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.
How do we unify our strategy and message?
Reaching out to Congress is critical. In the Congress, you have a group of people who have been to Iraq many times. Some of those people are very good strategists. The challenge is for "the Decider" to become "the Unifier," and the challenge for Bob Gates will be to draw Congress, the State Department, the National Security Council, and the Pentagon into the process of strategy making. It's something that he has had experience doing at Texas A&M; that is bringing together faculty, students, and other groups within a university bureaucracy.
The 9/11 commission formed a nonprofit when its mandate ended. Do you foresee something like that with the ISG?
What makes the ISG different is the fluidity of the situation. Some members of Congress have discussed with me the creation of a formal or informal caucus of the most knowledgeable members who have been over there to Iraq. It's very tentative at this point, but as a follow-up to this report, the caucus would act as a two-way street for discussion. We can get into very contentious situations in the coming months, depending on what happens. Every month or so, this caucus could develop new contingencies. Members of Congress will continue to go to Iraq. There are a wealth of knowledge and experience and some top strategic thinkers on Capitol Hill if the administration can use them.
That kind of idea, over the coming year, would create an ongoing, two-way street. Part of the problem with John Murtha, for instance, was that no one talked to him for a year and he had to go off on his own. If you have a regular private meeting of people with ideas, you have a place to test things and adapt to developments. Of course, the ISG itself would go out of existence, but congressional leaders would then meet frequently with our national security leaders to share ideas and discuss. This caucus idea has not fully jelled, but I can foresee something like this coming.
You've called Robert Gates a "transformational leader," yet the focus on transforming seems to have been part of Donald Rumsfeld's downfall.
We need someone with an agile mind as the secretary of defense; someone who doesn't get into mind-sets like "weapons of mass destruction" or "there is no insurgency." In each case, there was a full year before those realities were realized. There's a danger for any transformational leader who has the vision but not the roadway; who doesn't know how to accomplish the transformation on a practical basis. I was for transforming the military and worked with Rumsfeld in that first year, but strategy is not something planned. Rumsfeld developed rigid thinking, even when he came up against something different. In Iraq, when it was clear there was an insurgency in Iraq, they wouldn't even let people use the word. That was also Robert McNamara's problem. He was brilliant, but he was not an agile thinker.
McNamara makes for interesting comparisons.
I was assistant secretary of state for congressional relations from 1970 to 1973, and we were winning in Vietnam then. There had been a complete change in strategy at that point, and we are likely to see such a change now in Iraq. We had moved forward with Vietnamization, and Gen. [Creighton] Abrams had replaced Gen. [William] Westmoreland. They ended search-and-destroy missions. They emphasized Vietnamization, pacification, and support. We got our prisoners of war back. But we lost because of Richard Nixon's lack of support. There was a breakdown in the trust, and Congress and the president got in a fight over funding. In that period of presidential mistrust, had there been some type of go-between group between Congress and the executive, I think we could have saved that situation.
There is overwhelming support for Gates. Is that just because anyone other than Rumsfeld would be viewed as a savior?
It was an enormous turnover in terms of style and leadership from Secretary McNamara and General Westmoreland, who tried to win by kill ratios and search-and-destroy missions, to [Melvin] Laird and [Henry] Kissinger negotiating with other states. We might be seeing the same thing now. Gates is going to listen to people. Rumsfeld tended to shut out dissent. We now need all the bright ideas we can get. To quote Lincoln, it's time to think anew and act anew.