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Bush's way forward
Media General News Service


December 09, 2006

WASHINGTON -- If he chooses, President Bush can claim that the Baker-Hamilton report, despite the grim language of failure in which it came wrapped, is not entirely a repudiation of his Iraq policy.

While rejecting "stay the course" as a way forward, it accepts his central theme - that walking away prematurely from Iraq will hand al-Qaeda a base of operations in the heart of Islam.

Even while it suggests that American combat groups should be mainly out of Iraq in little more than a year, the report suggests that Americans retain a foothold in Iraq. It expressed concern that al-Qaeda will have "a still stronger base of operations" after American forces pull out and its top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, will use the departure as a recruiting tool to redouble terrorist efforts in the region and around the world.

The study group said the United States should ask the Iraqi government for "temporary" U.S. bases in Iraq to prevent this from happening after the main body of U.S. combat forces leaves. But the grim and pessimistic description of the situation in Iraq sounds like all of this is very far away and many rivers will have to be crossed before the United States can even get to that point.

If he's serious about these recommendations, Bush will have to devote himself almost full time to an Iran-Syria-Iraq peace and a shared mission for the further isolation of al-Qaeda for the balance of his term. All of this would be accomplished while he is brokering a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and drawing a new road map for peace.

If Bush could pull this off in his remaining two years, it would be one of the greatest diplomatic spectaculars in history.

The most startling part of the Baker-Hamilton report is its recommendation for enlisting Syria and Iran on a mission to help save Iraq from chaos, and the United States from a disaster.

At the moment, the motivating force in both countries is to bloody the nose of the United States, or worse. The study group seems to be calling for a miracle. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and others expressed skepticism about it last week.

The Baker-Hamilton recommendation, nonetheless, can't be blown off as stardust from dreamy idealists. This panel is comprised of graduates of the school of hard-headed diplomatic knocks, including former Defense secretary William Perry and former Undersecretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger.

Perhaps there is more hope of progress on Iran than meets the eye. The two countries cooperated in the early stages of the U.S. war in Afghanistan after 9/11. And Iran has an interested in suppressing theTaliban.

A U.S. policy that stresses democratic reform, without regime change, would be less threatening to Iran, the commission suggested. It also said Bush would get along better in this area if he begins rejecting the widely held notion that the United States seeks to control Iraqi oil or is seeking permanent bases in Iraq.

The commission, headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker, III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, reasons that Syria stands to benefit economically if Iraq would become a normal country and if the United States could settle the Arab-Israeli dispute.

Doing nothing is the worst option of all, the realists said.

"The global standing of the United States could suffer if Iraq descends further into chaos," said Baker-Hamilton. "... Perceived failure there could diminish America's credibility in the center of the Islamic world and vital to the world's energy supply."

Even if there is no further deterioration, the Iraqis are sick of what they perceive as an oppressive American occupation and Americans are fed up with the war's high cost in lives and dollars. So the Bush administration's tendency just to accept one or two parts of the report and discard the rest - or in Baker's words "treat it like a fruit salad" - is not permitted, both he and Hamilton told the Senate.

The hard work ahead is applying the pressure to adversaries and friends alike.

Syria is keeping the Sunni insurgency alive by facilitating the steady flow of terrorists across its border into Iraq. Iran continues to arm and train Shiite militias in Iraq. Saudi Arabia's kingpins are bankrolling terrorists in Iraq without interference from the royal family. Jordan is being overrun by Iraqi refugees, who are now equal to a tenth of its population, yet it is scarcely raising its voice for help.

The time for some leadership is at hand.


John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service.
E-mail jhall(at)
Distributed to subscribers for publication by
Scripps Howard News Service,

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