(To access a story on Lee Hamilton’s October 26 presentation at DePauw Discourse 2006: Issues for America — including video and audio clips — go to: http://www.depauw.edu/news/index.asp?id=18340)
When Republican Jim Baker, the ranking co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, was invited to the White House recently for a conversation with the president, he declined until the other co-chairman, Lee Hamilton, could clear his schedule. When Newsweek magazine wanted to photograph Baker for an article on the ISG, Baker set the same conditions. Thus the two men are pictured side by side this week in a Newsweek report that says the group’s recommendations are a closely guarded secret, still in draft form.
Lee Hamilton is not a politician likely to leak, so during a visit to DePauw University recently he made it clear that there were some questions he would have to deflect. Hamilton sat for an hourlong Q and A moderated by Jack McWethy of ABC News. He scrupulously honored “the borders,” but Hamilton said enough on the record to give some pretty clear signals about what the study group will be recommending to the president.
First, the administration will be urged to drop its habit of isolating regimes it doesn’t like, particularly Iran and Syria in the Middle East. “I don’t know how you solve problems without talking to people,” Hamilton said. In one of his few public remarks, Baker mused that for 50 years America talked to the Soviet Union, even in the “Evil Empire” days of President Reagan, and we managed never to bomb each other.
Additionally, look for the study group to encourage diplomatic initiatives to engage the rest of the world to help solve Iraq. Hamilton: “Our mandate is to figure out how to involve the region, the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council, the European Union, Japan. One of our frustrations in dealing with Iraq is that the international community has been passive. They say, ‘OK, America, you started the war, you clean it up.’ We have to change that perception and invite them into a process that gives international backing to what we’re trying to do.”
Returning from the ISG’s trip to Iraq, where the members wore flak-jackets and helmets even inside the supposedly secure Green Zone, Hamilton said they came to this conclusion: “We need to ratchet up the pressure on the Iraqi leadership. Prime Minister Maliki needs to deal with the militias. The government doesn’t have much room to maneuver among all the Iraqi factions, not to mention America’s demands, but so far we’ve gotten good rhetoric, but not enough action.”
A question much in the news recently is whether the ISG will recommend that Iraq be partitioned into three sectarian zones. Shi’a, Sunni and Kurd, with oil resources divvied-up. On this Hamilton was direct: “We want to see a unified Iraq, not a break-up of the country,” adding, “The religious leaders have to recognize the precipice they’re on.”
Hamilton says that the American military is ready for a diplomatic initiative. “The military says they can’t solve this in a military way. This needs a political solution. We’re spending $2 to $3 billion a week on Iraq. Are we going to be willing to do that for five more years?”
He also says that President Bush is ready. “Does he get it?” asked McWethy.
“Of course he gets it and so do his top people,” answered Hamilton. “Our recommendations will be aimed at the executive branch, and I don’t know if they will be followed, but they know things haven’t been going well and we need some changes.”
One area where the recommendations of the ISG may run into resistance from Bush himself is in Hamilton’s answer to the last question from the audience at DePauw. “Do we have to rethink our relations with the state of Israel? That issue is at the top of the Arab agenda.” Essentially, Hamilton said yes, the strongest criticism of America is its pro-Israel stance. “In the Middle East, everything is connected to everything else, and at the core is the Israeli-Palestinian question. It’s terribly important for the U.S. to deal with every aspect of this, refugees, borders, Jerusalem. The U.S. has to get seriously involved in the Middle East beyond Iraq. We have to adjust our relations with Israel to move the process. This does not mean we’ll change our close relations with Israel, but we do have to adjust our relations.”
Those views are a preview from the co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, which will soon report its efforts to find a middle way between “cut and run” and “stay the course.”