The Iraq Study Group's Baker and Hamilton Melissa Block talks with the co-chairs of the Iraq Study Group: James A. Baker III, former secretary of state; and Lee H. Hamilton, former congressman. Congress formed the Iraq Study Group to give an independent assessment of the current and prospective situation on the ground in Iraq, the surrounding region, and consequences for U.S. interests.

The Iraq Study Group's Baker and Hamilton

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Time is running out. That's the grim assessment of today's report from the Iraq Study Group.

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The bipartisan panel is chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton. I spoke with both of them today after they released their report and after they gave a news conference on Capitol Hill. We'll hear that interview in a minute.

SIEGEL: At that news conference, Lee Hamilton described the situation in Iraq as grave and deteriorating.

LEE HAMILTON: The current approach is not working. And the ability of the United States to influence events is diminishing.

SIEGEL: There are 79 recommendations in the Iraq Study Group's report under three broad categories: a change in the primary mission of U.S. forces - out of combat and into training, prompt action by the Iraqi government toward national reconciliation, and new diplomatic efforts in Iraq and the region to include Iran and Syria.

BLOCK: And I'm joined now by James Baker and Lee Hamilton in the offices of the U.S. Institute of Peace here in Washington. Thanks to you both for being with us.

HAMILTON: Thank you.

JAMES A: Thank you having us.

BLOCK: I'd like to ask you first about U.S. troop withdrawals. In your report, you say that all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq by the first quarter of 2008. But you don't give numbers and Lee Hamilton, I wonder if you could answer this: How many U.S. combat troops would that leave in Iraq?

HAMILTON: Well, we don't know. Those are very tactical judgments, and we leave those kind of calculations to the commanders. What will be necessary is as you draw American combat forces away and put in embedded troops with the Iraqis, you're going to need protection for the American forces that are embedded.

The American forces that remain are going to have to have a lot of capability. You're going to have to be able to go after al-Qaida, which, obviously, is our chief security interest here. They're going to have to be able to protect those soldiers that are there, so you'll need special operations. You'll need rapid reaction teams. You're going to need intelligence and all kinds of support activity.

We don't know exactly what the number remaining will be, but even if our recommendation is fully accepted and all combat brigades not necessary for force protection are taken out, you're still going to have a sizable number of Americans there.

BLOCK: Mr. Baker, I'd like to ask you about Syria and Iran. You've said that they must be involved in diplomatic talks, which does seems to fly in the face of this administration's policy, which does not want direct engagement. You say yes - engagement with no preconditions.

BAKER: Well, we've already engaged Iran with no preconditions in terms of what we did in Afghanistan. We asked Iran to help us there and they did, and it was productive. So it's not saying - you're not plowing any new ground there. We have an embassy in Syria. We have diplomatic relations with the Syrians. We're not talking to them right now. We're suggesting that we ought to be.

But we're saying it should be done under very strict guidelines, and we lay them all out there in the report. And we say what it is we need to request-slash-require of Syria if we're going to have a reasonable dialogue with them.

Syria is in a position to in effect take care of Israel's Hezbollah problem, because all the weapons that go to Hezbollah transit Syria. She's also in a position to get Hamas to acknowledge Israel's right to exist, which would open up a negotiating partner for Israel, end up on the Palestinian side of the equation.

So that's why we call for this. We don't - we're not laboring under any illusions that Iran will talk to us now. In fact, we had some contacts - authorized contacts with their government. They indicated they might not be open to that idea in Iraq as they were in Afghanistan.

I say that's fine. Challenge them. Then when they say no, they'll be the only neighbor of Iraq that won't be participating. Hold them up for public scrutiny, their rejectionist attitude.

BLOCK: Hasn't the administration, though, pretty much drawn a line in the sand here? They said today no one-on-one talks with Iran.

BAKER: Well, they said no one-on-one talks with Iran on all issues is what they've been saying. And what I'm still telling you is they've already talked one on one with Iran about Afghanistan. We're suggesting the very same thing with Iraq. And we specifically say, don't link the nuclear.

BLOCK: Mr. Hamilton, you offered today what seemed to be a pretty blunt assessment about the chances for success. You said, I don't know if it can be turned around, and you seem to be saying that it's possible that the situation in Iraq is not fixable.

HAMILTON: It's quite possible. It's a very dire situation. And I think we said that events were sliding out of control. We think they are. We think in effect, this is a kind of a last chance to put it together. We believe there is a chance, and it's a reasonably good chance.

But if you look at the circumstances you confront, they are increased violence, pervasive pessimism, a government that really has not been able to function very well, and an economy that's not working at all. The ministries of the government, not very effective The police, kind of a mess. The Iraqi army - a little better, but needs a long way to go.

So you look at all of this and and you ask yourself the question, can this succeed even if our recommendations are adopted? And you have to have some doubt lingering in your mind. Now it's worth, I think, a real effort by the United States because an awful lot is at stake.

BLOCK: You said even if your recommendations are adopted - and it's interesting to look at the language here, the language that you're using and contrast it with the language coming from the White House. President Bush has said recently, absolutely we're winning. We'll be in Iraq until the job is complete. Mr. Baker, isn't your message many degrees removed from the optimism that we're hearing from this White House?

BAKER: Well, our assessment is different. We have a fairly candid and transparent assessment here. We think, as Lee just said, we do think the situation is dire. We think it's, as we put in the report, it's grave. It is deteriorating. But by the same token we say, but the prospects for success can be improved. And we come with 79 recommendations that we suggest can improve those prospects.

BLOCK: You met with the president this morning. Did you get the sense that this is a White House that's willing to take on what you are telling them to do?

BAKER: We don't know yet. We'll have to just wait and see. We don't have a crystal ball, but I think it's fair to say - and I'll let Lee speak for himself - that we were pleased with the meeting. He said some very nice things.

He said number one, this is important. I thank you all for doing it. It's a serious report. I'm going to look at it seriously and it may afford, I think he said something like, may afford a common ground for moving forward.

This is the only bipartisan report he's going to get. He going to get other reports. He's going to get one from State, one from NSC, one from Defense, but this is the only bipartisan report and today, he has a Democratic Congress to deal with, both House and Senate. And the only way we're going to be able to sustain any policy in Iraq is if the country is behind it, and they're only going to be behind it if it's bipartisan.

BLOCK: Mr. Hamilton, you were vice chair of the 9/11 Commission, which also issued a lot of recommendations. You came back a year and a half later with a report card and it was a pretty lousy report card for the administration's response. I think there were 17 of 41 areas where you gave the administration Ds or Fs. So why should we hope for a better response now?

HAMILTON: Well, we're tough graders on the 9/11 Commission. And we had a lot of reason to be disappointed in their performance, but these are very, very different situations. The 9/11 report addressed homeland security. We're really not addressing homeland security here. We're addressing a foreign policy challenge that is as daunting, I think, as any of us have tackled.

I don't come to this either with a great sense of pessimism or a great sense of optimism. I just come to it with a sense that this challenge is formidable, and in order for us to come out with any kind of an acceptable solution, we're going to have to come together and adopt a comprehensive approach to the problem.

You can't solve this militarily, you can't solve it politically, you can't solve it economically - you've got to put all of the tools of American power together and integrate those powers to succeed. What are our chances of doing that? Well, they're probably not 50-50, but neither are they zero.

BLOCK: I was struck by a few phrases in the report - many phrases, but a couple caught my eye. One is U.S. forces seem to be caught in a mission that has no foreseeable end, and another part, you say key Iraqi leaders have little commitment to national reconciliation. Given those appraisals, what do you think the best is that we can hope for, Mr. Baker?

BAKER: Well, as we say in there, we share the president's goal of an Iraq that can defend itself, support itself and govern itself. And that's the best we can hope for. We share those goals, and we can still hope for those goals, I think. That's not to say the situation is not dire, but as I mentioned earlier, it can be turned around. And we recommend, we've got these 79 recommendations that we think will go a long way toward turning it around.

But it is, after all, everybody's focused on troops. And that's fine because that's natural. But this is a political issue, and it's going to be solved politically by the Iraqi government or it isn't going to be solved. So we need to do what we can to help them solve it politically.

And that's why the diplomacy and the political measures we recommend are so important, because there are a lot of countries, a lot of neighbors who are not only are not being productive in Iraq, they're being counterproductive. And I'm not talking now just about Syria and Iran, there are others - longtime allies of the United States who could do a lot more, cancel debt and so forth.

So, I don't think that you can take the position just because the assessment is dire - which it is, and we all agree on that, a consensus statement - that it's, that all is lost.

BLOCK: If key leaders in Iraq that were not interested in reconciling - Lee Hamilton, doesn't that really complicate the process here? How do you make this work?

HAMILTON: Well, if you accept your if clause, that they're not interested in this, then there's very -

BLOCK: It's in your report.

HAMILTON: There's very little opportunity to move forward. Our hope here is that things will work, that the training by U.S. forces of Iraqi forces will be effective. That the milestones that the Iraqi government has in front of it, some of which they've articulated, others will be necessary - can be achieved.

That the international events that Secretary Baker talks about are successful in helping to reinforce Iraq. All of those things have to come together, and they could come together. It's certainly not beyond the mind of - the imagination of man to think that they can come together. But it's going to be a formidable, even daunting, challenge.

BLOCK: James Baker and Lee Hamilton, co-chairs of the Iraq Study Group. Thanks to you both.

BAKER: Thank you very much, Melissa.

HAMILTON: Thank you.

SIEGEL: There is more of Melissa's conversation with the commission chairmen at NPR.org. There's also a full copy of their report and reaction from leaders of both political parties.

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