Baker-Hamilton Consensus Tactic Raises Question of Who Will Now Call the Shots in Washington on Iraq

Big questions hang over the White House since Wednesday, Dec. 6, when former secretary of state James Baker and ex-congressman Lee Hamilton released their Iraq Study Group recommendations and charted a diplomatic strategy directly opposed to president George W. Bush’s principles.
Has the report touched off of a battle over implementation? And who is in fact running the Iraq War and US foreign policy? Are the president and his support team – vice president Dick Cheney, secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen Hadley – in full control? Or is Baker, through his man in the Pentagon, former ISG member Robert Gates, running the show?
debkafile‘s Washington sources report that, in the first weekend after the ISG’s presentation, the weights appear to have shifted in favor of the Baker-Hamilton-Gates side and away from the president’s team. But it is early days yet.
Although the holder of ultimate executive authority and commander in chief of the armed forces, President Bush never directly conducted the wars launched after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. He delegated the lead role in the Afghanistan War, the war on terror and the Iraq War to former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
From December 8, that role passed to Gates, who was confirmed by a massive 95-2 Senate majority 48 hours before the presentation of the Baker-Hamilton report.
Many cards are stacked against President Bush, the most powerful being the Republican-Democratic consensus swung by the Baker-Hamilton group. He may find himself in the position of going along with elements of their strategy for Iraq for the sake of a way out. Rice may not want to knuckle under to US engagement with Iran and Syria, or Hadley bend to some mutually-agreed sections of Iran’s nuclear program.
It is very possible that the White House will put on a brave front of sticking to its guns of non-engagement with enemies in the face of attempts to usurp the reins of foreign policy and hand them to more pragmatic – or cynical – hands. The all-powerful consensus and the blunt critics on his own side will lean hard.
In his radio address Saturday, Dec. 9, the president appealed to “all of us in Washington — Republicans and Democrats alike — to come together and find greater consensus on the best way forward. ” He insisted that “the future of a vital region and the security of the American people depend on victory in Iraq.”
But the ISG’s report, while determining that a premature US withdrawal from Iraq would be disastrous, leaves no room for an achievable victory.
Bush’s handling of the Iraq War was discredited step by step last week: Gates, his nominee as defense secretary, told the Senate that the United States is not winning the war; Baker and Hamilton pulled long faces in describing the situation as “grave’ and the present way as “not working.”
They then appealed for a full consensus between the Democrats, who now control Congress and the Republicans, who lost last month’s midterm elections, to be thrown behind hitherto-taboo diplomatic steps for winding up the Iraq episode.
In proposing those steps, Baker and Hamilton alike have their own partisan motives for the near and distant future.
In the first instance, they will try and turn the bipartisan cooperation, which was evinced overwhelmingly to confirm Gates confirmation, into a tool to tie the president’s hands against opposing their recommendations; they will be doing their utmost to push Bush and his team to the sidelines of policy-making.
To vindicate this step, the two co-chairmen must chart a clear progression towards terminating the Iraq war and an acceptable exit path for the US army.
In the second instance, the two veteran political warhorses are working to a compelling domestic deadline. Their aim is to make the calamitous US venture in Iraq a thing of the past in time for the 2008 presidential election campaign.
At that point their interests will diverge.
Baker will maneuver to erase from voters’ minds the negative impact of the Iraq war on the prospects of returning a Republican candidate.
Hamilton, pulling at the opposite end, will seek to turn the Iraq crisis into an asset to bring a Democrat into the White House after eight years of Republican rule. He will try and grab the credit for extricating American troops – if their joint strategy is accepted and works.
If it does, both will claim the credit for drumming up the first Republican-Democrat spirit of accord in years for the sake of cracking a disastrous dilemma by conventional diplomatic give-and-take. They will try and put war on terror and the Iranian nuclear threat in the shade while hyping up the happy spectacle of partisan collaboration transcending partisan politics.
Beyond these domestic considerations, Baker and Hamilton also boast a foreign agenda. They hope the consensus recipe – a unifier at home – will evolve as a divider in Tehran.
They are going for the classic diplomatic gambit of challenging Iran to full accord on every point at issue – its nuclear aspirations, the Iraq crisis and the Middle East – when both sides know they will wind up settling for a limited area of understanding – hopefully a formula that enables the US to disengage from Iraq. They are banking on Washington and Tehran putting their dissonances on a back burner as long as they are talking and focusing on cooperation.
Baker laid out his proposed strategy to the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday, Dec. 7. He argued that the issue of Iraq should be kept separate from the nuclear proliferation issue in Iran.
“The United States says Iran is developing nuclear weapons,” he said. “Iran says it wants to make fuel for nuclear power plants. What do we lose by saying ‘we’re getting all of Iraq’s neighbors together, we want you to come, and if they say no, we show the world what they’re all about.”
By showing how Washington is united behind a positive, collaborative posture, Baker wants to work on putting the ayatollahs on the spot, hoping that a positive diplomatic approach by Washington will divide the Islamic rulers of Tehran. According to his reckoning, the radical rulers will be forced, either to succumb to political discord, or come together for tough decisions – a more moderate line on the tempo of their nuclear program, less meddling in Iraq and the de-escalation of their aggressive proxy deployment of Hizballah and Hamas – all for the sake of a limited rapprochement with the United States. As Baker put it, what do we lose?
President Bush may not have said the last word. He keeps on insisting that he has asked more groups for proposals on a new strategy for Iraq in addition to the Iraq Study Group.

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