IF THE IRAQ STUDY GROUP is worried that its recommendations will not be taken seriously, then Thursday's news conference with President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair is cause for concern. "A lot of reports in Washington are never read by anybody," Bush said. "To show you how important this one is, I read it." A moment later he added, as if for emphasis, "This is important."
Oh well. At least the Iraq Study Group had one 24-hour news cycle before it was dismissed as "important." In Washington, importance is the last stop before irrelevance; it's a graceful way to offer praise without support. On that score, there is reason for more than just the members of the group to be worried. The president and the prime minister used the word 46 times in 53 minutes, including to describe the goal of eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops and the need to be engaged on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Semantics aside, Bush's performance Thursday was depressing. He turned truculent when pressed to describe the situation on the ground ("It's bad in Iraq. Does that help?") and was irritatingly simplistic explaining his rationale for staying there ("I wouldn't have our troops in harm's way if I didn't believe that, one, it was important, and, two, we'll succeed"). His opening remarks included the usual airy rhetoric about creating a beacon of democracy in the Middle East and ominous yet vague references to "the forces of terror and extremism." For minutes at a time, the conference sounded like it could have been taking place in 2003.
The president did say that "I believe we need a new approach," and it's clear that the coming season of studies and debate is meant to precede some modest new package of initiatives. What that approach will be is another matter.
The chief value of the Iraq Study Group report is not necessarily what it says -- much of which has been suggested elsewhere or has been obvious for some time -- but who's saying it. Like management consultants, this group of former insiders can give Bush the cover he needs to make changes that everyone realizes are necessary but no one in power seems willing or able to propose.
Management consultants are rarely popular, and as George and Tony were meeting reporters, Jim and Lee (the group's co-chairmen, James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton) were lobbying Congress. Their report was a "comprehensive strategy," they said, best accepted or rejected in full. It's an oddly naive hope for a realist such as Baker. Certainly it's bizarre to argue that the group's recommendations -- all 79 of them -- are somehow sacrosanct. If the president deserves any sympathy, it's for his reluctance to give his father's consigliere special deference.
Bush is right: The U.S. needs to confront terrorists, and democracy is a worthy goal. But declaring a goal is separate from achieving it. No one will argue that these goals aren't important (that word again). Yet they will remain unattainable until a host of other issues, many of them outlined by the Iraq Study Group, are addressed. Maybe Bush realizes this but can't bring himself to say so publicly. Or maybe he just doesn't believe it. After Thursday's news conference, it's still hard to tell.