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December 8, 2006

ISG Report Faces
Uncertain Future

by Jim Lobe

One day after its official release, the package of 79 recommendations on U.S. Iraq and Middle East policy released Wednesday by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG) faced a very uncertain future.

Denounced by hawks and doves alike in both major parties, the ISG's 142-page report [.pdf] received what at best could be called an ambiguous response at the White House and on Capitol Hill.

Indeed, aside from the ISG's two co-chairmen, former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic chairman of the House International Relations Committee Lee Hamilton, and its other eight members, the only person who appeared to give the report his nearly unqualified support was visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"It offers a strong way forward," said Blair, who has long – albeit unsuccessfully – urged President George W. Bush to adopt many of the main recommendations, particularly a major diplomatic push to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict, contained in the ISG report.

"[T]here is a kind of whole vision about how we need to proceed that links what happens inside Iraq with what happens outside Iraq. And … I think that the Baker-Hamilton report put this very simply and very clearly," said Blair, who plans to travel to Israel and the Palestinian territories shortly in what he insisted was a "mission that was supported fully by our American allies."

While generous in his praise of the report and eager to adopt the report's subtitle, "A New Approach," as his own, however, Bush appeared to rule out at least two of its central recommendations – that Washington be prepared to withdraw support for Iraq's government if it fails to make serious progress toward national reconciliation over the next 15 months; and that it attempt to engage Syria and Iran directly and without preconditions as part of a proposed diplomatic offensive to stabilize Iraq.

"If people come to the table to discuss Iraq, they need to come understanding their responsibilities to not fund terrorists, to help this young democracy survive, to help with the economics of the country," Bush declared about the ISG's proposal to engage Damascus and Tehran within the framework of a proposed "Iraq International Support Group." "And if … Syria and Iran is [sic] not committed to that concept, then they shouldn't bother to show up."

"[I]f they want to sit down at the table with the United States, it's easy," he said, adding several other preconditions, including Iran's freezing of its uranium enrichment program and a halt to Syria's "destabilizing the [Lebanese] government … allowing money and arms to cross your border into Iraq, [and] provid[ing] safe haven for terrorist groups."

Meanwhile, Baker, whose decades-long status as the Bush family's chief consiglieri, it had been thought, might facilitate the president's acceptance of the policy overhaul urged by the report, was reduced to pleading with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to endorse it as a counterweight to resistance at the White House.

"If the Congress could come behind supporting, let's say utopianly, all of the recommendations in this report, that would do a lot toward moving things downtown," he said, stressing that the recommendations should be seen as both comprehensive and interdependent.

Met with an equivocal – although not unsympathetic – response by outgoing Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John Warner, Baker asked: "Could you say, 'This is good,' 'til something better comes along?"

For their part, Democrats, who, as a result of their landslide victory in the Nov. 7 elections, will take over the leadership in both houses of Congress next month, seemed more eager to use the report – especially its conclusion that the situation in Iraq was "grave and deteriorating" – as a bludgeon against Bush than as a policy manifesto they were ready to sign onto.

While the incoming chairman of the Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, said he would be inclined to co-sponsor a resolution endorsing the report's general principles, if not its specific recommendations, his counterpart on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Joseph Biden, deplored the ISG's rejection of his plan for creating three semi-independent regions in Iraq as the best political solution to the sectarian conflict there.

In a speech to the dovish Israel Policy Forum (IPF) Wednesday evening, he also denounced the ISG's linking of Iraq with progress in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, calling it "dangerously naïve."

"Israeli-Palestinian peace should be pursued aggressively on its own merits, period – not as some sort of diplomatic price to make the Arab states feel good so they will help us in Iraq," said Biden in a point echoed in an article by Dennis Ross, who previously served as Baker's top Middle East aide and the Clinton administration's top Middle East negotiator, in an article appearing in The New Republic online Wednesday.

The report, the product of nine months of work by a congressionally appointed panel equally divided between former top Republican and Democratic public officials, called for the adoption of three main policy initiatives.

They included the creation of the International Iraq Support Group that would commit all of Iraq's regional neighbors, including Iran and Syria, to take concrete steps to stabilize the country; a broader, two-tracked effort to negotiate a peaceful settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, on the one hand, and Israel and Lebanon and Syria, on the other; and greatly intensified training of Iraqi security forces that would permit Washington to withdraw virtually all of its combat forces within 15 months, depending on conditions on the ground.

The ISG's members have argued that its appeal to both Congress and the White House rests not only on the strategic and tactical value of the recommendations themselves, but also on the fact that it was adopted unanimously by its members and thus formed the basis for a policy that could rally bipartisan support.

"This country cannot be at war and be as divided as we are today," one member, Clinton's former chief of staff Leon Panetta, said Wednesday.

But initial reaction on Capitol Hill indicated that criticism of the report's recommendations was also bipartisan.

Echoing his neoconservative supporters, Sen. John McCain, a leading Republican presidential contender in the 2008 elections who supports a substantial increase in U.S. troop strength in Iraq, denounced the ISG's call for the gradual withdrawal of combat troops, calling it "a recipe that will lead to, sooner or later, our defeat in Iraq."

He and Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman also opposed engaging Iran and Syria. "I don't believe that a peace conference with people who are dedicated to your extinction has much short-term gain," said McCain.

On the other side, a number of Democrats, notably the incoming chairman of the powerful House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Rep. John Murtha, said they were disappointed that the ISG had not called for a more rapid withdrawal according to a specific timetable. "This is not different from the current policy," he said of the ISG's recommendation of a 15-month conditional phase-out of the U.S. combat role.

In his comments Thursday, Bush stressed that the ISG's work indeed "shows that Republicans and Democrats can work together to come up with a strategy to achieve an objective" and that there were "a lot of important things in the report that we ought to seriously consider."

At the same time, however, he stressed that he was awaiting reviews by the Pentagon and the State Department before reaching final conclusions that, he said, he will set forth in an upcoming speech. He also admitted that the situation in Iraq was "bad."

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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