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Since then, relations between the White House and the study group haven't always been perfect. When a White House official made skeptical statements in early fall about the group's direction, angry Democrats on the panel warned Baker that they would not be part of a charade. Baker in turn went on TV and reported that the White House was still on board, while privately informing the West Wing to shut down the skeptics for good. Baker has been strict about stressing the bipartisan nature of the group--which includes Clinton advisers like Leon Panetta and William Perry as well as former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson and Reagan Attorney General Edwin Meese--and he told TIME it will act only by consensus. Still, everyone agrees that Baker is the first among equals.
So far, the Baker group has convened a number of listening sessions; its deliberations as a group begin this week. It is already evident that the panel is not laboring under illusions about the grim outlook for the U.S. enterprise in Iraq. The commission returned from its brief trip to Baghdad in September collectively stunned by the chaos--which is interesting, since they barely got to see it. They apparently saw enough: the donning of the body armor, the corkscrew approach in the Air Force cargo plane, the harrowing treetop chopper flight into the Green Zone--it all left the commissioners shaken, according to an adviser to one member. There are no plans to go back.
Instead, something akin to a shadow State Department has sprung up to figure out how to extricate the U.S. from Iraq. Baker and Hamilton reached deep into the government's foreign policy ranks--active and retired--and plucked their favorite generals, spooks and analysts to work in complete secrecy, installing some in a nondescript building that houses the U.S. Institute of Peace. Some 50 advisers, both here and in Iraq, have kicked in reports and working papers; Baker and his team have fired questions back at those who are the most promising. Baker has been in touch with representatives from Iran and Syria, countries the U.S. isn't keen to cozy up to. And about a dozen longtime aides and diplomatic wizards, including Brent Scowcroft, the grand master of the foreign policy establishment, are in communication with Baker and Hamilton as they go down to the wire. The bipartisan pragmatism encouraged by the Baker-Hamilton group, says Clinton U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, marks an end to the era when U.S. foreign policy was crafted by people who looked at the world as they wanted it to be, not the world as it was. Says Holbrooke: "Now there is a tremendous wedge between the neoconservatives and the rest of the national-security community."