Q&A With Iraq Study Group's David Abshire
David Abshire knows something about troubled presidencies. Not only does he head the Center for the Study of the Presidency; he was also a special counselor to President Reagan during the Iran-contra scandal. It seemed only natural, then, that he was on the congressional speed dial last November when the Iraq Study Group (otherwise known as the Baker-Hamilton commission) was organized. Abshire spoke with U.S. News about the pitfalls and potential of government commissions when facts on the ground are changing fast.
How is the ISG different from other commissions?
The biggest difference between the Baker-Hamilton commission and the Tower board, which investigated Iran-contra, for example, is that President Reagan had the courage to look back and examine flawed processes that led to flawed results. That takes a big man. When Colin Powell left the government, he said, "The national security process is broken." But the Baker-Hamilton commission was charged to look only forward. If it had looked backward at the process, the Bush administration was not willing to support it. As a result, it's a limited examination.
Yet one of the commission's own was chosen to head the Pentagon.
That's the irony. When we got to the ninth hour and the Senate was lost, the president replaced Rumsfeld with an ISG member, Bob Gates. So the commission, while not allowed to look at a flawed process, ends up being a corrective force because the new secretary of defense, pending confirmation, is someone who has been a part of the ISG's examination. Gates has now been through a more thorough review of the issues than any other incoming secretary of defense because of his work on the commission.
Are events on the ground overtaking whatever recommendations eventually come out?
James Baker and Lee Hamilton had in mind a much faster process that would have produced something before the election. The downside of waiting was that things got worse in Baghdad; the upside is that the recommendations may be taken more seriously. That was only possible, of course, with the removal of Donald Rumsfeld. People may have asked why it didn't come out earlier. But if it had and was then stonewalled by the administration, what good would it do? When Baker and Hamilton came back from Baghdad, they said that we had only two or three months. Meanwhile, Baker was already talking about reaching out diplomatically. It's not that this was a static operation.
With Baker conducting his own diplomacy and the president nixing direct talks with Iran, doesn't the ISG risk confusing not only the American public but our allies as well?
Give the administration more time. This was a president who, a week before the election, said he was going to keep Donald Rumsfeld for another four years. It was like Reagan breaking out of his hole when it came to Oliver North violating the law. At West Point, they taught us that unity of effort is the first principle of strategy. If you have a divided Washington and a united axis of evil, we are in the worst possible position.