IT'S EASY TO MAKE fun of the Iraq Study Group, which in many ways epitomizes Washington's tendency to disguise the obvious as profound. But independent commissions have a long and (mostly) honorable history in the United States, and it would be a mistake to dismiss the 79 recommendations of the Iraq Study Group simply because they are familiar. Such commissions often have an influence that lasts beyond their final report.
They come in three basic varieties: First, there are what might be called forensic commissions such as the Warren Commission, chaired by former Chief Justice Earl Warren. It investigated the assassination of President Kennedy and endorsed a "single-bullet theory" that sustained conspiracy theorists long before anyone had heard of Oliver Stone.
Then there are the philosophical commissions, which, though convened because of a specific event, come to broad conclusions about U.S. society. The so-called Kerner Commission, appointed by President Johnson after race riots in 1967, commanded attention by blaming the disorders on white racism and famously warning that the nation was "moving toward two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal."
Finally, there are programmatic commissions, such as the National Commission on Social Security Reform (a.k.a. the Greenspan Commission) that in 1983 proposed a strategy to keep the retirement system solvent.
What makes a commission influential? It helps if it is bipartisan, though it's hardly a guarantee of relevance. The 9/11 commission, with Republican Chairman Tom Kean and Democratic Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton (the co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group), was more successful at winning publicity than at changing policy. A commission also is likelier to gain traction for its recommendations if the president accepts them, or at least doesn't reject them; President Bush has called the Iraq Study Group's report "interesting," which qualifies as non-rejection.
Politicians and scholars still cite the sobering conclusions of the Kerner Commission. The Warren Commission report is still demonized by some assassination buffs as the quintessential coverup. And, at least among nervous politicians in Washington, the Greenspan Commission is fondly remembered (and likely to be emulated) for the political cover it gave Congress.
Will the Baker-Hamilton panel secure a similar niche in the memory of the nation, or at least of its political class? Or will it become a trivia question, like the Shafer Commission, better known (well, somewhat better known) as the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse? The answer lies less in what the group proposed than in whether its recommendations come to be seen as a turning point in U.S. involvement in Iraq.