From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby
The Iraq Study Group report rings in at 96 pages containing 79 specific recommendations. Per NBC's David Gregory, the report says, among other things: "There is no magic formula to solve the problems of Iraq;" the situation there is "grave and deteriorating;" that US troops should shift from combat to training, with the goal of removing them by 2008; that the United States should threaten Iraq with loss of economic and military aid if it fails to meet benchmarks for reducing violence; and that a new diplomatic initiative should be launched with Iraq's neighbors and other key Arab states to help Iraq achieve security and reconciliation, "neither of which Iraq can achieve on its own." NBC's Andrea Mitchell notes that the group calls on President Bush or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to personally lead that "diplomatic offensive."
Bush, who met with the group earlier this morning and commented afterward about its "very tough assessment," sits down with members of Congress to discuss the report later today.
In a press conference on November 8, one day after his party got a "thumping" in the midterm elections partly because of the war, Bush said, "As we work with the new leaders in Congress, I'm also looking forward to hearing the views of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group... This group is assessing the situation in Iraq and... is expected to provide recommendations on a way forward."
Since Bush highlighted the group's effort in that press conference, however, the White House has emphasized that he's considering a wide array of options on what course to pursue in Iraq, including the results of bilateral talks with key Iraqi and other foreign leaders, and two additional sets of recommendations. One of those reports is their own and the timing of its release is TBD, allowing them to set their own timetable for determining which proposals, if any, they plan to embrace. White House reporters and spokesman Tony Snow have engaged in several tortured, inconclusive conversations about how the Iraq Study Group's report could factor into Bush's decision-making.
Despite White House attempts to dilute the importance of the report, not since the September 11 commission released its findings in July 2004 has such a set of recommendations been so avidly anticipated by Washington. As with the September 11 panel's proposals for a Bush Administration approach toward fighting the war on terror, the hot question today is how many of the Iraq Study Group's proposals will the Administration incorporate into its approach going forward in Iraq. Bush has already rejected some of the recommendations that became public earlier, including a gradual withdrawal of US troops to be completed by early 2008. (As NBC's Andrea Mitchell reported last week, the group clearly has an eye on the presidential nominating calendar.)
Congressional Democrats, who made the enactment of the September 11 panel's recommendations a staple of their thin 2006 campaign platform, have been clamoring for weeks now for Bush to implement the group's suggestions. Senate Democrats have scheduled a press conference for today featuring the incoming chairs of the Armed Services, Foreign Relations, and Intelligence committees. Per one Senate Democratic source, Armed Services Committee Democrats, including new members, will meet behind closed doors in incoming chair Carl Levin's office to discuss the report and other matters. As NBC's Ken Strickland reported earlier, the committee may hold a hearing on the recommendations tomorrow.
The jury is out on the new Defense Secretary's role in pushing the recommendations of the group to which he recently belonged. When Bush nominated Robert Gates to replace Donald Rumsfeld, he mentioned a need for a "fresh perspective." Gates spoke quite skeptically of the Administration's approach to Iraq during his confirmation hearing yesterday, but he also suggested the report will not be "the last word." As of his expected approval by the Senate today, his future comments on the report will come as an Administration official.
Other analysts go back much further than the September 11 commission to find an appropriate point of comparison. The Washington office of economic research firm ISI, in a memo to clients, compares "the Baker group to the 1983 Greenspan commission on Social Security. That we had to go back 23 years to find a relevant bipartisan commission is testimony to how rare that is." More: "Washington has been preoccupied with the question of what Baker will recommend on the assumption that is what Bush will decide, but that's looking less likely." The group "will likely have something for everyone," and may "become more of a reference point in debates ('and the ISG agrees with me') rather than the driver of the specific set of policies most likely to be adopted."