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Baker's Blunders By: Pavel Stroilov
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Gravely concerned with the situation in Iraq, the Bush Administration is going to play a trump card from the President's family inheritance. James A. Baker III, once Secretary of State under President Bush-senior, will personally go to Iraq and fix everything. As the New York Times informed its readers, Mr. Baker will now lead the "congressionally mandated effort to generate new ideas on Iraq", and his designation is "encouraged" by the president, the president's father, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

If human lives were not at stake, all of this would be very funny.

Vladimir Bukovsky, a former Soviet dissident and an outstanding political analyst, once suggested introducing a measurement unit of political stupidity – one Baker. An ordinary man from the street, Bukovsky explained, would be measured in Millibakers. The proposal was made at a conference in 1992, where Baker, still Secretary of State, produced a bright idea on how to prevent the former Soviet Union from spreading nuclear technology. Baker suggested to pay money, on regular basis, to all Russian physicists who knew nuclear technologies. This, Baker argued, would protect them from the temptation to sell nuclear secrets to Libya, or Iran, or Iraq, etc.


It was easy to predict several immediate consequences of this project, Bukovsky commented. First, all the Russian physicists would declare that they knew nuclear technology. Second, each of them would claim that Quadaffi had already offered him a million dollars. Third, all Russian universities would greatly increase the number of students taught nuclear physics, because now they had guaranteed employment. Fourth, all these processes would accelerate until the US Treasury was empty. And finally, none of this would do the slightest thing to prevent spread of nuclear technology.


Hardly was that scheme an outstanding example of a Baker-generated idea. Indeed, throughout his term in office, the former Secretary of State did plenty to immortalize his name in the measure unit.


People's memories are short, compared to state secretaries' lifetimes. Mr. Baker's record is quickly being forgotten. However, now that he is our greatest hope, we should recollect some of his brightest moments.




If ever Mr. Baker was able to settle the Iraqi problems, he already had enough time and power to do so. He spent about half of his time in office on Iraq. The achievements were such that today, 14 years later, we still cannot clean up the mess.


Baker is personally responsible for the appeasement of Iraq in 1989-1990, which eventually encouraged Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. In his memoirs, the former Secretary of State tries to excuse himself by the fact that this policy was inherited from the previous administration. This is hardly convincing. The Reagan Administration supported Saddam only because he fought fundamentalist Iran. Just before Baker became the Secretary of State, this justification disappeared, because Saddam made peace with Ayatollah. After that, Baker went on appeasing Iraq just for the sake of appeasement.


When Saddam started openly intimidating and blackmailing Kuwait in July, 1990, the State Department instructed all the US embassies over in the Middle East: "the United States takes no position on the substance of bilateral issues concerning Iraq and Kuwait." (quoting from James A. Baker III. The Politics of Diplomacy. G. P. Putman's Sons, New York, 1995. P. 271). The US Ambassador in Baghdad was following this very instruction during her notorious conversation with Saddam one week before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. It is widely believed that Saddam took the US neutral attitude, expressed at that meeting, for a "green light" to invade. Be this allegation true or not, it is difficult to deny that there was some miscalculation on Mr. Baker's part, which had serious consequences.


Once Saddam had started war, the US had two practicable options. They could enter the war, liberate Kuwait, capture Baghdad, destroy Saddam's regime and establish democracy in Iraq. Or they could gather a worldwide anti-Iraqi coalition and activate the UN Security Council, hoping that political and economic pressure would quickly force Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait without a single shot.


Baker vigorously advocated the latter way. President George H. W. Bush agreed with him. So, Baker saddled his aircraft and began to travel the world, enlisting countries into the coalition. It was not as easy as one might think. Many billions were spent on these newly found allies (for example, Egypt's 7-billion debt to the US was completely written off). Many political concessions were made to the Soviet Union, to China, to Syria, to France… Thus, Bush-senior and Baker promised to Russians and Europeans that they would have their say in the future settlement of Arab-Israeli conflicts. The foundations of the infamous "Quartet" were laid – that very "Quartet" which is now working to establish the terrorist Palestinian state.


Finally, in spite of this high price, the largest coalition in human history was constructed. The problem was that it did not work. They put the highest possible pressure on Iraq, but it did not produce any result. Even the armies of dozens of nations, concentrated on the Iraqi border by the end of 1990, failed to intimidate Saddam.


So, after all, the Bush Administration decided to attack. However, thanks to Baker's "coalition-building" efforts, now they had scores of allies, each of whom would present its own conditions on where to shoot and where not to shoot. The worst of these conditions was presented by France and the USSR: war objectives had to be restricted to the liberation of Kuwait; elimination of Saddam's regime was ruled out.


So, to put it mildly, Baker's coalition project had not justified itself.




Even worse is Mr. Baker's record concerning transition from totalitarianism to democracy – which is, as we all hope, the case with Iraq. Unfortunately, he administered the US foreign policy at a truly critical moment of world history – at the final, decisive stage of the Cold War. Totalitarian regimes in the East collapsed one by one, but the future of the newly free nations, and of the whole world, remained very unclear. In this situation, the responsibility of the US Secretary of State, as the highest representative abroad of the acknowledged leader of democratic world, was never greater.


The culmination point was in November 1989, when a rebellious crowd tore down the Berlin wall. The next month, Baker hurried to Berlin and urged the Germans to exercise caution and patience regarding the unification of the country. ''Moves toward unification," he said, "must be gradual, and part of a step-by-step process". In particular, he continued, "the legitimate concerns" of all the parties, including the Soviet Union, had to be respected. Then Baker outlined his megalomaniac dreams about the New World Order, where united Europe lived in friendship both with the USA and USSR, and about the "step-by-step process" leading to this idyll. It would include construction of some fantastic political structures spreading East from Vancouver to Vladivostok (the description which Baker coined soon after that Berlin speech). "And as these changes proceed," Baker concluded, "as they overcome the division of Europe, so too will the divisions of Germany and Berlin be overcome in peace and freedom."


Naturally, – and thankfully, – Germans did exactly the opposite. They united immediately, regardless of European integration and all the "legitimate concerns". And they were right. But what could be the Secretary of State’s reason for making such a strange and insulting speech?


Mr. Baker simply backed the wrong horse. He supported comrade Gorbachev, the Soviet General Secretary, in his hopeless attempts to save socialism, the Soviet Union and the Eastern Block by moderate reforms. The reason for this support, as State Department officials explained to the journalists, was that "the Soviet Union went over to the other side, from oppression and dictatorship to democracy and change". Hence, anyone more radical than Gorbachev was considered as a dangerous extremist.

The State Department's unconditional support of Gorbachev went far beyond the German question.


The United States had never recognized the 1940 Soviet annexation of the Baltic countries – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. In 1990, public pressure forced Gorbachev to allow free elections in these states. The newly elected Lithuanian parliament, immediately and unanimously, re-declared Lithuania's independence from the USSR. And what was the US reaction?


The author of these lines was lucky to see and copy confidential transcripts of numerous meetings between Gorbachev and Baker in 1989-1991. One of them took place on 18 May, 1990, i. e. just a week after the Lithuanian Declaration of Independence was passed.


J. BAKER. […] We tried to influence the Lithuanians so that they take a more moderate position. We are urging our allies to do the same. […] I will have to see [Lithuanian PM Kazimiera] Prunskiene today. I simply cannot refuse to do that, because the president has already received her in the White House. I am going to tell her the same as we told them through other channels: they must freeze the declaration of independence, go to Moscow and start a dialogue.


Gorbachev was surely encouraged by the knowledge that, in his conflict with Lithuania, the US Secretary of State was acting behind the scene on his side. He became so self-confident that several months later he sent the Soviet Army to Lithuania. In January 1991, his troops tried to capture the key buildings in Vilnus and killed dozens of anti-communist demonstrators. Subsequently, Gorbachev toughened his policies in other fields, and began almost open preparations to introduce martial law in the USSR.


In March 1991, Baker and Gorbachev met again.


J. BAKER. […] For the last two years, President Bush and I most actively support your policies and you personally. We want you to achieve success. We want it as much as you do, and maybe even more than you do.


M. S. GORBACHEV. Well, this is hardly possible.


J. BAKER. You are probably right. I shall correct myself: We very, very much want you to achieve success. […] There are frequent claims now, in the media and otherwise, that President Gorbachev's policies have changed. […] But we have no doubt that the commitment to reforms is preserved in your soul. We want to believe that the corrections which you have recently introduced into your policy are designed only to provide the success of the reforms and democratization. […] We want to believe in that, and we do believe in that.


M. S. GORBACHEV. Do you want, or do you believe?


J. BAKER. Both.


In general, these and other Gorbachev-Baker conversations remind me of a British joke about a guy lost at Whitehall.


"Excuse me," he asks a stranger, "on which side is the Foreign Office?"


"Oh," the man replies, "I hope, on ours."

Judging by the archival transcripts, State Department under Baker was squarely on the Soviet side.


J. BAKER. […] If, in the course of the events, you have an impression that the United States are doing something undesirable, don't hesitate to call us and tell about that.


Fortunately, nothing on Earth, not even Baker's extraordinary brainpower, could save the Evil Empire. The question was what would replace it. The West's one-Baker-worth policies ensured the worst possible scenario: "soft landing" of the totalitarian regimes. Aid and comfort from Baker and his colleagues allowed the communists to retreat in an organized order, on their own conditions, and to adapt quickly to the new realities. The consequences can still be seen all over Europe, where KGB lieutenant-colonels rule Russia, ex-Bolshevik party wins elections in Hungary, and former communist apparatchiks are accepted as equal partners in administering the European Union.




Today, it looks like Baker has been invited to work out a similar policy towards Iraq. He will teach the Administration how to preserve the remaining Baathist structures, how to embrace "moderate" terrorists, and how to ensure nuclear non-proliferation at last. He will envision beautiful pictures of a peaceful and integrated Middle East community from Gibraltar to Singapore. He will find the most convenient excuses to make as many concessions as possible, carefully avoiding dangerous victories. To people like Baker, victory means mere instability. It is much safer to capitulate.


This time, his mission is not easy. Perhaps, it is already too late to reverse the American success in Iraq. On the other hand, snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory is exactly Baker's area of expertise.


The problem is not so much Baker himself, but the message which his designation inevitably sends to the world. His "study group" has not produced a single word of recommendation yet. But the monstrous machinery of defeatist propaganda is already celebrating: the US have lost the war in Iraq! Look, all of you, they are preparing to surrender! Apparently, there is simply no other association which Baker's name may cause.


Thus, The New York Times hurried to draw a dubious parallel between Baker's appointment and one of the infamous episodes of Vietnam War history. "The analogy is far from perfect," the paper admits, "but Republicans and Democrats are seeing parallels…" This is seconded by a Boston Globe editorial which, after commenting on President Bush's Iraqi policy – from 2003 to date – in rudest possible terms, concludes cheerfully:


A bipartisan congressional task force… headed by… James Baker, may at last give Bush a face-saving way of coming to terms with reality in Iraq. Before the war, Baker openly warned against the dangers of a unilateral invasion of Iraq and an extended occupation of the country. He is the embodiment of old-school foreign policy realism… It is time for Bush to listen to the grown-ups.


Of course, we are used to such arrogant criticism. The problem is that, if Baker's advice is required now, capitulators have real reasons to celebrate. And we, on the contrary, have plenty of reason to be worried. For both they and we already know what Baker will recommend.


Indeed, the White House may still regard him as a respectable statesman and diplomat, but his reputation around the world is different. He is known as a professional appeaser, as best friend of our tyrants and symbol of hopelessness for democracy. We, Russians, were relatively lucky: Baker's friends in our country had little time, they only managed to kill a few dozen innocent people. But the Iraqis still remember thousands of their countrymen who, following the passionate appeal of President Bush-senior in 1991, rose against their hangmen to support the American liberation forces. They still remember how, abandoned by "liberators", the desperate rebels were ran over by the tanks of the Republican Guard; how the survivors were tied to the tanks as a human shield; how Saddam's troops, dishonored by the recent defeat into boundless ruthlessness, drove thousands of rebels to seek refuge in the mountains; and how the few remaining survivors starved to death there. Such events are not easily forgotten, nor are the people who were responsible. Undoubtedly, the Iraqis will understand Baker's present mission clearly to the point of despair.

A pity. In the earlier days of Bush-junior, we hoped it was no longer relevant to measure US foreign policy in Bakers and Millibakers. Now it looks like we were wrong. Like father like son?

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Pavel Stroilov is a Russian exile in London and the editor and translator of Alexander Litvinenko’s book, Allegations.

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