The Bush administration and the Congress must work together in forging a new course in Iraq despite partisan differences over how to end U.S. involvement in the long-running war, the co-chairmen of the Iraq Study Group said Thursday.
"That’s a very tough policy problem, and in order for this to happen, it can’t be pie in the sky, it can’t be idealistic, it has to be pragmatic," former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Many in Congress have praised the group’s report, which was eight months in the making. But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told Hamilton and commission co-chairman State James A. Baker III that he does not believe their approach will work. The panel called for a phase-out of the U.S. combat role by 2008 and rejected the idea of a short-term increase in the number of combat troops in Iraq.
McCain took issue with that approach, saying he did not agree with the Baker-Hamilton group’s conclusion that the U.S. military does not have enough forces available to sustain a troop boost in Iraq.
"There’s only one thing worse than an over-stressed Army and Marine Corps, and that’s a defeated Army and Marine Corps," said McCain, a Vietnam veteran and a 2008 Republican presidential hopeful. "I believe this is a recipe that will lead to our defeat sooner or later in Iraq."
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, both said they are skeptical about another of the commission’s key recommendations: that the administration approach Iran in search of help in stabilizing Iraq, as part of a regional diplomatic initiative.
"I’m skeptical that it’s realistic to think that Iran wants to help the United States succeed in Iraq," Lieberman said.
Baker acknowledged that the Iranians were unlikely to help, even if asked. He said that during the course of the commission’s discussions an Iranian official told him that Iran was not inclined to help.
But Baker said he saw no harm in approaching Iran anyway, and if it declines to help, "then we will hold them up to public scrutiny as the rejectionist state they have proven to be."
McCain also questioned the wisdom of the group’s recommendation that many more U.S. troops be placed inside Iraqi combat units to advise and train them on the battlefield. He said this was too dangerous.
Hamilton acknowledged that it was risky but said there would be combat forces available to protect the trainers and adviser. He added that it was the group’s consensus view that this approach was necessary in order to phase out the U.S. combat role and accelerate the building of competent Iraqi security forces.
"But there is no blinking the fact that that’s a risky mission and a difficult mission and we should not slide over it as you have not in your comments," Hamilton said.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., asked whether it is time for Congress to take a fresh look at the October 2002 congressional resolution that authorized Bush to go to war.
Hamilton said it might be useful for Congress to pass a new resolution on Iraq, in order to forge a new national consensus on how to proceed. Baker said he did not disagree with his colleague’s answer.
The panel’s 96-page report said flatly that the administration’s approach was not working and recommended that the U.S. military accelerate a change in its main mission so that most combat troops can be withdrawn by spring 2008.
At the forefront are these unknowns:
- Will President Bush embrace and successfully implement the commission’s main recommendations?
- Can the Iraqis do their part, starting with taking more responsibility for their security, disarming the militias and reconciling the sectarian rivals?
- Is it already too late to turn this around?
In its initial reaction the White House was noncommittal.
"We are certainly going to study it with great care," White House spokesman Tony Snow said on the same day that Robert Gates won Senate confirmation as the next secretary of defense, replacing Donald H. Rumsfeld.