Bipartisan commission looks at alternative strategies for Iraq
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON — A commission backed by President Bush intends to propose significant changes in the administration's Iraq war strategy by early next year, members say.
Two options under consideration would represent reversals of U.S. policy: withdrawing U.S. troops in phases, and bringing neighboring Iran and Syria into a joint effort to stop the fighting.
While it weighs alternatives, the 10-member commission headed by former Secretary of State James Baker has agreed on one principle.
"It's not going to be 'stay the course,' " one participant said. "The bottom line is, [current U.S. policy] isn't working. ... There's got to be another way."
If the panel recommends overhauling Bush's approach to Iraq, it could give a boost not only to critics of current policy but to administration officials who have argued for change.
"There'll probably be some things in our report that the administration might not like," Baker said in a television interview last week. It's not clear how willing Bush is to alter his strategy, which focuses on improving security in Baghdad, training Iraqi security forces and pressing the Iraqi government to forge a political agreement among warring factions. Progress on those fronts has been slow, and Bush last week said he was open to ideas.
"My attitude is: Don't do what you're doing if it's not working — change," Bush said at a news conference.
When the panel was formed in March, some administration officials hoped it would produce a bipartisan endorsement of existing policy. But as sectarian violence in Iraq has worsened, more Republicans in Congress — and privately some administration officials — have become enthusiastic about alternatives.
The Baker panel, called the Iraq Study Group, was formed in response to a proposal by members of Congress, but Baker sought and won Bush's endorsement. Other members include former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., who also served as co-chairman of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks; retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor; former Rep. Leon Panetta, a Democrat who was President Clinton's chief of staff; and former CIA Director Robert Gates.
The panel's most recent closed-door meetings focused on options drafted by nongovernment experts.
One, titled "Stability First," called for continuing to try to stabilize Baghdad, boosting efforts to entice insurgents into politics, and bringing Iran and Syria into plans to end fighting.
Another, called "Redeploy and Contain," went further. It called for a gradual, phased withdrawal of U.S. troops to bases outside Iraq where they would be available to attack terrorist organizations in the region.
The experts also prepared an option called "Stay the Course, Redefine the Mission," and an alternative urging a quick U.S. withdrawal, but the panel appeared less interested in those plans, participants said. The options were first reported last week by the New York Sun.
Baker and other commission members refused to confirm the substance of the options. But Baker has signaled the thrust of deliberations in several television interviews.
"Our commission believes that there are alternatives between the stated alternatives, the ones that are out there in the political debate of 'stay the course' and 'cut and run,' " Baker said.
The former secretary of state, who was a longtime aide to former President Bush, also said he favored reaching out to Iran and Syria.
"I personally believe in talking to your enemies," he said. "Neither the Syrians nor the Iranians want a chaotic Iraq ... so maybe there is some potential for getting something other than opposition from those countries."
Bringing Iran and Syria into negotiations would require significant changes in U.S. policy.
"To bring them in, we need to stop emphasizing things like democracy and start emphasizing things like stability and territorial integrity," said James Dobbins of the Rand Corp., a former U.S. envoy to Afghanistan. "We need to stop talking about regime change. It's unreasonable to think you can stabilize Iraq and destabilize Iran and Syria at the same time."
The Iraq Study Group said Dobbins was one of its advisers. He refused to talk about the panel's work and said he was giving a personal opinion. Others described the panel's discussions on condition they not be identified because Baker had asked them to keep the work confidential.
Baker, promoting a new volume of his memoirs in a recent flurry of television interviews, including an appearance on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," offered his views on issues under consideration by the panel.
In his interviews, Baker said he did not support calls for an early withdrawal of U.S. troops. "I think that if we picked up and left right now that you would see the biggest civil war you've ever seen," he said.
He also said he did not agree with proposals to divide Iraq into three states for Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds. "Most all the experts we've talked with think that might ... trigger a civil war," he said.
And instead of trying to bring democracy to the Middle East, he said, the United States should define success as achieving "representative government, not necessarily democracy."
Another participant, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the panel was considering whether the United States should warn the Iraqi government to "get your act together or else," an implicit threat to withdraw troops unless the government's performance improved.
An administration official was skeptical that the panel would uncover new policy options but said the White House would welcome ideas.
"If an independent group like the Baker panel can come up with some good ideas, we're all for it," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because his comment had not been approved.
The commission is scheduled to meet again in mid-November and hopes to deliver a report to Bush, Congress and the public by early 2007.
Los Angeles Times reporters Paul Richter and Peter Spiegel contributed to this report.
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