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Originally published Thursday, December 7, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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"Realists" rebuke Bush, neocons

The Iraq Study Group report released Wednesday might well be titled "The Realist Manifesto. " From the very first page, in which co-chairs...

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The Iraq Study Group report released Wednesday might well be titled "The Realist Manifesto."

From the very first page, in which co-chairs James Baker and Lee Hamilton scold that "our leaders must be candid and forthright with the American people," the bipartisan report is nothing less than a repudiation of the Bush administration's diplomatic and military approach to Iraq and to the whole region.

Throughout its pages, the report reflects the foreign-policy establishment's disdain for the "neoconservative" policies long espoused by President Bush and his aides. But while many of its recommendations stem from the "realist" school of foreign policy, it is unclear whether a radically different approach could make much difference nearly four years after the invasion of Iraq.

The administration's effort to spread democracy to Arab lands is not mentioned in the report, except to note briefly that most countries in the region are wary of it. The report urges direct talks with Iran and Syria, both of which the administration largely has shunned.

It also calls for placing new emphasis on resolving the Israel-Arab conflict, including pressing Israel to reach a peace deal with Syria, on the grounds that the issue shapes regional attitudes about the U.S. involvement in Iraq.

Overall, it strongly suggests that Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have bungled diplomacy in the region with unrealistic objectives and narrow strategies.

"We took a very pragmatic approach because all of these people up here are pragmatic public officials," Hamilton said, referring to the five Democrats and five Republicans who unanimously endorsed the report's conclusions and recommendations.

In a lengthy preamble to the recommendations titled "Assessment," the report gives a dispassionate account of the "grave and deteriorating" situation in Iraq, echoing books and news reports that the administration had previously criticized as one-sided or overly negative. The report's description of the violence in Iraq likely will set the new baseline for how the Iraq conflict is portrayed.

"The ability of the United States to influence events within Iraq is diminishing," the report warns.

The report is replete with damning details about the administration's inept handling of Iraq. It notes, for instance, that only six people in the 1,000-person U.S. embassy in Baghdad can speak Arabic fluently. It recounts how the military counted 93 acts of violence in one day in July when the group's re-examination of the data found 1,100. "Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes discrepancy with policy goals," the report said.

The report calls for seeing Iraq differently, for scaling back the administration's goals and for ending the president's open-ended commitments to the war-torn country. It also argues that the administration should support a "far-reaching" amnesty of insurgent fighters, pointedly warning that neither the executive nor legislative branches should try to undermine an amnesty program.

White House spokesman Tony Snow countered Wednesday that many issues raised in the report are being discussed and addressed by the administration. "You're asking if that is a repudiation of policy," he said. "No, it's an acknowledgment of reality."

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On both the diplomatic and military fronts, the report differs sharply from the administration's current approach. Perhaps befitting a panel with two former secretaries of state — Lawrence Eagleburger is also a member — a large section of the report outlines what it labels "the New Diplomatic Offensive."

The section appears to be an implicit rebuke of policies pursued by Rice, arguing that her current efforts to build a regional "compact for Iraq" are too narrow, that her efforts to engage moderate Arab states lack ambition and that her pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace needs to be reinvigorated.

Bush has shunned a hands-on role in the issue, but the report said "the United States does its ally Israel no favors in avoiding direct involvement to solve the Arab-Israel conflict."

"Everybody said that if you're going to settle Iraq, it is important that you do what you can to settle Israel-Palestine," Eagleburger said. The report makes no mention of the moribund U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.

The report also urges high-level talks with Iran and Syria without preconditions. The panel noted, for instance, that Iran was helpful in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban — but that moment probably has passed, now that Iran and Syria believe the United States is on the ropes.

Baker, who said "you talk to your enemies, not just your friends," suggested one goal of such talks would be to show others in the region that Iran and Syria want Iraq to fail.

Outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also comes in for pointed commentary, with the group's 46th recommendation being that his successor repair relations with the top military brass.

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