When James Baker and colleagues rolled out recommendations on Iraq this week, he quipped that the report is "the only bipartisan report that's out there." The former top diplomat sounded as if he was prepared for criticism.
At the top of those critiques against the Iraq Study Group was that this panel of senior Washington luminaries was too removed from Iraq and simply providing cover for a graceful US exit strategy.
But Mr. Baker and his Democrat and Republican commission members are spot on with their mantra that the US cannot succeed in Iraq without a bipartisan strategy.
The Democrats' triumph in the November elections showed that most Americans want a new direction for the US in Iraq. The exit of the main architect of postinvasion Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and the Senate's welcome of Robert Gates to replace him, show how eager many in Washington now are for an agreement on a way forward.
History, too, underscores the point made by Democrat panel member Leon Panetta that "this country cannot be at war and be as divided as we are today." Domestic division helped make it impossible to carry on with the Vietnam War. And while the US can't form a "grand coalition" government as Winston Churchill did during World War II, the president and congressional leaders must agree on a change of course in Iraq.
At his hearing this week, Mr. Gates admitted "there are no new ideas on Iraq." That may be true, but the study group has done the country a great service by examining the options and narrowing them down.
The group rightly eliminated the most drastic ideas: Partition Iraq (it's too integrated to do that without a lot more bloodshed); withdraw US troops quickly (chaos and regional instability would ensue); significantly increase US troops (America doesn't have them; the solution is political).
That left the group with three main US recommendations: Launch a regional diplomatic effort to help stabilize Iraq, including talks with Syria and Iran; help but also push the Iraqi government to progress with internal milestones by threatening to withdraw US support if it doesn't; and greatly step up training Iraqi troops so that US combat forces could return home by early 2008. Experts estimate 70,000 or so troops would stay.
One can shoot a lot of holes in this plan, which includes no "Plan B" in case it fails and is full of vague "shoulds and coulds." Iraq's neighbors may have an incentive in not wanting chaos to spill into their countries, but they also have reason to keep the US bogged down there. And if daily killing in Iraq isn't enough to motivate Iraqi leaders to reconcile, why would US threats do the trick?
Those criticisms aren't inconsequential. But here's the thing. These avenues haven't yet been seriously tried, and each one holds the potential for positive results. They have the advantage of bipartisan support at a time when the 2008 elections are still far off enough to allow consensus.
The Iraq Study Group never promised the moon, just the possibility that "prospects can be improved." Congress and the president must now settle on a way to improve the prospects. The report can help.