Tuesday, December 5, 2006

The bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which has received concentrated press coverage this fall as it prepares to report to President Bush tomorrow, was the idea of a Republican lawmaker looking for fresh ideas on the war.

For some, it brings memories of Vietnam in 1967 and 1968, when President Johnson turned to a group of “wise men,” mostly Democrats, for advice on how to win that long war. But while Mr. Johnson actively sought their counsel, the White House and Pentagon are not overly enthusiastic about an outside group of former politicians and Cabinet members suggesting war policy, according to senior officials.

While the Iraq Study Group was in the homestretch of a 10-month project to write a report, the Bush administration in September kicked off its own top-to-bottom reviews on many fronts. The office of the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the State Department and the National Security Council are all weighing options. The ideas range from A to Z: pull out all troops now or add more troops to quell restive Baghdad and Anbar province.

Mr. Bush already has received some options from Gen. Peter Pace, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, and from outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Mr. Rumsfeld provided a list of 21 possible actions in a Nov. 6 memo to the president.

“Let’s see if the [Iraq Study Group] comes up with anything better than this,” a Pentagon official said of Mr. Rumsfeld’s ideas. Mr. Rumsfeld proposed innovative ideas on the possible redeployment of forces inside Iraq and denying construction projects to violent communities.

By the time the White House begins studying the group’s report, the president will also have scores of ideas from his own advisers.

The study group’s main recommendations are thought to be a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops but with no predetermined timeline, and Washington engagement with Iran and Syria.

Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, pushed the study group idea after a September 2005 visit to Iraq. The deteriorating security situation indicated to him the administration needed a fresh look. He proposed a panel of outside experts and sold the idea to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Mr. Rumsfeld. Mr. Wolf then sponsored a $1 million appropriation to fund the study.

Mr. Wolf, other members of Congress and the U.S. Institute of Peace collectively selected the co-chairman — former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, Indiana Democrat. Mr. Baker and Mr. Hamilton then selected the other eight members.

Some have referred to the study panel’s cast of “formers” as nine wise men, plus one woman. It includes four members of Congress; two secretaries of state; one attorney general; one Supreme Court justice, one secretary of defense; and an investment banker and Washington power broker.

The group began work in March. By November, it had listened to more than 250 current and former government officials, military personnel and national security thinkers. It interviewed Mr. Bush twice.

The recommendations will be available online at 11 a.m. tomorrow on the sites of four organizations tied to the group: the U.S. Institute of Peace (www.usip.org); the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University (www.bakerinstitute.org); the Center for Strategic and International Studies (www.csis.org); and the Center for the Study of the Presidency (www.thepresidency.org).

Also at 11 a.m., the group will formally release its report in a press conference on Capitol Hill. Members of the panel, including Mr. Baker and Mr. Hamilton, will appear Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Unlike the September 11 commission, the Iraq Study Group has no statutory mandate. Its recommendations are not binding on Mr. Bush. But Democrats who want the president to change course in Iraq and bring troops home are expected to embrace any recommendation, no matter how imprecise, to cut troop levels in the near future.

The study group is somewhat unique.

“It’s the old throwback to the ‘wise men,’ ” said Richard Shultz, director of International Security Studies Program at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. “Johnson did the same thing.”

Mr. Johnson, his Vietnam War policy in shambles, summoned some of the most experienced minds in the Democratic Party to come to the White House on a number of occasions in 1967 and 1968 to advise the president. The list included Dean Acheson, President Truman’s secretary of state; Judge Abe Fortas; and retired Gen. Omar Bradley, one of the top U.S. commanders in World War II.

Unlike the Iraq Study Group, however, Mr. Johnson’s “wise men” did not constitute a formal group, with staff and a congressional budget.

“The extent of [the Iraq Study Group] is unique, but it’s the same principle: The ‘wise men,’ ” Mr. Shultz said.

Three weeks after the “wise men” came for a Nov. 2, 1967, meeting, Robert McNamara resigned as Mr. Johnson’s defense secretary in a break over war policy.

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