Bush Listened, but Did He Hear?

By Eugene Robinson (THE WASHINGTON POST, 08/12/06):

I've been in this business long enough to recognize journalism when I see it. The first tip-off was the way the canny old pros in the Iraq Study Group (not one of whom I'd play poker with for money) studded their report's brief executive summary with explosive phrases -- a "grave and deteriorating" situation, a looming "humanitarian catastrophe," withdrawal of combat troops by "the first quarter of 2008." As an old editor once told me, hit the readers hard at the top of the story before they yawn and turn the page.

It turns out that James Baker, Lee Hamilton and the other members of the group didn't have to worry about holding readers' attention. The 96-page main report -- an attempt to find a way for George W. Bush to get us out of his Iraq debacle without provoking World War III -- is full of solid reporting and analysis, with surprises along the way that make your jaw drop.

There's only one reader who really counts, though, and I doubt he'll be impressed. The Decider isn't in the habit of letting mere facts get in the way of blind conviction.

At least the five senior Republicans and five senior Democrats who made up the panel have put down a marker. Facts do count, they remind us, and the possibility that the Iraq misadventure will spark a wider regional war is enough to powerfully concentrate the mind.

"I've been on a lot of presidential commissions in my life, going back to 1965. This was the toughest, but also the one where there was more cooperation and common purpose," Vernon Jordan told me by phone Wednesday as he sat down to dinner, the first meal he'd had time for on a day that began at 7 a.m. with a White House meeting with the president.

"This was the only commission I've seen where there was no argument, no falling out, nobody storming out of the room," Jordan said.

Roughly the first half of the report is pure journalism, an example of what old foreign correspondents used to call a "situationer" -- a snapshot overview of whatever country one's editors thought needed assessing. I learned things I hadn't known.

For example, I knew that the Iraqi army was a mess and that the Iraqi police force is full of sectarian thugs. But I didn't know that Iraq had another armed force, bigger than the police -- the 145,000-strong Facilities Protection Service, which is supposed to guard military infrastructure. One "senior U.S. official" described this shadowy force as "incompetent, dysfunctional, or subversive." How comforting.

I also wasn't aware that the Baghdad city government is a "Shia dictatorship" that allocates services along sectarian lines, consigning one Sunni neighborhood to "less than two hours of electricity each day" and waist-high piles of trash.

The second half of the report is less a news story than a long op-ed piece. The panel ruled out my preferred exit strategy, which it dismisses as "precipitate withdrawal." (I prefer to call it "wake up and smell the coffee.'') The report explains how splitting Iraq into three autonomous parts would be an unacceptably bloody process, as well as intolerable to the neighbors; and how the option of sending a lot more troops to Iraq, as Sen. John McCain advocates, is moot given that we don't have a lot more troops to send.

The report is harshest on the president's "stay the course" option, pointing out that the longer we remain, the worse the situation in Iraq seems to get -- and the more American troops are maimed or killed.

The document concludes with 79 recommendations, most of which are eminently reasonable and none of which will get us out of Iraq overnight. The president will probably reject some out of hand -- talking directly with Syria and Iran, for example. And while it would be good if the president finally realized that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would lower the temperature throughout the Middle East, I'm pretty sure it will take more than a phone call to persuade the Israeli government to give up the Golan Heights.

Jordan said that when the members of the panel met with Bush on Wednesday, the president's attitude was encouraging. "My mama used to say that a lot of people listen, but they don't hear," Jordan said. "Bush both listened and heard us."

That's a good sign. But the administration has set in motion its own multiple reviews of Iraq policy, and the official White House position is that the Iraq Study Group's viewpoint will be just one of many the president takes into account -- which is a bad sign. Would someone please tell the president that even his new secretary of defense doesn't think we're winning this war?