Amid the highly charged political infighting in Washington over what to do in Iraq, you might be excused for not noticing that a bipartisan commission quietly started work last spring with a mandate to help the Bush administration rethink its policy toward the war.
...Since March, Baker, backed by a team of experienced national-security hands, has been busily at work trying to devise a fresh set of policies to help the president chart a new course in--or, perhaps, to get the hell out of--Iraq.
Alas, the purpose is not merely to find a way out of Iraq:
"...Baker is primarily motivated by his desire to avoid a war at home--that things will fall apart not on the battlefield but at home. So he wants a ceasefire in American politics," a member of one of the commission's working groups told me. Specifically, he said, if the Democrats win back one or both houses of Congress in November, they would unleash a series of investigative hearings on Iraq, the war on terrorism, and civil liberties that could fatally weaken the administration and remove the last props of political support for the war, setting the stage for a potential Republican electoral disaster in 2008. "I guess there are people in the [Republican] party, on the Hill and in the White House, who see a political train wreck coming, and they've called in Baker to try to reroute the train."
Nonetheless, Baker is now hinting that change is in the wind:
James A. Baker III, the Republican co-chairman of a bipartisan panel reassessing Iraq strategy for President Bush, said Sunday that he expected the panel would depart from Mr. Bush’s repeated calls to “stay the course,” and he strongly suggested that the White House enter direct talks with countries it had so far kept at arm’s length, including Iran and Syria.
“I believe in talking to your enemies,” he said in an interview on the ABC News program “This Week,” noting that he made 15 trips to Damascus, the Syrian capital, while serving Mr. Bush’s father as secretary of state.
“It’s got to be hard-nosed, it’s got to be determined,” Mr. Baker said. “You don’t give away anything, but in my view, it’s not appeasement to talk to your enemies.”
That eminently reasonable advice has until now be considered heresy in the Bush administration. After all, you don't "reward" enemies for their bad behavior by talking to them. Baker takes a more nuanced view:
His comments Sunday offered the first glimmer of what other members of his study group, in interviews over the past two weeks, have described as an effort to find a politically face-saving way for Mr. Bush slowly to extract the United States from the war. “I think it’s fair to say our commission believes that there are alternatives between the stated alternatives, the ones that are out there in the political debate, of ‘stay the course’ and ‘cut and run,’ ” Mr. Baker said.
Trying telling that to the President, who despite Baker's work is running around charging Democrats with being the party of the "cut and run", a tactic which does our policy in Iraq no favors.
One would not be remiss to wonder if any of his suggstions will be taken seriously (and if they are, count on the Bush administration to characterize any change as fully consistent with earlier policy because nobody admits to a mistake up there.) The real question is whether any of it's going to do any good. Talking to Syria and Iran is all well and good, and certainly it would help to dry up some of the support the insurgents and the militias are getting, but even if Syria and Iran withdrew involvement entirely in Iraq, it won't stop the fighting. The Baker commission may end up being yet another example of "too little, too late", which thus far has been true hallmark of the Iraq policy of this administration.