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Iraq Study Group Offers Recommendations for U.S. Policy

October 12, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Since March, a bipartisan group of former government officials and experts has been conducting a wide-ranging assessment of the American mission in Iraq. Called the Iraq Study Group, it was formed at Congress’s behest, with the approval of the Bush administration.

Its co-chairmen are James Baker, former secretary of state for the first President Bush, and treasury secretary for President Reagan. He’s just written a memoir, “Work Hard, Study, and Keep Out of Politics!”

And former Democratic congressman and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Lee Hamilton, more recently he was co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission.

The Iraq Study Group has announced it will release its recommendations to the president, Congress, and the public after the November congressional elections.

And welcome, gentlemen, to you both.

Secretary Baker, most Americans, I venture to say, don’t know anything about your group. What can they hope for out of it?

JAMES BAKER, Former Secretary of State: Well, what we would like to do is to see if we can come forward with a consensus report. It won’t be worth much if Republicans go one way and Democrats go another, so my distinguished co-chairman and I are working very hard to see if we can produce a consensus report that might make some suggestions as to initiatives or advice that Congress and the president could utilize in continuing the mission in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Congressman Hamilton, as part of your investigation, you all went to Baghdad early last month. What was that like? I mean, what was the situation worse than you imagined?

LEE HAMILTON, Co-Chairman, 9-11 Commission: Baghdad is a very grim place to visit. You step off an air-conditioned airplane into 120, 125-degree heat. You have to put on armor, 35 pounds of it. You put on a heavy helmet. And for people the age of Secretary Baker and myself, it’s a burden just to carry that around with you.

And what it does is it lets you know how remarkable the performance is of, not just the American military, but the American civilians there, as well. We interviewed about 40 Iraqi officials, talked to everybody that we asked to see, spent four days there, and learned a great deal about that country and its politics.

MARGARET WARNER: Since you were there…

JAMES BAKER: Excuse me. And talked, as well, to the American military and civilian leadership there.

LEE HAMILTON: Sure.

Waiting to make suggestions

James Baker
Co-chair, Iraq Study Group
If our report is going to mean anything, if it's going to have any chance of being embraced by opinion-makers in the United States, by the administration, by the Congress, we really have to take it out of politics.

MARGARET WARNER: Since you were there, another 110 or more American soldiers have died and close to 3,000 Iraqis have been killed in Baghdad alone. Why wait yet another month, at least, if not more, before you make your recommendations?

JAMES BAKER: Well, because it's really important, if our report is going to mean anything, if it's going to have any chance of being embraced by opinion-makers in the United States, by the administration, by the Congress, we really have to take it out of politics. It cannot be seen to be politically inspired or politically motivated or politically directed, and we couldn't do that if we reported before the election, midterm election.

MARGARET WARNER: But some people may say, "But Americans and Iraqis are being killed everyday. Here's the group that may provide us with some way out."

LEE HAMILTON: Well, we're proceeding with as much speed as we possibly can. But we want to get it right.

We have interviewed, I think, overall more than 150 people. We've contacted every expert we can think of; many experts have contacted us. We're sorting through mounds and mounds of information. Every time we step out on the street, somebody gives us a recommendation that we ought to make.

And we're trying very hard. We're doing our level best to try to understand a very, very complicated situation and to come up with recommendations, as Secretary Baker has suggested, that will be broadly supported, will be pragmatic, will be constructive, and forward-looking.

We are not trying to analyze the past. That's being done a good bit, as you know, in the press these days and in books. We've got a very practical problem in front of us, a very tough one.

A new approach toward Iraq?

Lee Hamilton
Co-chair, Iraq Study Group
What is interesting is that all of the American officials are saying the same thing, saying to the [Iraqi] government, "You've got two, three, four, five months to get this act together and to take steps to improve the security in the country."

MARGARET WARNER: You write in your book that Defense Department, DOD, made what you called a number of costly mistakes, everything from disbanding the Iraqi army to not committing enough U.S. troops to the job. Now, Secretary Rumsfeld has never acknowledged these were mistakes; neither has the president. What gives you confidence that they are ready to embrace recommendations to chart some kind of new course?

JAMES BAKER: We have no assurance whatsoever that they will embrace what we recommend. As I told someone last night, everybody knows how close I am to the Bush family. But if our report is going to be worth anything, it has to be independent and it has to be our telling it like it is. And I'm here to tell you that's the way it's going to be, as far as I'm concerned.

Now, we have no assurance that the administration or the Congress or the American people, for that matter, will embrace our report. But hopefully we will be able to come up with a bipartisan approach to this problem that will make some recommendations and suggestions that are useful.

MARGARET WARNER: You say in your book that you do meet frequently with this President Bush. Do you think he is ready, he is looking for some new approach?

JAMES BAKER: I can't answer that for you. All I can tell you is that, when the Congress urged the formation of this group, he looked me in the eye and said, "Yes, I would like you to do it." So we'll wait and see.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Congressman Hamilton, the other major player here, obviously, is the Iraqi government, the Iraqi leadership. And after your visit to Baghdad, you said, look, they've got three months to get a handle on this. And you also wrote -- and I just wanted to quote you back to yourself -- "Whether they have the political will to put aside sectarian differences and the capability to govern remain open questions."

Now, have you seen anything in the intervening month and a half to suggest they are stepping up to it?

LEE HAMILTON: No. I still have real questions in my mind as to the capacity, the will of the Iraqi government to move. What is interesting is that all of the American officials are saying the same thing, saying to the government, "You've got two, three, four, five months to get this act together and to take steps to improve the security in the country, to move towards national reconciliation, and, of course, to begin to deliver the basic services that government should deliver, electricity, water, and the other things."

I think it's very much a question whether this political leadership can do it. I think that we must give them a chance to do it. There are some encouraging signs. Their rhetoric has been pretty good, but the follow through with action has not measured up to our hopes.

Possible solutions to the problem

James Baker
Co-chair, Iraq Study Group
I personally believe in talking to your enemies.

MARGARET WARNER: You both have said you aren't going to discuss your recommendations, but in your various book interviews, book tour interviews, Mr. Secretary, you have given some parameters, which is it's not going to be "stay the course," it's not going to be "cut and run," either.

JAMES BAKER: I didn't say that, Margaret. Read what I said. I said there are alternatives between those two extremes, which are the extremes that are out there in the political debate in the midterm election.

We have not ruled out anything. I didn't rule them out in that interview. And I think Lee and I are in total agreement that nothing is ruled out, nothing is ruled in. We haven't written our report yet.

MARGARET WARNER: Is it still on the table the idea advanced by Senator Biden and Les Gelb, to let the country devolve into three sectarian separate entities?

LEE HAMILTON: Well, it's on the table. It's been suggested to us by Mr. Gelb, by Senator Biden. But we have not acted on it. The Iraq Study Group has not yet met to discuss recommendations. There have been some informal conversations. But any report in the press which says that we have agreed upon any recommendation is flat-out wrong.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you about one other thing you have suggested, which is that you do think that all the neighbors should be invited into conversations about a solution, including Iran and Syria.

JAMES BAKER: No, I really didn't say that. What I said was that I personally believe in talking to your enemies. When I was secretary of state, as you know, I made 15 trips to Syria when they were on the state sponsors of terrorism list. And on the 16th trip, they changed 25 years of policy and came to the table and sat across the table from Israel and negotiated peace with Israel.

That never would have happened had we not made those trips and had we not talked to them.

MARGARET WARNER: What's your view on that?

LEE HAMILTON: Well, I agree with that. It's never been clear to me how you can solve questions without talking to people. And so I think it's necessary to invite some of these countries with whom we've had a very rocky relationship over a period of years if you're going to be thinking in terms of a solution to the problem. So I think the secretary is absolutely right.

JAMES BAKER: But that's not a conclusion that the Iraq Study Group has reached, Margaret; that's the point I want to make. That was my personal view.

MARGARET WARNER: Understood. Understood. You're only the co-chairman.

Hopes for unanimous recommendations

Lee Hamilton
Co-chair, Iraq Study Group
We know the obstacles; they're pretty clear to us. We've got 10 very good people on this study commission. None of us have an iron to cast here.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, you've both said how important it is to make this a unanimous recommendation. Given how divisive this war is, given how difficult the problem is, do you fear you're going to have to dumb down or round the corners on your recommendations to come up with something that's unanimous?

LEE HAMILTON: I don't think so. We know the obstacles; they're pretty clear to us. We've got 10 very good people on this study commission. None of us have an iron to cast here.

We all recognize the difficulty of the problem. And certainly, in the last couple of weeks we have begun to realize how much the country is looking to us for some kind of an approach to the Iraqi problem.

I think these commission members, these study group members, are going to take this job with extreme seriousness, they'll put aside their partisan hats, and they'll do the very best they can for the country.

JAMES BAKER: And I think we all recognize as well, Margaret, that there is just not one silver bullet that will cure all the problems that we are currently experiencing in Iraq. I think we all understand that.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think this group is ready to make bold proposals?

JAMES BAKER: Well, you'll have to judge that after you see them, after you see what they are.

LEE HAMILTON: We haven't had the discussions yet. We cannot answer that question.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, I tried to have it here, but thank you, gentlemen.

LEE HAMILTON: Thank you, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: James Baker, Lee Hamilton, thank you both.

JAMES BAKER: Thanks very much.