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James Baker's Second Act? By: Jacob Laksin
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, October 10, 2006

It’s not everyday a sitting president implements his opponents' foreign policy, but that may yet occur in the second Bush term.

One of the more incendiary revelations in Bob Woodward’s new book, State of Denial, concerns the efforts of erstwhile White House Chief of Staff Andy Card to evict Donald Rumsfeld from the Pentagon in favor of former Secretary of State James A. Baker III. On two different occasions, Woodward reports, Card appealed to the president to have Rumsfeld fired.


In the event, the president stood by his secretary of defense. But worrying signs suggest that Baker – a leading exponent of the realpolitik view, thoroughly discredited in the post-9/11 world, that the price of international stability is the appeasement of Middle Eastern dictators – may have won the larger battle to determine the course of American foreign policy.


That’s one interpretation to be drawn from the Bush administration’s growing overtures to Baker and his Iraq Study Group (ISG), an informal collective of independent researchers created by Congress last March to assess the political situation in Iraq and draft a report of their findings, slated for release in the next two months. Following a meeting with the ISG this June, for instance, President Bush profusely thanked the group for finding a “way forward in Iraq” and identifying the “proper strategies and tactics to achieve success.”


But it is far from certain that “success” is what the ISG has in mind for Iraq. The ISG has been billed as “bipartisan,” and it is, in a superficial sense. It is co-chaired by Baker, a Republican who has served under Presidents Ford, Reagan, and the first President Bush; and Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic Congressman from Indiana. However, the ISG’s membership comprises mostly opponents of the Iraq war: Clifford May, the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies; Reuel Marc Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute; and Hillel Fradkin of the Hudson Institute are the exceptions that prove the rule. The ISG’s associated think tanks, such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Baker’s own James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, are identified with the same “realist” school that has frowned upon military action against the Middle East’s entrenched powers.


Small wonder that both Baker and the ISG have drawn favorable notices from Bush administration critics. Sen. John Kerry, during his presidential run, briefly entertained the idea of making Baker his Middle East envoy. (Kerry’s other choice was the hapless Jimmy Carter.) Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the reliably pro-Democrat Center for American Progress, is another Baker enthusiast. Pointing to the outsize role that Baker reportedly plays within the group, Korb, in an interview last month with the liberal Washington Monthly, expressed his hope that Baker could convince the Bush administration of the supposed wrong-headedness of its Iraq policy. “If anyone can do it, Baker can,” Korb gushed, adding that Baker had “wherewithal to talk to the president” and explain that “the present course is unsustainable.”


In seeing Baker as a potential ally against the Bush administration’s muscular foreign policy, Korb’s confidence is not misplaced. A wealth of historical evidence argues that Baker would betray the larger aim of the Bush Doctrine – spurring eventual reform in the Middle East’s dangerously backward political culture – in order to court the very dictatorships, from Tehran to Damascus, whose systematic oppression is one cause of the anti-American attitudes exploited to such murderous effect by the preachers of fanatical Islam.


Baker’s role in the first Gulf War is illustrative. As an advisor and Secretary of State under President Bush père, Baker played a key role in preventing a decisive end to Saddam Hussein’s provocations. Prior to the war, Baker had leaned on the Likud government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to defy public pressure and desist from retaliating against Iraq’s relentless barrage of missiles.


Baker’s reasoning was simple: By acting in its own defense, Israel would risk fracturing the Arab coalition that Baker was mobilizing in support of U.S. military campaign to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. It was also shortsighted: Baker’s coalition of Arab states refused to support any military action into Iraqi territory, leaving Saddam Hussein in power and setting the stage for the inevitable confrontation between the U.S. and Iraq in 2003. U.S. General Henry Shelton, later the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Clinton, spoke for many in the military community when he said at the time that “we left the job half-done.” Israel, meanwhile, was forced to stand idly by as Iraqi SCUD missiles – some 42 in total – rained down on the Jewish state throughout the war. Saddam went on to pay a $25,000 bounty to Palestinian suicide bombers.


For uncomplicated reasons, Baker has always favored a more charitable assessment of his contributions to the first Gulf War. In particular, he points to his 15 trips to Damascus to win Syria’s support for U.S. military action. Forgotten is just how far he went to flatter the regime of Hafez Assad regime in order to secure its blessing. Stating that Syria “happens to share the same goals as we do,” Baker announced in 1991 that its well-documented ties to terrorism were, after all, unfounded. Speaking at a press conference with Syria’s foreign minister, Baker claimed that Syria had no place on the State Department’s list of states that sponsor terrorism. “We believe that, so far, Syria was put on the list without any justification,“ Baker said. Indeed, in Baker‘s judgment, connections between Syria and terrorism were “meant for political objectives rather than analyzing an objective situation.”


Notwithstanding Baker’s willful blindness, Syria at the time was a leading sponsor of both the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The latter group, then widely suspected of involvement in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103, received both military and financial support from the Syrian government and the leader of the terrorist group’s general command, Ahmed Jabril, openly operated from Damascus. (Despite Baker’s revisionism, Syria remained on the U.S. list of terrorism-sponsoring states.) For its part, the Assad regime, taking advantage of Baker’s blandishments, used the Gulf War to tighten its grip on Lebanon.


Baker’s vaunted diplomacy yielded few practical benefits. But, as author Rick Atkinson noted in Crusade, his detailed account of the Gulf War, the costs, especially to the cause of democratic reform, were terrible:


Bush and Baker cajoled, pleaded and offered sundry compensations to weave together their alliance: Egypt was forgiven its $7 billion debt to the U.S. treasury; Turkey got textile trade concessions; China was again pardoned for suppressing dissident democrats in Tiananmen Square; Syria received absolution for many of the same sins of which Saddam now stood accused, including state-supported terrorism.


In stark contrast to his groveling outreach to assorted dictators was Baker’s approach to Israel and her Jewish supporters. Beyond opposing any Israeli retaliation against Iraq, Baker repeatedly blamed the government of Yitzhak Shamir, rather than intransigence of the Arab world, for the absence of a negotiated settlement. Appearing before the House Foreign Affairs committee in June 1990, Baker listed the phone number of the White House’s switchboard and angrily retorted, in reference to Israel, “When you are serious about peace, call us!” Baker also denounced Israel’s refusal to deal with alleged Palestinian “moderates,” stating, “with such an approach there would never be a dialogue on peace.” Heedless of the political realities, Baker organized a conference on the Arab-Israeli conflict in July of 1991, citing the participation of Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia as evidence that the Arab world truly desired peace – this even as the Palestinians, with the vocal approval of neighboring Arab states, escalated their intifada to unprecedented levels of violence.


When his attempt to forge a peace settlement failed, Baker turned not only on Israel, but also her Jewish supporters in the United States, many of whom had grown resentful of Baker’s discernible bias against the Jewish State. This prompted Baker’s notorious eruption about Jewish voters: while discussing Israel, Baker reportedly told a friend, “Fuck the Jews, they don’t vote for us anyway.” As a psephological matter, Baker was correct – all the more so when Jewish voters punished the Bush administration by registering the lowest support for a Republican candidate since Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964.


What makes Baker’s growing intimacy with the Bush administration especially troubling is that he has reconsidered none of his views about international relations. In recent interviews, Baker has made a point of criticizing what he deems the Bush administration’s insufficient eagerness for engaging countries like Iran and Syria. “I don't think you restrict your conversations to your friends," Baker has said, explaining, “in my view it is not appeasement to talk to your enemies.” During an appearance on ABC's “This Week,” Baker suggested his 15 trips to Damascus while Secretary of State as a model for the Bush administration, and he has already met with representatives the Syrian government and Iranian ambassador to discuss the future of Iraq. This has reinforced early speculation that the Iraq Study Group’s report, so far from proposing genuinely new solutions to the Middle East, will recommend the old “realist” tack of holding direct talks with America’s declared enemies.


Regarded against this background, reports that Baker regularly consults with President Bush about “policy and personnel” and meets with his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, take on an added significance. It’s too early to tell whether the Nixon-Kissinger era of détente is newly ascendant in Washington, but with the war in Iraq going poorly and the polls routinely unkind, the temptation to recant the sound principles of the War on Terror and forge a separate peace with terrorists and their state sponsors may seem seductive.


By backing Rumsfeld, President Bush has shown his willingness to defy the prescriptions of the James Baker wing of the Republican Party. Now, as the pressure mounts to accept Baker’s “sensible” advice, one can only hope that the president is as stubborn as his detractors claim.

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Jacob Laksin is managing editor of Front Page Magazine. His email is jlaksin -at- gmail.com

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