The panel was about as blue ribbon as a commission can get — with membership including a former Supreme Court justice, two former Republican secretaries of state, an ex-Democratic defense secretary and White House chief of staff, and assorted onetime members of Congress.
Bipartisan. "Old Washington" hands. Steeped in the ways of government — and compromise. One of its leaders, Jim Baker, had come as the emissary of the unhappy Bush 41 crowd — eager to help guide the son out of the Iraq mess. Even so, he wouldn't take on the job until he received the president's blessing, after sending a direct message: You may not end up liking what we have to tell you. Now that seems like an understatement given the report's grim assessment that the situation in Iraq is "grave and deteriorating."
It was a group journey that surprised even the members themselves. Bipartisan panels often come up with mush; this was a report girded in steel. It was the result, members say, of some eye-opening moments — including an interview with the president and his national security team.
At one point, Vernon Jordan, a skilled Washington insider, put it pretty bluntly to the president, according to a panel member's paraphrase:
Jordan: What do you mean by victory? When my mama told me to clean the garage, I cleaned the garage because I knew what she meant. But I don't understand what you mean.
Bush: You have to speak to the American people with a simple message here. They understand what victory is, and if you come off of it, they'll think you're giving up.
Some members say they were stunned by the response. And when they left, they were puzzled by one more thing: During their entire session, Vice President Dick Cheney — a key architect of the war in Iraq — never said a word. Not one.
The group had come a long way, conducting more than 170 interviews (during which ex-Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was the "most penetrating questioner," according to one panel member), traveling to Iraq, debating constantly. It was, one group member told me, "a civil process with serious people." But easy? "No," he says. "There was plenty of tension. Iraq breeds tension."
Baker — considered the "big picture diplomat" — focused largely on his plan to engage in talks with Syria and Iran. Baker apparently believed this proposal would "turn out to be the biggest and most controversial news" in their final product.
As it turned out, he was wrong.
The hardest part to deliver — and probably for the president to swallow — was taking combat troops out of Iraq by early 2008. Baker was initially opposed to any target date. But a turning point came for many members during a trip last summer to Iraq, where they had to enter the Green Zone in Black Hawk helicopters. They spent four days there, and Leon Panetta, President Clinton's former chief of staff, tells me he came away believing "we were walking into the middle of chaos and observing a completely dysfunctional government." He brought his colleagues together and said, "I think we really have to worry this government is not going to get its act together." Indeed, he said, "we have to have a strategy that says this is what we will do — no matter what you [the Iraqis] do." He was convinced that some timetable — or benchmarks — had to be a part of any plan.
Former Clinton Defense Secretary Bill Perry started writing some draft language for withdrawal by early 2008. Baker balked, wanting to leave the dates to the White House. Perry refused to back off; it took hours of one-on-one negotiations to come up with the final language. Each word was crafted and recrafted, because the high stakes were clear: Without unanimous agreement, there would be no report. That was the deal the commission members had struck at the outset.
And in the end, that was the deal that mattered the most. There is no way the president can avoid paying attention to a bipartisan report, and White House sources say that's not his intention. While he's not likely to endorse any plan to engage in direct talks with Syria and Iran, the rest is open for debate. "I think he really was impressed by the fact that 10 of us agreed," Panetta tells me. "We came to consensus, and that doesn't happen in this town anymore."
Sources close to the White House say that "in the short run, the headlines were hurtful." But in truth, the Iraq Study Group gave the president a remarkably useful and helpful holiday gift: political cover. Unwrap it.
By Gloria Borger