A Turning Point For A Panel: 4 Harrowing Days In Iraq

A Turning Point For A Panel: 4 Harrowing Days In Iraq
December 8th, 2006  
Team Infidel

Topic: A Turning Point For A Panel: 4 Harrowing Days In Iraq

A Turning Point For A Panel: 4 Harrowing Days In Iraq
New York Times
December 8, 2006
Pg. 14

By Philip Shenon
WASHINGTON, Dec. 7 — For some members of the Iraq Study Group, the turning point came during four days in Baghdad in September. They found the trip so harrowing, they said, that they wondered if they could afford to wait to speak out about the disaster in Iraq.
Like other visitors, they arrived on a C-130 transport plane that performed a plunging corkscrew maneuver to avoid insurgent fire while landing at Baghdad’s airport. Then they were bundled into flak jackets and helmets and rushed onto attack helicopters for the five-minute flight to the Green Zone, the military-controlled neighborhood that is sealed off from the city.
There, they were placed in fleet of armored Humvees, each with a medic seated in the back to offer first aid in the event of a rocket attack. The roar of the Humvees’ engines could not mask the sound of explosions from car bombs outside the Green Zone. The security measures had been routine for most of the American occupation, but they were still jarring to these first-time visitors to the war zone.
“You understand this is real — this is a state of siege,” said Edward P. Djerejian, the former American ambassador to Israel and Syria who helped draft the Iraq Study Group’s report, released Wednesday, which called for an overhaul of American policy in Iraq. “The trip to Baghdad really solidified that perception for all of us.”
Whatever their early differences over the American venture in Iraq, some of those serving on the 10-member bipartisan panel and its staff say the trip to Baghdad brought them to a common understanding of the catastrophic situation in Iraq and how much had gone wrong in American planning for the occupation.
They said the situation in Baghdad was so bleak — and in many ways, so much worse than they expected — that the four Democrats and three Republicans on the trip debated releasing an interim report as soon as they returned home. They worried that a final report released after the November elections, as planned, would be too late to have any hope of salvaging the situation.
One Democrat on the trip, Leon E. Panetta, White House chief of staff under the former president Bill Clinton, said the idea of an interim report was scrapped out of a concern that “if we put out something before the election, we’d be chewed up” in a political fight.
But he said the group’s anxiety about waiting too long was justified — and bipartisan — and helped explain why surprisingly few issues divided the members when it came to writing a final report.
Members of the study group said the most significant showdown between the panel’s Democrats and Republicans took place during final negotiations late last month and involved an explicit timetable for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. But they said that even that dispute never seriously threatened to derail the report, with the members so unified on most of the big issues.
The Democratic case for a timetable for troop withdrawal was pressed most aggressively by William J. Perry, defense secretary in the Clinton administration, who said that almost all combat troops should be out of Iraq by the first quarter of 2008. Republicans felt the recommendation would box in President Bush, who has rejected calls for a deadline for withdrawal.
Mr. Perry said in an interview Wednesday on National Public Radio that the issue was resolved in two hours of private talks between him and James A. Baker III, the study group’s Republican co-chairman and a former secretary of state. The compromise language replaced a recommendation that the United States “would” withdraw troops from Iraq under a timetable with a finding that the United States “could” withdraw the troops by early 2008. “I was willing to give up the language but not the substance,” Mr. Perry said.
The study group was created by Congress at the urging of Representative Frank R. Wolf, a Virginia Republican active in foreign-policy issues who grew alarmed by what he saw in Iraq during a visit last year.
He pressed Congressional leaders to approve $1 million for the project through the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace, which oversaw logistical and scholarly support for the project and helped recruit Mr. Baker and his Democratic co-chairman, Lee H. Hamilton, a former chairman of the House International Relations Committee. Mr. Baker and Mr. Hamilton selected the commission’s other members — four Republicans and four Democrats, all of them retired or close to it. The average age of the panel members: 74.
“These were not people looking for their next big job,” said Daniel P. Serwer, the study group’s executive director and a vice president of the Institute of Peace. “They called this group bipartisan. But really, they were nonpartisan. You couldn’t tell who was a Democrat and who was a Republican. All of these people believed that if there were vital U.S. interests at stake, then there shouldn’t be any real problem in getting Democrats and Republicans to agree.”
Mr. Djerejian, founding director of the James Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston, signed on at Mr. Baker’s request to help organize the inquiry. He said that Mr. Baker and Mr. Hamilton agreed early on that the study group’s final report had to be unanimous — or that there should be no report at all. Anything other than a unanimous report “would have been counterproductive, because that would just show that the debate over Iraq is unresolvable,” he said.
He said he was struck by how quickly the study group agreed on what might have seemed a contentious recommendation: its call for the Bush administration to reverse course and engage in direct talks with Iran and Syria about the future of neighboring Iraq.
“I think everybody in the group, from the right to the left, realized the merits of talking with your adversaries,” Mr. Djerejian said. He recalled how one of the Republicans on the panel, the former attorney general Edwin Meese III, pointed out to the study group that his close friend Ronald Reagan had negotiated arms deals with the Soviet Union even as he described it as an “evil empire.”
The Institute of Peace joined with the Baker Institute and two other research agencies to set up panels of experts, including foreign policy and military analysts, to provide guidance to the study group. Eventually 44 experts were recruited to work for the panel; they produced dozens of research papers.
The task of drafting the final report was largely left to Mr. Djerejian; John B. Williams, a colleague of Mr. Baker’s from his Houston law firm; and two longtime aides to Mr. Hamilton, Christopher A. Kojm and Benjamin J. Rhodes.
Mr. Djerejian said the draft reports were heavily edited by the 10 members of the study group. Sandra Day O’Connor, a former Supreme Court justice, was an exacting editor and insisted that the report be written and organized so that it could be readily understood by people without foreign policy expertise.
“She’d say, ‘We’re writing this for the American people, not for people like you,’ ” Mr. Djerejian said, chuckling. “We are all terrified of her. But she was right. Sometimes we policy wonks get lost in our own verbiage.”

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