Friday, December 08, 2006

Forget Iraq, What We Need Is a Panel on Bush: Margaret Carlson

By Margaret Carlson

Dec. 7 (Bloomberg) -- Waiting for Baker became the Washington game everyone wanted to play.

It allowed both parties to hit the pause button as they anticipated a report from the Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Representative Lee Hamilton. The report would give them all cover -- Republicans reluctant to jolt their president into action and Democrats afraid to risk any proposal that would leave an opening for Karl Rove to accuse them of cutting and running.

President George W. Bush didn't like playing the game, which only added to the sense that the panel could be important. Bush had nervously referred to the former secretary as ``Jimmy'' when he didn't forget him altogether and, before the report, labeled it as just one of many he would look at. Bush fought back as parts of the report leaked. He stepped up his insistence that there would be no early exit from Iraq, whether gradual or graceful, until the ``mission is complete.''

Bush could have saved his breath. The report actually extends the waiting game in his favor since there's no timetable for its recommendations, unlike commissions that propose legislation to Congress. There's a reason Bush was able to say upon receiving the report on Wednesday, ``We will take every proposal seriously.'' He can just continue on as if nothing had happened.

Familiar Ring

Bush isn't going to have to ignore the report. He can just agree with much of it. The panel leaves to the military commanders the decisions on how far and how fast to shift troops from fighting to training. Ever hear Bush say he leaves troop levels and deployments to ``generals on the ground''?

One goal of the panel is to hand over responsibility for security to Iraqis themselves as soon as possible. Ever hear Bush say ``We will stand down when the Iraqis stand up''?

The commission envisions at least 70,000 troops in Iraq for years to come. Looks like Bush was right when he said it would remain for future presidents to end America's presence in that country.

The report did employ some harsh language, describing the situation in Iraq as ``grave and deteriorating'' and questioning the strength of the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. But the president's own national security adviser has already done that, writing in a memo that leaked last week that the security of Baghdad is perilous and that the Iraqi prime minister is not up to the job.

The `Right Guy'

Bush rejected that assessment as he praised Maliki at meetings in Jordan as the absolute ``right guy'' to bring democracy to the Middle East, a day after Maliki canceled a meeting with him.

In a toothless section, the Iraq Study Group warns that Maliki needs to show progress on ``national reconciliation, security and governance'' . . . or face a reduction in ``political, military or economic support'' from Washington. Face that when? And who will be doing the reducing?

The report clears up one mystery -- why Bush would make such a fuss about dropping ``stay the course'' from his phrasebook, if not from his policy, a while ago. Master leaker Baker must have let slip to the White House months ago that his group would say that staying the course was no longer a viable option.

One recommendation may prove hard to get around for Bush. The report recommends a regional conference with Iraq's neighbors, outlaw states Bush has already said he won't reward by agreeing to any discussions. As the Daily Show's Jon Stewart put it, Bush wants to ``exhaust all violent options before resorting to diplomacy.''

`Rejectionist' Iranians

But that panel recommendation may end up giving Bush cover. In one of his many press conferences, Baker said he didn't believe Iran would accept an invitation to talk but that he put it out there so ``the world will see the rejectionist attitude.'' It's not Bush who's refusing to talk, it's those nuclear-obsessed Shiites in Tehran.

Making the Baker group a vessel for our hopes and dreams led us to lose sight of a few eternal truths. Commissions are filled with folks who have managed to chin-tug and brow-furrow themselves to blue-ribbon status and pride themselves on consensus. When this one decided to make the report unanimous and said there would be no ``look back'' to the past, they assured that they could engage the most difficult issue of our time without setting anyone off.

A D-Day Commission, Anyone?

Commissions are fine things to study Social Security and education. But imagine if Abraham Lincoln, instead of firing General George McClellan, had called for a commission to be formed to think on it, or if FDR had consulted the poobahs of his era to ponder D-Day. It is grating to learn that a commission in time of war found time to sit for a photo spread in Men's Vogue and hired its own expensive public relations firm.

The hype about the Iraq Study Group came partly from the notion that whenever anyone from the first Bush administration is called up to help in the second, we think Dad is sending cooler heads to shake some sense into the kid. This is nonsense. Robert Gates made headlines this week from his confirmation hearings by saying we're not winning in Iraq. But later he said we aren't losing either.

Baker and Gates aren't coming to throw Junior off the farm. They're coming to help him plow the back 40. How could we imagine otherwise?

What we really need is the Bush Commission. All we get from the president is platitudes about winning and how much the Iraqis long for liberty and democracy. Nowhere does he tether himself to earth and say what should happen. That would be one commission report worth waiting for.

(Margaret Carlson, author of ``Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House'' and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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