WASHINGTON – Senators raised sharp questions Thursday about a special Iraq commission's recommendations for changing U.S. diplomatic and military strategies in the war, as the panel's leaders urged the Bush administration and Congress to urgently work out a new bipartisan approach.
One of the commission's co-chairmen, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., underscored the urgency of changing course in Iraq, where conditions were described as grave and deteriorating. He was asked at what point the situation there, if not corrected, will be hopeless.
"Well, there certainly is that point, and we're perilously close to that point," he replied.
Hamilton and his co-chairman, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee one day after delivering their report on recommended changes to Iraq policy. Hamilton said that a new, more realistic and practical approach is needed.
"That's a very tough policy problem, and in order for this to happen, it can't be pie in the sky, it can't be idealistic, it has to be pragmatic," he said. Later, he added, "We reject the idea that the situation is hopeless."
Most senators broadly endorsed the commission's report, which made 79 recommendations for policy changes. Their skepticism focused mainly on two of the recommendations: a diplomatic approach to Iran and Syria, and an acceleration of the U.S. military's work to train and advise Iraqi forces.
Hamilton said it was essential for the White House and Congress to work together on this, and he criticized lawmakers for not having taken a stronger role in overseeing the Bush administration's war policies.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said the key question now is whether Bush will effectively implement a new policy.
"We need the White House to become the `Iraq Results Group,' " she said.
Baker said Congress could play a key role in that regard.
"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," Baker told the committee.
Many in Congress have praised the group's report, which was eight months in the making. But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told Hamilton and Baker that he does not believe their approach will work. The panel called for a phase-out of the U.S. combat role by 2008 and rejected the idea of a short-term increase in the number of combat troops in Iraq.
McCain took issue with that approach, saying he did not agree with the Baker-Hamilton group's conclusion that the U.S. military does not have enough forces available to sustain a troop boost in Iraq.
"There's only one thing worse than an over-stressed Army and Marine Corps, and that's a defeated Army and Marine Corps," said McCain, a Vietnam veteran and a 2008 Republican presidential hopeful. "I believe this is a recipe that will lead to our defeat sooner or later in Iraq."
As the pair appeared on Capitol Hill, Bush met at the White House with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a key Bush ally in Iraq. Speaking to reporters, Bush referred to this as a "difficult moment for America and Great Britain."
Bush has called Iraq the central front in the war on terrorism. Asked by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., whether he agreed, Baker replied, "It may not have been when we first went in but it certainly is now."
Hamilton added, "I would strike the word 'the' and use the word 'a'. To make it 'the' central front overstates it."
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, both said they are skeptical about another of the commission's key recommendations: that the administration approach Iran in search of help in stabilizing Iraq, as part of a regional diplomatic initiative.
"I'm skeptical that it's realistic to think that Iran wants to help the United States succeed in Iraq," Lieberman said.
Baker acknowledged that the Iranians were unlikely to help, even if asked. He said that during the course of the commission's discussions an Iranian official told him that Iran was not inclined to help.
But Baker said he saw no harm in approaching Iran anyway, and if it declines to help, "then we will hold them up to public scrutiny as the rejectionist state they have proven to be."
Hamilton said that while Iran has been unhelpful to U.S. interests in Iraq thus far, "We do not think it's in the Iranian interest for the American policy to fail completely, and to lead to chaos in that country." He said the Iranian's main worry is that a chaotic Iraq would lead to a refugee crisis on its border.
McCain also questioned the wisdom of the group's recommendation that many more U.S. troops be placed inside Iraqi combat units to advise and train them on the battlefield. He said this was too dangerous.
Hamilton acknowledged that it was risky but said there would be combat forces available to protect the trainers and adviser. He added that it was the group's consensus view that this approach was necessary in order to phase out the U.S. combat role and accelerate the building of competent Iraqi security forces.
"But there is no blinking the fact that that's a risky mission and a difficult mission and we should not slide over it as you have not in your comments," Hamilton said.
The study panel's 96-page report said flatly that the administration's approach was not working and recommended that the U.S. military accelerate a change in its main mission so that most combat troops can be withdrawn by spring 2008.