When the Iraq Study Group presented its report to George W. Bush on Wednesday, the mood was one of forced bonhomie, as one Democratic commissioner noted: “We’re not here to vex and embarrass the administration.”
Yet nothing could disguise the fact they were delivering a bipartisan report that repudiated almost all of the policies Mr Bush has pursued towards Iraq since 2002.
Most importantly the Baker-Hamilton report, which underlines what James Baker called the “staggering cost” of a war that is failing – both in terms of the almost 3,000 US troops killed and the $400bn spent so far – comprehensively rejects continuing along the existing path, which it says will only delay the inevitable and raise the ultimate cost to the US.
The report even disputes Mr Bush’s characterisation of al-Qaeda as central to the insurgency in Iraq, saying it accounts for only a “small portion of the violence”. Nor does it buy the view that al- Qaeda would step into any void from a US retreat and exploit Iraq’s oil resources to export terror. But the question now is whether Mr Bush is prepared to accept the radical changes it recommends.
Many in Washington are deeply sceptical. They point to the fact that in recent weeks the Bush administration has sought to cast the ISG report as just one among a number of Iraq reviews that are under way.
These include reviews by Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Council and the State Department.
“What Mr Bush has tried to do is create the latitude to pick and choose from as wide a range of options as possible of which the Baker report is just one,” said Ken Pollack, a Middle East analyst at the Brookings Institution. “It will enable him to appear to accept this apparent bipartisan consensus without having to follow it.”
Alongside the ISG’s report, the Bush administration can draw upon 21 scattergun recommendations included in a memo by Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defence, which was leaked last week. There is also a leaked memo from Steven Hadley, national security adviser, which set out more than 30 ideas to prop up the government of Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister.
Finally, it can now draw upon the internal advice of Robert Gates, whom the Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly confirmed as Mr Rumsfeld’s replacement as defence secretary. Until last month, Mr Gates, who on Tuesday conceded the US was not winning in Iraq, was a member of the 10-strong ISG.
“Mr Gates sat alongside us and took the same testimony and talked to the same people as we did,” said Sandra Day O’Connor, the ISG commissioner and former Supreme Court justice.
Mr Bush, however, will continue to face countervailing pressure from among his former neoconservative allies on the right, who rushed to dismiss the report as irrelevant.
White House officials say that Mr Bush will take “weeks not months” to produce a new direction in Iraq. But few believe it will include measures such as direct talks with Iran and Syria, which Mr Baker presented as essential.
“To give the Iraqi government a chance to succeed, the US must seek the active and constructive engagement of all Iraq’s neighbours,” he said.
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