Iraq Study Group: Baker & Co.'s Burden

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Pity the poor Iraq Study Group. Never has so much been expected from so few: They began toiling in relative obscurity–as much as these wise men are able. They include a couple of former secretaries of state (James Baker, Lawrence Eagleburger), a former White House chief of staff (Leon Panetta), a former presidential best friend (Vernon Jordan), and a former Supreme Court justice (Sandra Day O'Connor). Quite a group. And, as one member told me, "The expectations of our group are far beyond what we anticipated."

Now that's an understatement. Suddenly, as Democrats take over the Congress and Republicans return–having been rebuked on Iraq policy–everyone is looking to the study group for cover. If the group recommends a withdrawal timetable, liberal Democrats will be able to tell their base: It's the best we could get. If the group recommends negotiations within the neighborhood–like with Iran and Syria–Republicans (including the president) can say: I listened. It's also a convenient cover for all of those incoming congressional Democrats who would probably rather not get into a fight over Iraq on Day One.

This may not be altogether a bad thing. After all, the study group is full of people who know one another well and who have no political secrets: It's no secret, for example, that Jordan will probably have would-be presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in mind when he signs off on any document. Or that Baker might be acting on behalf of Bush 41.

"We all know each other very well. We are a very genial and very strong group," one commission member told me. "We have an affection for each other."

Here's one more thing: I've been told that the group has decided it's either unanimous, or no report will be issued. No minority report at all. These folks want to reach a decision, and my guess is they'll do it. It's easier, of course, to recommend language on regional negotiations; Jim Baker has said as much publicly. The timeline for withdrawal is more problematic. But even there, my source says that "there's no deal-breaker yet. We won't let the question of a timetable deny us an opportunity to do a report."

Every member of Congress–as well as the president–awaits anxiously.