Latest Blue-Ribbon Panel Awaits Its Own Fate

Latest Blue-Ribbon Panel Awaits Its Own Fate
December 28th, 2006  
Team Infidel

Topic: Latest Blue-Ribbon Panel Awaits Its Own Fate

Latest Blue-Ribbon Panel Awaits Its Own Fate
New York Times
December 28, 2006
Pg. 26

By Scott Shane
WASHINGTON, Dec. 27 — For every impossible problem that official Washington faces, there is a blue-ribbon panel, and for every panel there is a predictable life cycle, which the Iraq Study Group has so far followed to a fault.
First, the unrealistic expectations, fueled by feverish news coverage, including speculation and leaks about just what might be proposed. Next, the report’s grand unveiling, complete with White House photo op, this time featuring President Bush with the co-chairmen, James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton.
And then, inevitably, the letdown.
Remember, for example, the Social Security commission of 2001? Neither do most Americans. The question now is whether a similar demise awaits the report of the Iraq Study Group — impeccably researched, comprehensive, bipartisan and having no legal authority beyond that of friendly advice.
One of its main proposals, the idea of talking to Iran and Syria, was swiftly brushed off by Mr. Bush. Now the administration seems to be leaning toward a temporary increase in American troops, an option the group said it “could support” if requested by commanders but did not endorse.
But whether this group, too, ends up as a footnote to history, or becomes the framework for a new war policy, is unlikely to be settled until well into the new year.
“I don’t think it’s dead at all,” said Warren B. Rudman, the former Republican senator from New Hampshire and a veteran of such panels himself. “Whether its recommendations will ultimately be followed is another question. But with the Democrats in charge of Congress, its findings will certainly get a hearing.”
National commissions have been a staple of Washington tradecraft since at least 1908, when the National Monetary Commission began setting out proposals that led to the Federal Reserve System. Others, too, have had substantive results. The National Screw Thread Commission of 1925 helped solve a problem that now seems obscure but once was quite critical — the mismatch of nonstandard hardware, including hoses with fire hydrants and nuts with bolts.
In more recent years, commissions have investigated presidential assassinations, space shuttle disasters and intelligence failures. Robert A. Dallek, the presidential historian, has studied how President Lyndon B. Johnson ignored the recommendations of his own commission on the urban riots of the 1960s. In the current debate over Iraq, Mr. Dallek sees that history repeating itself.
“The impression I have is the Iraq Study Group’s report is slowly being eclipsed, fading to the margins, because there’s no indication that President Bush will accept its recommendations,” he said.
Unlike many such panels, the Iraq Study Group was appointed not by the president but by Congress; the White House only later lent its support, offering additional government financing for the group’s visit to Iraq in August.
Mr. Baker’s status as a top adviser to Mr. Bush’s father has led to speculation that the current president may not want to appear too eager to accept the group’s recommendations, particularly on Iran and Syria, which have been roundly criticized on the Republican right.
On Tuesday, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. , the Delaware Democrat who will become chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee next month, repeatedly cited the Iraq Study Group as a touchstone for Iraq hearings he plans beginning Jan. 9. But the study group rejected Mr. Biden’s central idea for the Iraqi future, a division of the country into separately administered Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish regions. Still, it is too early to write an obituary for the panel.
Mr. Bush, who will preside over a National Security Council meeting on Iraq at his Texas ranch on Thursday, has promised to announce a new war strategy next month. Even if he rejects the most prominent of the group’s 79 proposals, they may remain relevant options for the future.
Mr. Rudman keenly understands that possibility. He served as co-chairman with former Senator Gary Hart of Colorado of a commission on national security whose 1999 report predicted terrorist attacks, saying “Americans will die on American soil, possibly in large numbers.” Its recommendations were duly ignored — until the 2001 attacks, when many were put into effect.
Daniel P. Serwer, the former diplomat who served as the Iraq Study Group’s executive director, argues that whatever Mr. Bush decides, the panel has already had a profound effect on the policy debate, particularly by declaring its candid judgment that the situation in Iraq is “grave and deteriorating.”
“The government went from saying, ‘We’ve got this under control,’ to ordering new assessments left, right and center,” said Mr. Serwer, vice president for peace and stability operations at the United States Institute of Peace.
He said the administration was likely to accept dozens of the 79 recommendations, including “milestones” it sets for the Iraqi government over the next year.
“I’m quite convinced that when you get the administration’s new assessments, along with Congress’s hearings and evaluations, what you come up with may be very much like the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations,” Mr. Serwer said.
The national 9/11 commission had perhaps the greatest impact of any such inquiry in recent years, producing a best-selling book and recommendations that have reshaped the government. Emulating the 9/11 report, the Iraq Study Group issued a commercial paperback of its report that has topped nonfiction best-seller lists this month.
Between the book, with 250,000 copies in print, and more than 1.5 million downloads of the report from the group’s main Web site and many thousands elsewhere, staff members estimate that at least three million Americans have seen the report. But there are no plans to campaign for the proposals as the 9/11 commission did, said Ian Larsen, a spokesman for the study group.
“No sales job, no road show,” Mr. Larsen said.
Still, the group’s work has been far more public than that of the so-called Wise Men who advised President Johnson at a similar crisis in the conduct of the Vietnam War. A dozen distinguished elder statesmen and military commanders who were gathered by Clark M. Clifford in March 1968, just after he was named secretary of defense, they gave their advice largely in private.
In a parallel move, Mr. Bush has also switched defense secretaries at a critical moment in a war that many Americans believe has gone wrong. His choice was a member of the Iraq Study Group, Robert M. Gates, who, Mr. Serwer recalled, “did a whole lot of reading” on Iraq in the months he served on the panel.

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