The Iraq Study Group's report on how to confront the disastrous U.S. involvement in Iraq and point to a possible way out is a tribute to the political and diplomatic skills of the bipartisan panel's co-chairs, Republican James Baker and Democrat Lee Hamilton.
The report challenges almost every significant aspect of the administration's Iraq policy, adding the group's powerful voice to the demand for a change delivered last month by American voters. It's hard to read the report as anything but a repudiation of White House policy.
It further isolates President Bush politically, despite the White House's contention that the Baker-Hamilton group's detailed and carefully reasoned indictment neither repudiated administration policy nor set a timetable to withdraw the 140,000 American troops.
While there's not a specific pullout schedule, the 10-member group called for changing the main U.S. mission from combat to training and concluded that, "by the first quarter of 2008 ... all U.S. combat brigades not necessary for force reduction could be out of Iraq."
The report urged Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Iraqi government to achieve a series of specific milestones but said, regardless of what Baghdad does, "The United States must not make an open-ended commitment to keep large numbers of American troops deployed in Iraq."
The way the group's leaders presented its proposals was as clever as their substance was comprehensive.
Hamilton, a longtime Indiana Democrat, made the main presentation on transforming the military mission and reducing the combat force.
Baker, a former secretary of state and veteran of four Republican administrations, took the lead in outlining the diplomatic initiatives.
Thus, Baker avoided focusing on troop reduction, the most direct challenge to the current GOP administration, and concentrated on inclusion diplomacy, like he pursued after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Many other report conclusions will probably not go over big at the White House. For instance:
¢ The report declared, "the situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating," accused the administration of playing down violence and noted that U.S. ability to influence events is diminishing.
¢ It called on the administration to do what it has refused to do - launch a diplomatic offensive this month that includes the leaders of Iran, Syria and the insurgent forces in Iraq for a discussion of how to stabilize the region.
¢ It called on the United States to set "milestones" beyond those set up so far for the Iraqi government to measure progress in security, governance and reconciliation - with a threat of reducing U.S. support if that does not happen.
¢ It sought greater political, economic and military support for Afghanistan, where the administration has risked the anti-terrorism effort by switching resources to Iraq.
¢ And it called for a broadened U.S. effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that many analysts see as integral to bringing stability to the Middle East. Administration initiatives have been sporadic and half-hearted, complicated by its one-sided policy of support for Israel and rejection of elected Palestinian leadership.
Initial political reaction underscored the degree to which Bush has become isolated by the failure of his administration's policy and growing public opposition to the war.
Almost unanimously, Democrats called on Bush to implement the recommendations, though some said it did not go far enough in urging troop withdrawals. The Democrats are in a no-lose situation politically, as the report details the failure of Bush policies and places the burden on the White House to salvage what panel members conceded may be an unsalvageable situation.
GOP response ranged from criticizing some proposals to pleasure the report did not demand a firm withdrawal date. But the GOP's Iraq problems are hardly over. If Bush accepts the proposals, there's no guarantee of success.
The more he drags his feet, the greater the likelihood that Iraq becomes the main issue of the 2008 campaign. And that would burden potential GOP successors with defending failed policies or split the party the way Vietnam did the Democrats, costing them the White House in 1968.