Iraq report gets mixed reception in Congress

Times Staff Writers

The co-chairmen of the Iraq Study Group urged Congress on Thursday to build a bipartisan consensus around their recommendations and use it to press President Bush to change course in Iraq.

They didn't get their wish.

"I hope we don't treat this like a fruit salad, and say, 'I like this, but I don't like that,' " former Secretary of State James A. Baker III pleaded before the Senate Armed Services Committee as it considered the findings of the report.

The senators promptly ignored his request, picking and choosing among the panel's findings, praising some and condemning others.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) disagreed strongly with the panel's call for a withdrawal of most U.S. combat troops by early 2008, calling it "a recipe that will lead to our defeat."

Sens. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) questioned the commission's proposal that the administration approach Iran in search of help in stabilizing Iraq.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) seemed skeptical of Baker's view that Israel could help by returning the occupied Golan Heights to Syria.

And Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) took issue with the panel's suggestion that the United States should consider warning Iraq's government that U.S. troops could be withdrawn unless political reforms accelerate.

All those critiques came on top of earlier negative reactions. At one end of the spectrum, war critic Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) complained that the panel didn't call for a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops.

At the other end, the New York Post derided Baker and his co-chairman, former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), on its front page as "Surrender Monkeys," and included photo illustrations of two simians wearing the elder statesmen's faces.

It wasn't exactly the reception Baker and Hamilton had in mind.

In the armed services committee hearing, when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), asked the former secretary of State what he wanted Congress to do with the report, Baker replied: "If the Congress would come together behind supporting, let's say utopianly, all of the recommendations of this report, that would do a lot toward moving things downtown" at the White House.

Utopianly was right. Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the committee chairman, at that point broke in to say that Congress should not explicitly endorse any recommendations until it had a chance to consider the findings of similar policy reviews underway at the Pentagon and State Department.

"Yes, the Congress is very impressed with your report," Warner said. "But ... before the Congress rushes in, I'm just hopeful we can have all points."

Baker pressed his case: "Could you say, 'This is good until something better comes along'?"

Warner demurred. "I'll let your question stand unanswered," he said.

To be sure, as Warner noted, Baker and Hamilton collected plenty of general praise for their work, and for their success -- rare in contemporary Washington -- at forging a consensus among an equal number of Republicans and Democrats.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who is to become chairman of the armed services committee when Democrats ascend to the Senate majority next month, was the most supportive, saying: "I hope the administration will accept the recommendations in this report and will determine a changed course is the best hope of turning around this, quote, 'grave and deteriorating situation,' in the words of the report."

Clinton also praised the panel's work broadly. "We've now heard from the Iraq Study Group, but we need the White House to become 'the Iraq results group,' " she said.

Baker and Hamilton, in a later meeting with reporters, said they were generally pleased with the reception of their work -- and not surprised that members of Congress wanted to question individual parts of the package.

"Our work and our ideas have been taken seriously," Hamilton said. "Part of it is just the environment in the country today, which is desperate for a solution in Iraq.

"If you look at the critics, many of them are adopting the position that basically it's hopeless," he added. "Does that mean we shouldn't even try?"

Asked whether Bush shared the commission's view of Iraq as "grave and deteriorating," the Indiana Democrat said: "Well, he's getting closer.... He didn't jump up and embrace the report. That wasn't our expectation."

Baker, grinning, held up the New York Post front page depicting him as a "surrender monkey," and said, "It's going on the wall."

Concern was expressed by both Democrats and Republicans about the panel's recommendation of renewing diplomacy with Iran and Syria in an effort to bring regional powers to bear on the Iraqis.

Lawmakers voiced skepticism that the two countries would be much help.

"They are, after all, supporting Hezbollah, which gathers people in the square in Beirut to shout 'Death to America,' " Lieberman said. "Why is there any reasonable belief that the Iranians should do any of the things that you think they should do?"

Baker acknowledged that Iran would probably prefer to see the United States fail in Iraq, but pointed out that they were helpful during military operations in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"We suspect they will not come" to regional discussions, Baker said. "But what do we lose by approaching them, in the same way that this same administration has approached them with respect to Afghanistan?"

Nelson asked whether the panel really believed that a solution would not be possible in Iraq unless Syria and Israel made peace and transferred control of the disputed Golan Heights back to Syria.

Baker and Hamilton argued that the point was not to force the countries into an accord but to demonstrate to moderate Arab nations that the United States was serious about promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace.

"I don't think there's anybody we talked to that did not raise this issue of our engagement on the Arab-Israeli peace process," Baker said. "And every one of them said, without exception, you need to become reengaged in a very, very vigorous way on this issue.

"If we can't do it, we can't do it," Baker added. "But we don't lose a darn thing by trying."

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