WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – Longtime Bush family friend James Baker plans to give President George W. Bush recommendations that may provide a way out of Iraq, but whether he will take up the offer is far from certain.
Baker, who was secretary of state for the president’s father, heads the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan commission that since March has been researching and preparing ideas for changing course in Iraq.
The plan will not be unveiled until weeks after the Nov. 7 congressional elections, in which Bush’s Republicans risk losing control of Congress largely because of deep popular concern over Iraq.
But one option being considered reportedly would call for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops and another would urge Washington to open a dialogue with Syria and Iran — both rejected in the past by Bush.
Baker, who has a long history of trying to help the Bush family out of tight spots, has signaled that he believes a change in course is necessary.
“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,” Baker told PBS’ “Newshour.”
Bush’s strategy has been to support Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and hope he can overcome sectarian differences that many analysts believe have spiraled the country into a civil war. He wants to hand over responsibility for security to Iraqi forces but only after ensuring they can cope.
But given the growing chorus for a shift in strategy in the U.S. Congress, with hawkish Virginia Republican Sen. John Warner saying Iraq appears to be “drifting sideways,” Bush is under strong pressure to consider changes. This has been bolstered by a new wave of U.S. deaths, including the military’s announcement on Wednesday that 11 American soldiers were killed.
The Iraq Study Group includes Baker as chairman and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton as co-chairman. Other members represent a mix of Washington important establishment figures from both parties.
Hamilton told Reuters that no decisions have been made on what recommendations will be included in the group’s final report, the writing of which is just now under way. He emphasized the group’s independence.
“We will write our own report. It will not be written in the White House or in the Congress, and it will not be submitted to somebody to amend or modify,” he said.
“This will be the report of the 10 members of the Iraq Study Group. We are going to be do our best to reach a consensus but I can’t make a guarantee…We will make foreign policy recommendations,” he said.
An official familiar with the group’s deliberations said the members are clearly headed toward recommending changes and not an endorsement of what many see as Bush’s “stay the course” strategy.
“Bush’s rhetoric is all stay the course and this one isn’t going to be about stay the course. It’s about fixing the course we’re on,” the official said. But Baker warned against expecting a “magic bullet.”
“It is very, very difficult,” he told the World Affairs Council of Houston on Tuesday. “So anybody who thinks that somehow we’re going to come up with something that is going to totally solve the problem is engaging in wishful thinking.”
Bush has been reluctant to make a major change in course in Iraq, seeing the conflict as a central front in the war on terrorism and insisting that to withdraw prematurely would embolden America’s enemies. He told ABC News on Wednesday that he was willing to give Maliki and the Iraqi government more time — for now — to get the situation under control.
“I’m patient. I’m not patient forever. And I’m not patient with dawdling. But I recognize the degree of difficulty of the task, and therefore, say to the American people, we won’t cut and run,” he said.
Bush expressed interest in seeing the Baker recommendations at a news conference a week ago, when he also said it was important to remain flexible.
“Stay the course means keep doing what you’re doing. My attitude is, don’t do what you’re doing if it’s not working — change,” Bush said. “Stay the course also means don’t leave before the job is done. We’re going to get the job done in Iraq.”
White House spokesman Tony Snow took a wait-and-see attitude about the Baker report. “This is something you listen to seriously, but we are not going to outsource the business of handling the war in Iraq,” Snow said.