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(Photo credit to REUTERS/Larry Downing.  The looks on the faces of Hamilton and Baker as President Bush is speaking?  Priceless.  Hamilton, trying to stay neutral, hands gripping tightly with the effort, Baker, that clenched muscle in his jaw…I get that same "save me" feeling every time I have to listen to him speak, too.)

Shorter Iraq Study Group"Grow up, Junior, and start doing your damn job."

Circumstances in Iraq are "grave and deteriorating," with a potential government collapse and a "humanitarian catastrophe" if the U.S. does not change course and seek a broader diplomatic solution to the problems that have wracked the country since the U.S. invaded, according to a bipartisan panel that sent its findings to President Bush and Congress today.

In what amounts to the most extensive independent assessment of the nearly four-year-old conflict that has claimed the lives of 2,800 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis, the Iraq Study Group painted a bleak picture of a nation that risks a "slide toward chaos" without new efforts to reconcile its feuding religious and ethnic minorities.

Despite a laundry list of recommendations meant to encourage regional diplomacy and lead to a draw down of U.S. forces over the next year, the panel acknowledged that stability in the country may be impossible to achieve any time soon.

"No one can guarantee that any course of action in Iraq at this point will stop sectarian warfare, growing violence or a slide toward chaos," the panel's two chairmen, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, wrote in a joint letter accompanying the 142 page report. "There is no magic formula to solve the problems of Iraq."…

Some of its conclusions, such as the need for a phased withdrawal and for shifting the mission of U.S. forces, have been reported over the past few days. Much of the report, though, emphasizes diplomatic options. Advisers said they pushed for dialogue with Iraq's immediate neighbors, Iran and Syria, as a major path toward improving the situation, despite a belief that Bush would reject the recommendation outright because of those countries' ties to terrorism.

Baker, who as secretary of state spent much time working to bring peace to the Middle East after the Persian Gulf War, made a personal point of including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the report and "laying out the importance of why it needs to be dealt with and a strategy to deal with it," said a source familiar with the report. Baker has been close to the Saudi royal family and his ideas may provoke opposition from Israel and its allies.

Should be an interesting day today as we begin to hear the extent to which the "grown-ups" have taken Junior to the woodshed — both in the public document as well as in private. (You just know that bits and pieces of that are going to leak out, no matter how much they want to keep it under wraps.)  

That President Bush has to be told that diplomacy by him and by his Secretary of State is important as a crucial element of our nation's interaction with the rest of the world?  Well…it is embarrassing, and that James Baker has apparently spelled it out in direct language in the ISG document says a LOT about how much resistence they are expecting from President Bush on this aspect of his job, doesn't it?

The AP has more, having gotten their hands on at least a part of the report before its release publicly at 11 am ET.   After Gates' statement yesterday that we are decidedly not winning in Iraq, the one-two of this report today has got to sting — and no matter how much tap dancing Tony Snowjob may be able to manage today, the bottom line is this:  people from the outside had to be brought in — AGAIN — to clean up Junior's failures. 

Something that Amb. Joseph Wilson said earlier in the week when he was chatting with everyone resonates this morning, and I wanted to highlight it again before the ISG report is released. In responding to a question from reader Bustedknuckles regarding experienced diplomats who might be able to impact the mess that is Iraq, Joe said:

I have a lot of respect for Jim Baker. He is tough enough, experienced enough and savvy enough to pull a rabbit out of the hat if there is one in there. The problem is we are so far down the road on the way to chaos that there may not be any way to stop this until all sides are exhausted. The question is not whether the situation has become a civil war but rather whether it has degenerated from a civil war to out and out anarchy and a failed state.  (emphasis mine)

And that, in essence, is the dilemma that everyone faces when evaluating the chaos in Iraq, as it threatens to spill over into the greater Middle East.  How does one stop a runaway train filled with explosives before it hits the next stop along the tracks?  And the next?

The best time to listen to the diplomats is before a shot is ever fired.  But in the Bush Administration, Colin Powell's and the state department's experienced hands admonitions against this ill-planned, ill-conceived war were brushed aside in favor of the neocon dreams of conquering heroes and candy-strewn streets paved with oil.  The time for the grown-ups and the realists would have been best prior to any American soldiers setting foot on the ground in Iraq. 

But, alas, that was not to be.

There are a number of things that we all ought to learn from this.  First, and foremost, is that the United States ought never again commit resources and troops without serious questions being asked on the front end of such a commitment. 

That adequate oversight was not performed by the Congress, that the press acted as cheerleaders rather than as the skeptical cynics one would hope for in the run-up to this catastrophe, that individual Americans were doing the same — ought not be in question at this point.  But our men and women in uniform, the American public, and the innocent civilians caught int he crossfire in the current conflagration that passes for Iraq deserve far better than this from all of us.  And that lesson not only needs to be learned, but it needs to be taken to heart.

The second is the any planning that is done going into a conflict needs to take into account the worst case scenario, and not just limit itself to whatever President Rose-Colored Glasses wants to hear.

And, to that end, the public ought to hear about those worst case scenarios as well.  Oversight hearings would help from Congress.  I am more than aware that the rubber stamp Republican Congress has functioned more like a Parliamentary unit of the Bush White House than the independent branch of government that our Founding Fathers envisioned for us. 

It is well past time for Congress to reclaim its Constitutional mantle of being both a check and a balance on the overreach of Presidential power.  And we will be watching the Democratic majority in both houses of Congress come January to be certain that they do just that.

How long do all of us have to pay the price for this mess in Iraq?  Because, in all honesty, it is a heavy, heavy price. 

No one should be satisfied if all we get out of this report and the ensuing pomp and circumstances is simply a bunch of shuffling around and no real change of priorities and actions.  The status quo is not good enough (and that is such an understatement).  President Bush needs to face some difficult truths and be honest not just with the public but with himself.  Now. 

Juan Cole has updates on Iraq and some surrounding issues this morning that are well worth a read.  Laura Rozen has a link to the ISG's Executive Summary (PDF).  And Swopa has some thoughts on the Dick Cheney trip to Saudi Arabia, and the differences between publicly staged bluster and private discussions.