James Baker did not enter the Senate committee room bearing two tablets. But the Bush clan adviser and former secretary of state had high expectations to meet Wednesday morning when he and his fellow commissioners of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group publicly disclosed at a Capitol Hill press conference their collective wisdom on how to fix George W. Bush’s war in Iraq–if, as they more than once noted, that’s possible. Baker and his colleagues presented no surprises–given a week’s worth of leaks about the report’s findings. But they made it official: the Washington establishment has judged Bush’s management of the war a failure.
No such bold statement exists in the 142-page report. And before the scores of reporters and dozens of camera crews, Baker, former Representative Lee Hamilton, and the eight other ISG poohbahs offered no harsh words for the fellow Baker got into the White House. Yet the report is unequivocal. “The situation in Iraq,” it says, “is grave and deteriorating,” and the Bush administration must “pursue different policies.”
Citing such statements, I asked Democratic power-lawyer Vernon Jordan, one of the commisioners, if the report is an outright repudiation of Bush’s handling of the war. Flashing a wide smile, he replied, “That’s implicit.” Baker has politely sent a message to Bush the Younger: you screwed up.
The report is both a political and policy document. By declaring that Bush’s current approach is misguided, the Baker-Hamilton commission creates greater space for a debate over alternatives. Its report undermines Bush’s recent claims that “we’re winning” in Iraq and that he has “a strategy for victory.” You’re not and you don’t, the report retorts (between the lines). This slap from Baker and the other Republican members (former Attorney General Edwin Meese III, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, former Senator Alan Simpson, and former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger) is significant. When has such a group of Washington influentials offered a stinging indictment–even if gently–of the defining mission of a president from their own party? This report comes close to being a vote of no confidence from the Republican elite.
Having dismissed Bush’s prosecution of the war, Baker and his comrades try to fill the vacuum with 79 mostly middle-of-the-road policy recommendations. They do not side with the withdrawalists who urge initiating disengagement immediately or within months. (“Precipitous withdrawal,” Baker maintained, “could lead to a blood bath and wider regional war.”) They do not endorse the proposal from neoconservatives and Senator John McCain for dispatching more troops to Iraq. (“Sustained increases in U.S. troop levels would not solve the fundamental cause of violence in Iraq,” the report says, adding, “we do not have the troops.”) They do not support dividing Iraq into parts. (“It could not be managed on an orderly basis,” Baker said, and partition could cause “a humanitarian disaster or broad-based civil war.”)