Praised by some and panned by others, the report of a high-level commission on ways to wind down the war in Iraq offered no startlingly new ideas but said a U.S. defeat still could be averted.
The co-chairmen of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., were taking their 96-page report before a Senate committee Thursday to face questions on their assessment of conditions inside Iraq as well as their recipe for stabilizing the country and beginning the withdrawal of American forces.
Describing the situation as "grave and deteriorating," the panel said Wednesday the Bush administration’s approach was not working. It called for new diplomatic efforts in Iraq and the region, and recommended that the U.S. military accelerate a change in its main mission so that most combat troops can be withdrawn by spring 2008.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.
Gates had been a member of the commission until Bush announced his nomination for the Pentagon post on Nov. 8, and he told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that it was during his time on the commission that he came to the conclusion — different than Bush’s — that the U.S. was not winning in Iraq.
Bush was meeting at the White House on Thursday with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a key Bush ally in Iraq.
Some members of Congress and some private analysts offered harsh criticism of the commission’s report.
"Their recommendations range from the blindingly obvious, to the naive and simplistic, to the interesting but underdeveloped," said Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M. "I was expecting a steak dinner and we got hors d’oeuvres."
Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the main recommendations of the commission were unlikely to produce success in Iraq. His organization was one of four private groups that sponsored the commission’s eight months of work, at the request of Congress.
"This is not a good or workable plan for the future," Cordesman said.
"Simply calling for a weak and divided Iraqi government to act in the face of all of the forces tearing Iraq apart is almost feckless," he added.
Others took a more charitable view.
"The report underscores what many of us have long been arguing: There is no military solution to our deep problems in Iraq," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who has called for a hard deadline for getting U.S. troops out of Iraq. "Most importantly the report calls on policy makers to acknowledge that for Iraqis to take responsibility for their own future, the large commitment of American forces in Iraq can not be indefinite."
VoteVets.org, a group representing veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, applauded the report but called it too little, too late.
"The question remains: Will the president and his party finally accept the sober reality and implement these recommendations, or will they continue to operate outside of reality?" said Jon Soltz, co-founder of the vets’ group.
Commission members themselves acknowledged the limitations of their work.
"There is no magic bullet," said Baker, who was secretary of state under the first President Bush.
On the other hand, the report asserted, "Our recommended course has shortcomings, but we firmly believe that it includes the best strategies and tactics to positively influence the outcome in Iraq and the region."
Among the commission’s 79 recommendations:
- The U.S. should reduce political, military or economic support for Iraq if the government in Baghdad cannot make substantial progress toward providing for its own security.
- Bush should put aside misgivings and engage Syria, Iran and the leaders of insurgent forces in negotiations on Iraq’s future, to begin by year’s end. It urged him to revive efforts at a broader Middle East peace.
- The number of U.S. troops embedded to train Iraqis should increase dramatically, from 3,000-4,000 currently to 10,000-20,000, in order to accelerate the date when Iraqis can provide for their own security.
In a slap at the Pentagon, the commission said there was significant underreporting of the actual level of violence in the country. It also faulted the U.S. intelligence effort, saying the government "still does not understand very well either the insurgency in Iraq or the role of the militias."
On the highly emotional issue of troop withdrawals, the commission warned against either a precipitous pullback or an open-ended commitment to a large deployment.
Bush is under no obligation to follow the commission’s recommendations. And still to come are options being developed in separate studies by the Pentagon, the State Department and the National Security Council. The White House says he will make decisions within weeks.
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