Commission Impossible?

Why some national security panels have worked better than others.

Debating the fate of the Iraq Study Group report has become, for now, Washington’s favorite parlor game. Senator John Kerry has said the report will “change the debate in this country.” Time has predicted President Bush will follow the commission's advice. But responding to earlier leaks of the report, Bush peevishly said its plan for a gradual withdrawal “has no realism to it whatsoever,” while Rep. John Murtha, a leading opponent of the war, called it “unacceptable” because it would leave U.S. troops in Iraq.

Also see:

A Turning Point
The Iraq Study Group may be remembered as the Walter Cronkite of this war. By James Fallows

Blind to Choice
Bing West comments on the military's reaction to the Iraq Study Group Report.

The Iraq Study Group
A reaction. By Robert D. Kaplan

Debating Iraq
A collection of articles and dispatches by Atlantic authors.

All of which raises an important question: when are commissions likely to induce policy change? History suggests that the success or failure of advisory panels hangs on several factors: political timing, the reputation and affiliations of commission members, whether the report is unanimous, and how much the panel lobbies for its proposals.

The federal government started employing commissions on economic and social issues as the regulatory state grew after the turn of the 20th century. National security commissions became a regular feature of the political landscape several decades later. Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed one of the first such panels to investigate the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. (In 2000 Congress revisited that panel’s report and voted to exonerate the military's top two officers in Hawaii at the time of the attack, Husband Kimmel and Walter Short.) Since 1980, the President, Congress, and Cabinet secretaries have often turned to national security panels, creating more than sixty commissions on issues such as the Iran-contra scandal, the assignment of women to combat units, and the intelligence community's post-Cold War mission.

In recent years, one of the more effective security panels was the President's Commission on Strategic Forces. Chaired by Brent Scowcroft, it helped change congressional attitudes on one of Ronald Reagan's top defense priorities: production and deployment of the MX intercontinental ballistic missile. In 1981 and 1982 the House of Representatives, under Democratic control, had refused to fund the missile's production. Reagan created the bipartisan panel because he recognized that his abrasive Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger—the Donald Rumsfeld of his day—was not doing a good sales job on Capitol Hill. The commission unsurprisingly recommended funding the MX, but it did so after consulting key House Democrats during its deliberations and tying its MX recommendation to another proposal that they favored. Six weeks after the release of the commission's unanimous report, the House joined the Republican-controlled Senate in approving MX funding. Afterwards, the New York Times called the report “the critical factor” in the vote.

Another panel created by Reagan in 1983—the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America—illustrates what can go wrong. Reagan established this commission, chaired by Henry Kissinger, to prod Congress to increase military aid to El Salvador and provide covert assistance to the contra rebels in Nicaragua. Prominent Democrats criticized it from day one, arguing that Kissinger, unlike Scowcroft, was a polarizing figure. The commission's report, released in January 1984, largely endorsed the administration's proposals on El Salvador and Nicaragua, but several commission members wrote dissenting opinions on key points. Democratic congressional leaders, who had not been consulted as closely as they had been by the Scowcroft commission, rejected the report, and Congress did not approve its principal recommendations.

Two other recent commissions show the importance of political timing. The Hart-Rudman Commission, created by the Clinton administration and chaired by the former senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, called in March 2001 for the establishment of a homeland security agency to combat the growing threat of a mass-casualty terrorist attack on American soil. The prescient report received little media attention, though, before 9/11—largely because most Americans were not worried about large-scale terrorism. The commission's impact may also have suffered from the strained relationship between Rudman, who had supported John McCain's presidential bid, and Bush administration officials.

While the Hart-Rudman Commission's timing was premature, the 9/11 Commission exerted great influence in part because its report came out in the midst of the 2004 presidential campaign. Then-candidate Kerry and other Democrats immediately called for the implementation of all of its proposals, successfully pressuring Bush to support many of them, including the call for creating a Director of National Intelligence. (After winning control of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections, the Democrats have quietly backed away from their pledge to implement the recommendations in full.) But timing wasn't the only factor that accounted for adoption of some key 9/11 Commission recommendations. Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton led the panel in a thoroughly bipartisan manner, even refusing to conduct TV interviews without the other man present. The commission also closely consulted Congress and the administration while formulating its proposals and lobbied vigorously, with help from the 9/11 families, on behalf of them.

A model for the Iraq Study Group to follow? Perhaps. But as the first government-sponsored commission to review the strategy of an ongoing military operation, the study group's recommendations may wind up as yet another casualty of war.