After months of speculation, the Iraq Study Group, led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, is preparing to release its much-hyped report on American policy toward Iraq.

According to the New York Times, the “final report will call for a gradual pullback of the 15 American combat brigades now in Iraq but stop short of setting a firm timetable for their withdrawal.” The implicit message is that President Bush needs to tell the Iraqi government that he will start withdrawing troops next year.

Yet the the report ducks the crucial questions of how and when the troops should be removed–and where they should go.

“The report leaves unstated whether the 15 combat brigades that are the bulk of American fighting forces in Iraq would be brought home, or simply pulled back to bases in Iraq or in neighboring countries,” the Times writes.

To its credit, the Times says the report does call for “direct engagement with Iran and Syria,” a step that should have occurred long ago. Yet by failing to lay out a detailed exit strategy, the report represents somewhat of a cop-out. This is more of a political document than a policy paper. Its findings are no substitute for a principled and specific alternative policy, of the sort offered by people like Chuck Hagel, Jack Murtha and Russ Feingold.

“I am troubled by reports that the Group will not recommend a timeline to redeploy our troops from Iraq,” Feingold said today. “While I welcome the reports that indicate the Group will recommend greatly expanded diplomatic efforts in that region, not including a flexible timetable for redeployment of our troops would be a mistake that weakens both our efforts to help Iraqis reach a political solution in Iraq and our national security.”

Let’s hope that Bush listens to the Group’s best recommendations. But let’s also hope that leading politicians in Washington think for themselves and do not hide behind Baker.