iraq Study Group will be Congress. Though our interview took place before the election, the senior House Democratic leadership aide thought, no matter what, 2007 would be a watershed year for Iraq policy. "It's inconceivable that, with or without the Baker commission, we wouldn't see the next Congress exerting greater influence to move in a different direction, whether it matches [the commission's] recommendations or not. A lot of people are going to come back [to Washington] very chastened by what they heard from the voters on Iraq. That is running pretty widely through both caucuses. Congress will take more of a leadership role overseeing and changing direction." The aide won't discuss what options the next Congress might consider, but suggests that the Democratic caucus will meet during the lame-duck congressional session ending the year to plot its course.
As the election has surely shown, voters were ready for change on Iraq. And thanks to Baker, those who back staying in Iraq, not those who back leaving, will suddenly find themselves occupying a fringe position -- which will put Republicans in a tight spot. "By 2008, it's even more important that the war be in the rearview mirror, meaning that we're leaving," Norquist says. If not, the Iraq War might well continue down the path from folly to failure to Democratic advantage. And if and when it does, Democrats will have an old Bush family consigliere to thank.
Spencer Ackerman is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect.