Hamilton warns that al-Maliki may fail Bush

The co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group said Wednesday that he has serious doubts about the ability of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to reduce the level of sectarian violence and achieve national reconciliation, and warned that President Bush's new Iraq strategy is likely to fail if he isn't able to.

"The rhetoric of Maliki is fine but his performance has been disappointing," former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) told The Hill. "So here we find ourselves in this extraordinary position. The U.S. is the superpower of the world, the sole superpower, and the success of our policy in Iraq depends on the actions of the Maliki government, a government that has been weak and that has not performed on these central benchmarks of national reconciliation."

He added, "I think everything has to work right, it has to work quickly, and even if it does, our chances of success are no better than 50-50."

Asked if he agrees that this was the president's last chance for success in Iraq, Hamilton said, "I don't see what his backup plan is. It seems to me he's putting a lot of chips on the Maliki government. … That's a hugely interesting question; what happens if we fail … if the surge doesn't work?"

Hamilton, who with former Secretary of State James Baker headed the bipartisan Iraq Study Group that issued its report in December, said he had a "mixed reaction" to Bush's speech. However, he emphasized he wasn't speaking for Baker or other members of the group.

"I think the president moved quite a ways in the speech … in his disappointment with sectarian violence and other things. So I consider that an important plus. If you go back six weeks this kind of language from the president just would not have been heard, that the situation in Iraq was unacceptable. So there were a number of statements that I find encouraging in the president's remarks."

However, Hamilton made it clear that he was disappointed that the president ignored some of the study group's key recommendations.

"Most important is that the primary mission of the American forces is the training of Iraqi troops," he said. "The president says that's an essential mission. That's good but he doesn't say it's the primary mission. If the surge becomes the primary mission, then training becomes second. They argue that they can do both, but it's not likely that we can put the same kind of emphasis on both."

Second, he said, are the conditions Bush has placed on giving aid to the Maliki government. "He is unwilling to put any penalty on Maliki if he does not perform," Hamilton said in an interview in his office at the Wilson Center for International Scholars, which he heads. 

"And we very much think that if Maliki does not perform, we should reduce aid. In other words, we make a link. We think certain things ought to be done in Iraq because that government has repeated[ly] promised performance and has not performed.

"And of course, the third point is diplomacy. We think that we should develop the international support group and it should include Iran and Syria and an effort to reenergize the Arab-Israeli talks. It appears that Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice is trying to do the latter, and I hope she will."

Hamilton said he and Baker will testify before Congress in the coming days. He is scheduled to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at 2 p.m. today, and before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Friday morning, as well as at several other committees next week.

But he said today's hearing may be postponed because Baker "may prefer to move it to next week."

Asked if any other members of the study group have expressed enthusiastic support for the president's new strategy, Hamilton said, "Not to my knowledge." 

Hamilton emphasized that the Iraq Study Group report "said we would not succeed in Iraq unless there is a unity of effort. And one of the real huge challenges in front of the president and in front of Congress is to try to develop, with deep differences notwithstanding, a unified effort. We do have American interests in the region and we want to protect those interests and we best do that if we speak with a unified voice."

However, he said, "We are not thus far speaking with a unified voice as a country on Iraq today."

Hamilton predicted "a lot of clashes" in Congress over Iraq, starting with a Senate non-binding resolution to oppose the recent troop-surge announcement.

"I don't know what that resolution says, and it will be non-biding, but it will be very important symbolically, sending a message, and I see a series of very vigorous debates in Congress on Iraq policy, arising in several different places on the legislative calendar."

Asked if that debate will make it more difficult to achieve unity, Hamilton said, "My hope here is that when you run through this process, which I think will be difficult and messy, my hope is that the country will have come to a greater unity of effort. I don't expect unlimited unity, but I would hope there will be greater meeting of the minds than exists today."

He added, "This is a very complex problem. It will take the integration of all of the tools of American power. I still worry that we focus way too much on the military, which is a hugely important part of this policy, but it is not the whole part of it. The economic, political and diplomatic parts are also hugely important and we've got to get it all right. We've had a history over the last few years where we have not gotten it all right and our chances of success are not 100 percent. It's a very daunting challenge for us."