There's a great anecdote about Abraham Lincoln. During the Civil War, a delegation touting itself as "the weighty men of Delaware" visited Lincoln at the White House. Lincoln's response, as noted at anecdotage.com: "Did it ever occur to you gentlemen that there was a danger of your little state tipping up in your absence?"
Which brings to my mind the Iraq Study Group. Co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker, a Republican, and former House International Relations Committee Chair Lee Hamilton, a Democrat, the ISG calls itself "a bipartisan group of senior individuals who have had distinguished careers in public service."
To go by the hype, you would think that this august body will come up with a daring roadmap for U.S. policy in Iraq. Yet experience suggests that the study group, which consists of the same swells who always fill bipartisan panels, will present a set of mealy-mouthed recommendations, more weighty in the authors' minds than in reality.
Consider the bipartisan 9-11 commission, on which Hamilton also served.
While the panel did a fine job of investigating institutional flaws that hindered intelligence before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, one certainly could argue that the bipartisan makeup encouraged the group to paper over what now can be seen as mistakes made by both the Clinton and Bush administrations.
Worse, because the 9-11 commission chose to pass its 41 recommendations unanimously -- a goal shared by the ISG -- the recommendations were bureaucratic, somewhat impractical and often gratuitous. For example, the panel refused to take a stand on the Patriot Act, but instead suggested that the White House make a case for retaining surveillance powers, followed by a "full and informed debate."
File that one under: Meaningless.
And in sub-category: Easy to ignore.
For all the presumed weightiness, the recommendations were like pre-chewed food. After all, Congress is supposed to water down proposals as a tribute to consensus. Why should a panel dilute them beforehand?
The ISG is the brainchild of Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee that funds the U.S. Institute of Peace, the facilitating agency for the ISG. Wolf said he was looking for "fresh eyes" on the Iraq situation.
Don't you think if Washington wanted "fresh eyes," government leaders could have appointed someone under age 67? Yes, the 10 ISG members are supremely experienced. Still, the public would have been better served with a group that has a blend of ages -- beyond ages 67 to 76 -- as well as individuals who don't belong to the clique of Washington Beltway alumni.
As it is, the ISG seems more like a club than a mission-oriented policy-making panel. For example, I don't think military strategists likely would interview The New York Times' Thomas Friedman or The Washington Post's George Will, but according to its Website, the ISG did.
I'd rather see a more diverse membership -- with a couple of wild cards -- duke it out. Pit Sen. John McCain, R- Ariz., who wants more troops in Iraq, against Sen.-elect James Webb, D-Va., who wants to withdraw troops.
Because it is now too late to change the group's membership, let it issue a report with recommendations that don't appeal to every member -- and print dissenting opinions, as well. After all, every tactic has its drawbacks. Let the public see different arguments on troop levels, timetables, whether it makes sense to partition Iraq, the best ways to bolster Iraqi security forces, and what negotiations with Iran and Syria could produce.
America doesn't need another set of sonorous pronouncements of diluted middle-of-the-road recommendations and bureaucratic reshuffling. Instead of consensus, the Iraq Study Group should strive for vision.