James Baker and Lee Hamilton | statesmen

Carving a path to consensus.

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The report made it hard for the war's firmest backers to argue for staying the course.

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"The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating." So began last year's report by the Iraq Study Group that re-evaluated the U.S. strategy in Iraq amid sharply rising sectarian violence and called for a slow but steady drawdown of the U.S. military presence. Some of its recommendations, including the establishment of benchmarks to measure political reform and reconciliation, were adopted. Those that weren't helped force a strategic shift. After the report, it became virtually impossible for even the war's staunchest supporters to argue for staying the course.

Praised for their leadership of the group were Cochairs James Baker and Lee Hamilton. Baker, 77, a Republican, has served as White House chief of staff, secretary of state, and secretary of the treasury. Hamilton, 76, a 17-term Democratic congressman from Indiana, is president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The following excerpts are from conversations with U.S. News Senior Writer Kevin Whitelaw.

Lee hamilton on James Baker:

The conviction Jim had was that the Iraq Study Group report wouldn't amount to much if it wasn't unanimous, and it certainly wouldn't amount to much if it split along Democratic and Republican lines. There was a strong urge on his part to understand where the parties were coming from and to try to close gaps and reconcile differences. Jim and I would pass back versions of key sentences again and again, seeking common ground. If he had not been strongly committed to seeking that unanimity, we just wouldn't have gotten there.

The country was being torn apart by Iraq. Congress had said, in effect, "We can't reach an agreement; we need to have a commission to help us." There was enormous public interest. That put a sense of responsibility, a burden, on all of us.

Jim has a sense of the real world about him. He would often look with disdain on academic proposals and [say] how that proposal has absolutely no chance. He would use a little more graphic language—he has a bit of the Texan about him.

He would make his arguments forcefully but not dogmatically, and not to the point of excluding other points of view. There were many parts of the report where he was very deferential.

There were a couple of times—on the questions of troop withdrawal and exiting from Iraq—that got very dicey, and it looked as if we may not reach an agreement. In these meetings, you have to have a sense of when you reach a critical point, and when you can push it through to a conclusion and when you're better off going home and coming back to it. If you push too hard—to the point of anger, resentment, hostilities—you make it much harder to reach an agreement. I think Jim has a good sense of that.

JAMES BAKER ON LEE HAMILTON:

When I was secretary of state, we always saw Lee as someone with whom you could work. He had a bipartisan work ethic. He understood something that I think was more prevalent when I first came up [to Washington] in 1975 than perhaps it is today, and that is that you could disagree agreeably. You could be a political adversary without being a political enemy. That's always been my view of the way politics ought to be pursued, and I think it's Lee's as well.

He has had a voracious appetite for knowledge. He is an honest broker. He is a careful listener. He was always a person who would try to bridge the gap. He understood the political restraints the other side had with connection to any negotiation. He is not consumed by ideology, but he would not sacrifice principle for pragmatism.

Lee is not going to spend a lot of time down in the weeds. He understands how to quickly arrive at what's important and deal with that rather than superfluous issues.

We had plenty of differences. The primary one [was] whether we were going to recommend a firm deadline for beginning the withdrawal of U.S. troops or withdrawing the troops. That was a line that I was not prepared to cross. There were some on the Democratic side who definitely wanted that in there. In fact, one of our members suggested that they wouldn't sign a report that didn't have it. Lee was instrumental in convincing that member to sit with me and work out an accommodation. That's what we ended up doing. It wouldn't have happened without Lee Hamilton.