"Waiting for Baker-Hamilton"

Democrats are in, Rumsfeld is out, and those who care about the Middle East are awaiting the release of the report by the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group (ISG).

The ISG, it will be recalled, was formed by an act of Congress in March 2005 with the expressed mandate to "to offer a forward-looking assessment of the current and prospective situation in Iraq, including policy suggestions and advice." To head the effort, Congress tapped a bipartisan team headed by two individuals respected for their thoughtfulness and past stewardship of the US foreign policy.

Former Secretary of State, James Baker, served in the first Bush Administration overseeing foreign affairs at the end of the Cold War. He is highly regarded for having built a strong international coalition during the 1990-91 Gulf War and then, in the war’s aftermath, for applying balanced pressure on both Arabs and Israelis in order to convene the International Peace Conference in Madrid.

For his part, former Congressman Lee Hamilton made his mark as Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Relations. While Committee members were often biased in their views of the Middle East, Hamilton provided a fair and steady hand. Known for his thoughtfulness and commitment to compromise, he was also tapped to co-chair the 9/11 Commission, whose conclusions and recommendations, though far-reaching and widely accepted, have yet to be fully implemented by the Bush Administration.

Since the work of the Baker-Hamilton ISG has been conducted in private, a cottage industry of "ISG watchers" has emerged, looking for hints as to the direction the group is taking. A few weeks back, upon his return from Iraq, Baker himself laid down a few markers of his own. In interviews, he all but ruled out two options: partition and premature US disengagement.

Some observers, claiming to have inside information have suggested that Baker may prefer to take a more comprehensive approach, linking Iraq and problems in the broader Middle East. They speculate that the ISG may propose something akin to a reconvened Madrid conference. Others, who claim to be in the know, say a less ambitious plan is in the works.

Whatever Baker-Hamilton have up their sleeves, it is fascinating to note how both Democrats and Republicans have embraced what is still an unknown commodity. When, on the day after the election, leaders of both parties were asked about what change in direction the US might take in the wake of the poll results (which were correctly perceived to be a rejection of the Administration’s Iraq war policy) the response was the same: "We’re eagerly awaiting the results of the Baker-Hamilton report."

On the one hand, this response might be seen as an indication of the deep and deserved respect due the ISG’s two chairs. It also speaks, loud and clear, to the inability of either party to have formulated a consensus alternative to resolve the multiple crises plaguing the Middle East today. In this regard, Baker-Hamilton has become a hoped for panacea–a sort of "Waiting for Godot."

Because I do have high regard for Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton, I have some confidence that they may yet provide us with a much needed change in direction. I say this, however, with three caveats.

Their proposals must be comprehensive. The crises we are facing in the Middle East are too deep and broad and, at this point, clearly connected. From Iraq to Lebanon and Palestine, the region is in a mess and recent US policy has only aggravated an already difficult set of circumstances. As the Baker Institution’s Ed Djerijian (a former Assistant Secretary of State) recently noted, the region’s many conflicts have reinforced, fueled each other, making a comprehensive solution imperative.

And so if the ISG’s recommendations are comprehensive and sound, representing a significant shift in policy, there may be hope. This hope, however, will only be realized if the Administration then embraces these recommendations and alters course. What will also be required is that political leaders in both parties, especially the prospective Presidential aspirants, do not turn the recommendations of the ISG into a political football.

Here are my concerns. When the Bush Administration was last presented with the recommendations of a congressionally mandated study group report on a Middle East problem, the results were less than satisfactory. The Mitchell Report issued in May 2001 included a way forward to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead of using the balanced approach required by Mitchell, the Administration let Israel redefine the terms of engagement, resulting in stalemate and collapse of the effort.

I’m also not very confident in how both parties in Congress will behave. Too often, in the past, partisan politics has played a disruptive role in peacemaking efforts. Recall how after Oslo, domestic pressure groups moved Congress to so encumber diplomacy with burdensome legislation that they retarded rather than supported the work of the Clinton Administration.

Matters will become clear in the next several months. We’ll see in a matter weeks the direction of the ISG recommendations. At that point we’ll learn whether the Administration’s and Congress’s "waiting for Baker-Hamilton" was a "face-saving, time buying cop-out," or as a sincere collective cry for help.