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Baker, Hamilton Discuss ‘New Way Forward’ Proposal for Iraq

December 6, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Gentlemen, welcome. Secretary Baker, in the first sentence of your report, you say the situation in Iraq is grave and is deteriorating; how grave is it exactly?

JAMES BAKER: Well, it’s quite grave. We also say that there are improvements that can be made if the recommendations we put in this report are followed; we say that later in the report. We say the prospects can be improved. But this is a very candid assessment that we’ve given you of what we think is a very, very grave situation. How do you quantify it, what percentage of gravity, I don’t know how to do that, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: What about deterioration, Congressman Hamilton? For instance, ten more American troops were killed today, the U.S. military just confirmed that, is that what you’re talking about, the situation involving the killing of Americans, as well as Iraqis?

LEE HAMILTON: Yes, it is. One of the chief measures, of course, of the situation are the casualties and the fatalities that are occurring, not only with American forces, but also the Iraqis themselves. If you look over the past few weeks and months, there’s been a real spike in the violence.

But that’s not the only measure of the gravity of the situation. We’re not impressed that much progress is being made by the government in dealing not only with security, but with all of the other problems of governing in that country. We think pessimism is pervasive throughout the country. And if you just land in Baghdad, step out of the airplane, and begin to walk around that country, or look at it from the helicopter, you get a sense of the distress and the suffering of the Iraqi people.

Need for dialogue with Iran, Syria

Lee Hamilton
Co-chairman, Iraq Study Group
The road to peace may lead through Baghdad, but you're going to have to have a lot of reinforcing actions taken in the region by some of the major players.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Secretary Baker, in talking about your recommendations, you divided them into two major categories, external and internal. On external, why do you believe Iran and Syria would help end the chaos in Iraq?

JAMES BAKER: Well, they may not. But Iran did help us; when we went into Afghanistan, we asked Iran to help us there, and they did. We sat down with them and they were quite helpful. So there's some chance, I suppose, that they might do so now with respect to Iraq. One thing is for sure, they do not want a civil war, a huge chaotic situation on their border in Iraq, because that will drive literally thousands of refugees into Iran.

So all we're suggesting with that recommendation is that we do the same thing we did in Afghanistan. We make it very clear that we think that the nuclear issue should be left in the United Nations Security Council.

And the reason I think we could get some help from Syria is because I happen to believe Syria would rather come back in, get closer to the United States than she would remain in her marriage of convenience with Iran. She would also improve her relations with her long time allies, the other major Sunni Arab states. And I saw Syria when I was Secretary of State, Jim, change 25 years of policy because we worked with them -- 15 trips, and I made to Damascus and she came and sat down face to face to negotiate peace with Israel, something she had resisted doing for 25 years, so I think there's a very good chance here.

JIM LEHRER: But, Congressman Hamilton, on Iran specifically, the White House Press Secretary, Tony Snow, has already said this afternoon that if what you all are talking about is talking one-on-one with Iran, that has already been rejected by the Administration and it's going to stay that way; is that what you had in mind?

LEE HAMILTON: I don't think we were that specific. What impressed us is that Iran and Syria are countries with major influence in this region. What impressed us is that if you're going to solve the problems of Iraq, you're not going to do it simply by dealing with Iraq.

The road to peace may lead through Baghdad, but you're going to have to have a lot of reinforcing actions taken in the region by some of the major players. I don't see how you solve the problems in Iraq today without dealing with Iran. Iran is a very major player today, other than the United States, perhaps the major player in Iraq. It is a country of enormous importance in that region. And to take the position that you're not going to talk with them, it seems to me, leads to a fairly bleak result. The result is, you don't get very far. Now, it is true that Iran presents huge problems for us in any diplomacy. There are very few countries on the face of the earth that have caused us more trouble than Iran, more heartburn than Iran over a period of decades.

We don't suggest for a moment that talking for a few months or a few weeks will suddenly solve the problems there. But on the other hand, we don't see how you solve these problems unless you talk to people.

JAMES BAKER: And let me add, Jim, that we're not suggesting -- and our recommendation is really not related to a one-on-one open-ended dialogue with Iran. What we're saying is that Iran should be included as a neighboring country of Iraq, in a group of countries in the formation of an international Iraq support group.

LEE HAMILTON: How do you solve problems without talking to people?

JIM LEHRER: But don't both of these countries have -- and the conventional wisdom is that both of these countries have a really good interest in wanting the United States to stay bogged down, as you put it in your report, in fact, in Iraq. So what would be the motivation to help us out?

LEE HAMILTON: Well, they don't want a chaotic Iraq either. If the United States simply were to pull out quickly, you'd have chaos in that country for sure, what does that mean? That means a flood of refugees going into Iran. Iran has a lot of internal centrifugal problems because of the population of Iran. It's not a homogenous population; they're very worried about that. It is true that they're kind of pleased with the idea of the United States having a lot of problems in Iraq.

JAMES BAKER: We say that in the report.

LEE HAMILTON: We say that in the report. This is not a sure thing; this is a chance we believe worth taking.

Role of the Arab-Israeli dispute

James Baker
Co-chairman, Iraq Study Group
One of the reasons I think that the United States is having the problems we have overall in the Middle East is because we have not been seen to be trying to manage the Arab/Israeli dispute effectively...

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, why is the Arab/Israeli dispute involved at all in resolving things in Iraq? You say that should be on the table here and that should also be resolved simultaneously.

JAMES BAKER: Well, Jim, every single person almost without exception that we talk to counseled us about the importance of solving, at least trying to solve the Arab/Israeli dispute. It is one of the most difficult issues in the region. It is a touch stone for many of the countries in the region.

One of the reasons I think that the United States is having the problems we have overall in the Middle East is because we have not been seen to be trying to manage the Arab/Israeli dispute effectively, and we are, frankly, the only country that can serve as an effective mediator of that dispute because of our very close and long and good relationship with our ally, Israel.

LEE HAMILTON: And, Jim, one of the real keys to making progress here is to appeal to the so-called moderate Arabs. If we can't appeal to those folks, then we're going to lose the battle, we're going to lose the war on terrorism and all the rest. In order to get the attention, to get credibility with the so-called moderate Arabs in several different countries, you have to show a sensitivity to the Arab/Israeli problem. If you just ignore that problem, then you have no standing, in effect, to deal with the moderate Arabs.

So in the Middle East, everything is connected to everything else. The diplomatic proposal we've put forward here is challenging, formidable. It involves a lot of very complex negotiations. It would have to be done over a period of time. We haven't gone into a lot of questions of the details of it, the tactics of it, but we certainly are trying to set out the framework.

Handing more duties to the Iraqis

Lee Hamilton
Co-chairman, Iraq Study Group
We cannot cede to the Iraqis the power to determine how long American forces stay in Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Now, on the internal approach recommendation, Mr. Secretary, you say the United States should not make an open-ended commitment to keep a large number of troops in Iraq, but hasn't President Bush already done that, isn't that already out there? As recently as this week he said that U.S. troops will stay as long as they're needed and as long as the Iraqi government wants them.

JAMES BAKER: Well, it's our view that the commitment should not be open-ended, that this thing is going to turn -- success or failure, Jim, is going to depend upon the Iraqi government taking the necessary political action by way of national reconciliation. And if they think that we're going to be there come hell or high water and that they don't have to act, then they're much less likely to act.

So our commitment -- when we say not open-ended, that doesn't mean it's not going to be substantial. And our report makes clear that we're going to have a substantial, very robust, residual troop levels in Iraq for a long, long time. But we ought not to let them think that, by golly, all they've got to do is sit back and not do what they need to do and rely on us.

LEE HAMILTON: We must maintain control of our own forces.


LEE HAMILTON: We cannot cede to the Iraqis the power to determine how long American forces stay in Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: So, Congressman, you're saying then that President Bush needs to change not only his rhetoric about this, but his policy about this, correct, that's what you want him to do?

LEE HAMILTON: Well, I think the way he phrased it a moment ago, as you quoted it to us, needs to be rephrased, because the way he stated it, in effect, gives the Iraqi government the power to command American forces, and I don't think that's acceptable. What we're saying here in this report is that we must decide how American forces are to be deployed.

JAMES BAKER: Jim, our recommendations, frankly, all three of the major recommendations, military, political, and diplomatic, and with respect to milestones for the Iraqi government, they're all changes, they're changes from current policy.

JIM LEHRER: Give me an example, Mr. Secretary, of the milestones that you think is really critical, that must be met by the Iraqi government in order for the United States to start withdrawing troops or whatever. What is it you want the Iraqi government --

JAMES BAKER: Well, look, the best way for me to explain that, I think, is to say that they've already agreed, the Iraqi government and the U.S. government have already agreed on certain milestones, some of which were to be completed by December of this year, which we think may be unrealistic, and we suggest extending that deadline out to 2007.

Some of those have to do with national reconciliation, some of them have to do with government, one of them has to do with the passage of an oil log governing the distribution of proceeds from Iraq's oil reserves. So those are the kinds of things we're talking about.

JIM LEHRER: And, Congressman, if the Iraqi government does not do these things, according to what milestones are agreed to, then they should pull back on -- tell you what you should -- the United States should pull back on support, political, economic and military support. In other words, it's a threat to them, correct?

LEE HAMILTON: What we say is that the Iraqi government must make substantial progress in these three very crucial areas, security, national reconciliation, and of course, just delivering basic services to the people. And if they do not achieve that, then the United States will reduce its commitment either politically, or militarily, or economically.

Now, there's a lot of flexibility and there's a lot of discretion there, but the message is very clear. Our assistance to Iraq is conditional. We're not just going to hand out the money to Iraq, no matter how that government performs. The idea of unconditional assistance has never made any sense to me.

I think when the United States extends assistance, we should attach conditions to it. I believe that in other countries of the world, I certainly believe it in Iraq, conditional assistance, and that's what we're saying here.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, what would you say to those who suggest, hey, look, the United States invaded Iraq, the country is in a grave and deteriorating state, and then we're saying, no, no, sorry, you fix it now, Iraqis, and if you don't do it according to our milestones, we're not going to help you anymore?

JAMES BAKER: Well, what we say is, we've been there for three and a half years, I think it's about that, maybe two and a half years or three years, and it's about time that the Iraqi government performed on some of the things that it has told us it is going to perform on.

Now, you know, you can call that a threat if you want. It really is not a threat; it's a recognition of the facts of life. The American people are not going to be in a position to support this effort a whole lot longer unless they see the Iraqi's themselves are working at it.

You've seen the Administration spokesman saying they need to pull up their socks, they need to do this or do that, and they do, and all this is is a recognition of that fact. And you can't sustain a war that does not have the support of the American people. The way you get that support is to have a bipartisan approach to what you do.

Our report is a way for a bipartisan approach, a way for the country to come together behind a unified approach to deal with this problem of Iraq.

LEE HAMILTON: Jim, these milestones are not set and imposed by the United States.


LEE HAMILTON: They are set in consultation with the Iraqi government, and that's a very important point. The milestones -- the Prime Minister announced the other day he had sat in consultation with the United States, that's what we're proposing in the future. But we want these milestones to be specific, we want them to make progress on these milestones, and that is conditional aid, and that is a real change from current policy.

Prospects for implementation

James Baker
Co-chairman, Iraq Study Group
We had a good reception, we thought, from the president this morning at the White House. He said some very positive things.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, what is your confidence level on whether or not your recommendations; you have 79 of them all together, so they can pick and choose, but the major ones will, in fact, be accepted and acted upon by the President and the Congress of the United States?

JAMES BAKER: Well, we're very hopeful, Jim. We had a good reception, we thought, from the President this morning at the White House. He said some very positive things. He didn't say we're going to give you a carte blanche, we're going to adopt everything you've suggested, but it was very positive, we thought, and we had a similar reception up at the House and the Senate, so we're hopeful.

But let me say one more time, this is the only bipartisan report that's going to be out there, and this war cannot be fought and prosecuted and won without the support of the American people, and unless it is done on a bipartisan basis. We've got to get rid of all of this bickering and fighting and political posturing that we saw throughout the campaign, you understand from seeing that during an election period, but we've got to get serious now about getting behind the effort to see a successful conclusion to this effort in Iraq, we just have to.

LEE HAMILTON: Jim, we tried very hard in this report to set up goals and recommendations that are achievable, achievable in both countries, looking at both countries very pragmatically. We've got a big split in this country, Democrats control congress, Republicans control the White House, all kinds of splits within the congress, the American people soured on the war. You have to take all of that into consideration when you make recommendations. But, likewise, you have to take into consideration the environment in Iraq, as well.

It's very easy to make recommendations. The tough part is making recommendations that have a chance of being achieved, and that's what we tried to put forward here, as well as to move the country toward some kind of a consensus, without which, as Jim has made very clear, we don't have a chance.

JIM LEHRER: But, Mr. Secretary, up until now, the Congress and the President have not been able to get together. Politics or not, it's just been fought, and so what makes you think they're suddenly going to -- everything is going to change? Essentially you're saying the government hasn't worked up until now. Your report is full of things that they didn't coordinate on, and the Defense Department didn't coordinate with the State Department, these people didn't do this and that, but you're essentially saying the government hasn't worked until now, but now it will?

JAMES BAKER: Well, what makes me think it might work is that we have 79 recommendations, most of them, many of them depart from current policy. And many of them make the point, Jim, that I've tried to make with you tonight, and I'll tell you one more time that we're not going to be successful unless we approach this on a bipartisan basis.

And, look, ten very partisan in their past, five Republicans, five Democrats came together on a consensus. We were unanimous on every one of these 79 recommendations.

LEE HAMILTON: What is different, of course, is the environment in the country today. People are very, very frustrated with this war. They're looking not for political rhetoric, they are looking for actual progress towards a responsible conclusion of the war in Iraq, and that's what we've tried to put forward.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Gentlemen, thank you both very much.

JAMES BAKER: Thank you, Jim.

LEE HAMILTON: Thank you.