The Iraq Study Group's rise was aided by a rare loosening of official Washington's hold of the reins.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia has traveled to the most difficult war and civil war zones on the planet – from Chechnya and Bosnia to Sudan and Algeria. He had visited Iraq twice before, both times without a military escort. On his third visit, in September 2005, he had an epiphany.
He was about to tour a maternity ward in Tikrit when armed security guards were called in. Noting the mothers' and nurses' reaction, he recalls, "I said: 'We've got to get out of here. We can't walk through a maternity ward with guns like this scaring people." He concluded then that the US needed "fresh eyes" on its Iraq involvement.
From that small beginning has sprung one of the most-anticipated blue-ribbon commissions in recent years – the Iraq Study Group, which began deliberating over final conclusions this week.
How an obscure panel became a policy touchstone for Republicans and Democrats is a story in itself. More important, it illustrates those rare moments when a crisis reaches such a point that official Washington temporarily loosens hold of the reins. It's in those moments that experienced outside voices – think the 9/11 and Warren commissions – can make themselves heard. The Iraq panel, in particular, may prove particularly influential because of the escalating chaos in Iraq.
"We're losing," says Michael O'Hanlon, a policy analyst at the Brookings Institution. "One of the few hopes we have left is someone who is close enough to [President] Bush that he will be listened to by Bush – and smart enough and independent enough to see this in a different way."
Unlike the 9/11 commission, the Iraq Study Group has conducted its review of US engagement in Iraq in strict secrecy. Panelists were not publicly vetted. There were no open hearings or regular updates on whether the administration was being cooperative in releasing needed documents.