Iraq Study Group Losing Support

The Iraq Study Group report dominated the news when it was released earlier this month. But now, just three weeks later, almost no one in government seems to be supporting its recommendations.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Let's be clear. President Bush has not said that he's made up his mind on this yet, sending more troops. In a news conference yesterday, he said he's still open to many ideas and still listening.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I'm listening to our commanders. I'm listening to the joint chiefs, of course. I'm listening to people in and out of government. I'm listening to the folks in the Baker-Hamilton Commission about coming up with a strategy that helps us achieve our objective.

CHADWICK: There. The president mentioned the Baker-Hamilton Commission. It's also known as the Iraq Study Group, or ISG. Back in the spring, Congress asked for the study to help rethink Iraq strategy, and after a lot of anticipation its report finally emerged three weeks ago.

Now Mike Pesca explains what happened.

MIKE PESCA: Remember back just a couple weeks ago, the unveiling of the Iraq Study Group's report? It was a little like when they tell you who's nominated for the Oscars. All the news networks carried it live. The panel's ten members split up into bi-partisan duos, and two by two they marched on to the arc of what would surely be a bold new way - marked by diplomacy and withdrawal. Georgetown professor Daniel Byman was never buying that.

Mr. DANIEL BYMAN (Georgetown University): The panel was asked to do essentially an impossible job, which is come up with a technical fix or a political problem.

PESCA: Byman's general critique is of the very nature of commissions, study groups and blue ribbon panels. But journalist Ron Suskind points not to the panel but to the president.

Mr. RON SUSKIND (Journalist): When there are moments like the Iraq Study Group coming together, folks with experience, credibility, trying to come up with reasonable answers, people naturally bend in that direction and say, oh, of course, yes, this is generally the way government is worked. This administration doesn't actually work that way though. It's one of those things where it's hard to keep your eyes adjusted to what's different here.

PESCA: What is different is embodied in the phrase that a senior aide to President Bush mentioned to Suskind a couple of years ago: the reality-based community. The aide defined this as people who believe that solutions emerge from judicious study of discernable reality. This, the aide said, is not how the world works. The U.S. and the presidency, through decisive action, can reshape reality. Though it's an insight easily forgotten among the punditocracy - you know, the reality-based community.

Mr. SUSKIND: After the midterm elections and the Iraq Study Group, there were many columnists and others - reporters - who talked about the return of pragmatism, you know, the realists. And when I watched that, I said, oh, goodness gracious.

PESCA: Right after the study group's recommendations came out, the president said he appreciated their work. Press secretary Tony Snow said the members were hard working and full of good will, but that the president wouldn't be commenting on it until after the new year. As time and momentum seeps away, and as the president talks of an increase in troops, not the drawdown the group recommended, one is left to wonder. Will the report be nothing more than just another book available for a penny plus shipping on Amazon.com?

But Jay Parker has faith.

Mr. JAY PARKER: To individuals who say that the White House has rejected or not accepted this, why are we so sure that they have done either?

PESCA: Parker is executive vice president for the Center for the Study of the Presidency. His organization was a driving force behind the group. Two of the panel's ten members are on the board of trustees and most have been by his offices. Parker mentions the presence of a new secretary of defense as an example that the president does bend to reality, and says no president can act without the support of Congress and the people.

Mr. PARKER: This is not a government that can operate by fiat no matter how strong a president is or determined that individual president is.

PESCA: Well, that seems realistic. Which is exactly why Ron Suskind thinks it's a flawed analysis.

Mr. SUSKIND: The way the United States government is currently constructed, foreign policy, especially in this new kind of war, is largely the province of the executive, of the president.

PESCA: Do you think he really cares at this point about bad poll numbers?

Mr. SUSKIND: Frankly, no, he doesn't.

PESCA: Those polls, according to the AP, 31 percent of the public approve of the president's handling of the war in Iraq. CNN has the number at 28 percent. The president has always said he's not driven by polls and after the new year we'll get a glimpse of just how much he means it.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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