The Message

What Baker is telling Bush.

What a book launch. Wednesday, the entire world focused on the release of Vintage paperback ISBN: 0-307-38656-2, also known as the Iraq Study Group Report: The Way Forward—A New Approach. The 10 primary authors gathered in room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building to unveil their plan for stabilizing Iraq as a prelude for a U.S. troop withdrawal. The nine men wore grays and blues—official Wise Men issue. Sandra Day O’Connor dressed in fuchsia, as if revolting against her years of having to wear a black robe.

It was the kickoff of a weeklong media blitz that will culminate as all successful Washington book launches do, with appearances on all the Sunday talk shows. Much of the media coverage is likely to focus on 142 pages detailing 79 specific recommendations about troop levels, timelines, and Iraqi politics. But what came though most forcefully at the press conference was a broader critique of the Bush administration’s conduct. Study Group members aren’t just prescribing a new Iraq strategy, they’re calling for a change in the way the Bush administration does business both home and abroad.

Here is a summary of their advice:

1.Cut the crap. You won’t find this as one of the numbered messages, but it was surely the leitmotif of the day. The president has been increasingly, if grudgingly, candid about the difficulties in Iraq, but Bush and other officials still offer meaningless euphemisms about the “pace of progress” and completing “the mission.” The commissioners were breathtakingly blunt about this. “The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating,” said Lee Hamilton, echoing language in the report. Later, Hamilton referred to Iraq’s “slide towards chaos.” His co-chairman, James Baker, equated the current “nightmare of brutal violence” to the nightmare of Saddam’s regime. There was no guarantee, Baker said, that events wouldn’t get even worse in the coming days, nullifying the commission’s recommendations immediately. The brightest assessment heard was that all was not yet lost.

2. You can be tough and talk. The president and vice president have often depicted diplomatic engagement as weakness. As a general matter, they prefer action to talk and believe negotiating with countries like Syria, Iran, and North Korea rewards their leaders’ naughty behavior. That’s why the president and other administration officials have resisted engagement with Iran and Syria as a way to help stabilize Iraq. Baker, the veteran diplomat, scoffed at this resistance. “We’re not talking about talking to be talking,” he said, characterizing the group’s recommendations about the two rogue countries. “We’re talking about tough diplomacy.” Later, he circled back to the idea, adding a broad lesson for the Bush administration in the art of diplomacy. “For 40 years we talked to the Soviet Union during a time when they were committed to wiping us off the face of the Earth. So you talk to your enemies, not just your friends.”

3.Bipartisanship has to mean something. The commissioners repeatedly stressed that without bipartisanship of the kind they were able to achieve in their deliberations, Iraq policy—whatever its next iteration—would fail. (As if to emphasize this, the group eschewed the left-to-right seating of custom; Democrats and Republicans sat on both sides of the chairmen). Alan Simpson, the former senator from Wyoming, provided the most amusing moment of the morning when he offered a characteristically quirky view of excessive partisanship. “You know, you see people in this who are hundred percenters in America,” he said. “A hundred percenter is a person you don’t want to be around. They have gas, ulcers, heartburn and BO. And they seethe. They’re not seekers. They’re not seekers, they’re seethers.” Simpson wasn’t trying to attack the administration. He was attacking extremists on both sides. But the kind of black-and-white division he described applies to the Bush team’s campaign strategy on the issue of Iraq. The president accused all Democrats of wanting to cut and run from Iraq, though his administration was mulling policies nearly identical to the ones Democrats were proposing. Vice President Cheney, Karl Rove, and Tony Snow went further, suggesting that Democrats were fundamentally unequipped to deal with issues of national security. “100 percenters” could have been the inscription on the back of their campaign jackets.

President Bush has often talked about bipartisanship, but in practice, his definition means surrender by the Democrats in areas where some of them agree with him. “We have never put any skin in the game,” said one veteran Bush aide, describing the president’s unwillingness to give in to the other side on any point. As if to emphasize the necessity of a new approach, Jim Baker called on former Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta to answer a question about whether Bush would listen to the commission. “I think the president understands that he simply is not going to be able to proceed with whatever policy changes he wants to implement if we’re divided,” the Democrat said hopefully. “That is the principal goal, in my mind, that he has to accomplish.”