Sage members of Washington’s power elite shuffled into the White House on Wednesday to advise President George W. Bush that his current approach is not working in Iraq and that it is time for a change.
The 10 members of the Iraq Study Group were up long before dawn for a 7 a.m. (1200 GMT) meeting and they spent about an hour talking to Bush about the 79 recommendations they spent nine months developing on how to change Iraq strategy.
"We’re not here to vex and embarrass," former Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan Simpson, 75, who was a close ally of the president’s father, told Bush.
But the message from what panel co-chairman James Baker called a "bunch of has-beens" was clear: It is time for a change.
"We do not recommend a stay-the-course solution. In our opinion that approach is no longer viable," Baker told reporters afterward.
Those were strong words from a former U.S. secretary of state who is close to the Bush family and who led the legal team that helped George W. Bush win the Florida vote recount in 2000 that ultimately put him in the White House.
Gazing around the large oval table in the White House Cabinet Room, Bush looked into the eyes of public servants with decades of service, most of them in their 70s, who spent their careers fighting their own Washington battles.
"I was impressed with the fact that number one, he didn’t make any negative remarks at all, and secondly, he didn’t have a sour look on his face," said a secretary of state under former President George Bush, Lawrence Eagleburger.
Bush has been under pressure from Democrats and some Republicans for a new policy in Iraq but has resisted a major shift in strategy.
Leon Panetta, who was President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, said after the early morning meeting:
"I think there’s an awful lot of frustration on both sides about what’s happening. And I certainly thought the president was very engaged in listening to all of us as we presented our comments."
Almost directly across from Bush were former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman in that role and the only woman on the panel, and former Attorney General Edwin Meese, who helped bail Ronald Reagan’s presidency out of the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s.
At the end of the table was Vernon Jordan, the 71-year-old Democrat who is a Washington powerbroker and advised Clinton during the various problems that plagued his administration.
"I cannot think of an experience like this experience. We checked our partisanship at the door," Jordan told the assembled group.
Former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton told Bush he would be getting a lot of advice on Iraq but that, "This is the only bipartisan advice you’re going to get."
White House spokesman Tony Snow, who sat in on the meeting, said the presentation of the report offered a moment for "people of good will in both parties to dedicate themselves seriously and actively to the business of developing" an Iraq strategy.
But whether the panel’s book, copies of which were placed before them in the Cabinet Room, will be used for a shift in strategy by the Bush team was unclear.
Bush himself offered a cautious response. He considers the Iraq Study Group report one of several reviews of Iraq strategy under way, and says all will be taken seriously.
"That was good," Bush said after the presentation, calling the panel’s report "necessary work."