“I believe we need a new approach” to Iraq, President George W. Bush said after meeting his most important Iraq War ally (CNN), British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Yet while acknowledging the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations as “very constructive,” both also insisted upon a victory there which would, in Blair’s words, give the region’s peoples “the same possibilities of democracy that we hold dear in our countries.”
Adherence to this lofty ambition contrasted with the more utilitarian approach of the long-awaited Iraq Study Group (ISG), which a day earlier described the situation in Iraq as “grave and deteriorating.” The ISG studiously avoided the words “democracy” or “victory” in 142 pages of policy recommendations. Its emphasis was on stabilizing Iraq and beginning to shift combat responsibilities away from U.S. and British troops and onto Iraqi security forces.
Responding to skeptical questioning, Bush insisted he and Blair appreciated that “it’s bad in Iraq.” He also insisted their joint objective there is a “free government” which can “sustain, govern, and defend itself.” But, perhaps most importantly, he consistently made it clear the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations, while welcomed, would not dictate policy as he awaited separate reviews underway from the State Department, the Pentagon, and the National Security Council. “It’s certainly an important part of our deliberations and an important part of our discussions this morning,” Bush said. “I read it, and our guest read it.” The Wall Street Journal, whose editorial page often has reflected administration views, also downplayed it as “some bipartisan strategic muddle ginned up for domestic political purposes.” Jonah Goldberg of the Los Angeles Times agrees: “Most of the report hits stratospheric heights of banality.”
The White House meeting is the latest in a series of such war parleys since the terrorist attacks of September 2001 that virtually united British and American policy in the region. Both men are under great pressure to acknowledge, as Iraq Study Group Cochairman Lee Hamilton says, “ The current approach is not working, and the ability of the United States to influence events is diminishing.” The close relationship forged by Bush and Blair survived as the job in Iraq grew more difficult and allies fell away (Frontline). Over the past year, however, Blair has been forced to concede points to his domestic opponents, announcing last month the withdrawal (Daily Telegraph) of British forces by the end of 2007.
Blair also has championed the idea of a larger regional conference (Guardian) that would include Syria and Iran to hash out several of the Middle East’s major issues, including the Iraq War, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and possibly Iran’s nuclear program. No clear commitment on such an initiative has been made by Washington, though German officials may be trying to “play matchmaker” (Spiegel). Israeli officials, meanwhile, voiced deep skepticism (Haaretz). But the regional conference approach, like the Baker-Hamilton recommendations, has bipartisan support in the United States, including from Richard C. Holbrooke and CFR President Richard N. Haass.