For the many foreign policy experts who have reached an advanced state of despair over the ever-plunging image and influence of the United States after nearly six years of the presidency of George W. Bush, the name James Baker III has an almost talismanic quality.
“Maybe if Bush asks Baker to .” has become an increasingly common-and hopeful-preamble among the policy elite to sentences about whatever crisis dominates the news that week, be it Iraq, Iran, Syria, the Middle East generally, or, most recently, North Korea.
The assumption behind such musings is always that the former secretary of state-who, unlike other top members of the Bush administration, notably former National Security Adviser Gen. Brent Scowcroft, has been very careful not to publicly criticize the younger Bush-is virtually the only person with the stature and diplomatic finesse to rescue crisis situations that have only gone from bad to worse.
What role Baker might play is a matter of much hopeful cross-spectrum speculation in the United States, ranging from traditional Republican conservatives, such as Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NB), to liberal internationalist Democrats, such as former President Jimmy Carter, who called on October 11 for Bush to appoint Baker as special envoy to North Korea.
The fact that some hardline neoconservatives close to Vice President Dick Cheney see in Baker’s sudden prominence a harbinger of “active appeasement” of U.S. foes in the Middle East by the administration suggests that the speculation may be more than mere wishful thinking.
Indeed, these days Baker is being portrayed as a kind of messiah whose pragmatic and classically “realist” approach to foreign policy offers the only available antidote to the grim Manichaeism of administration hawks led by Cheney. Despite having lost his dominant influence over policy-making in the last two years or so, Cheney retains enough clout with the president to effectively stymie efforts by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to pursue a more flexible diplomacy, especially in regard to perceived U.S. foes.
It was Cheney who, in reaction to State Department suggestions three years ago that Washington pursue direct talks with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program, reportedly told his National Security Council colleagues, “We don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it”-a phrase that, in light of Pyongyang’s recent nuclear test, is unlikely to reassure anyone in Northeast Asia today.
Cheney’s proscription against direct negotiations with “evil” has, of course, been applied not only to North Korea, but to several other entities, as well.
Thus, Washington, even despite quiet requests by Israel during its summer conflict with Hezbollah, has refused to talk with Syria since Damascus was implicated in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Washington also spurned an unprecedented 2003 offer from Iran for sweeping and unconditional negotiations and has repeatedly rebuffed various approaches by Tehran since. And it has rejected all contact with the democratically elected Hamas government in the Palestinian territories.
Contrast that attitude to Baker’s, who in a much-quoted recent ABC News interview declared flatly, “I believe in talking to your enemies. I don’t think you restrict your conversations to your friends . [I]n my view, it’s not appeasement to talk to your enemies.”
Lest anyone misunderstand, Baker went on to note that he made 15 trips to Damascus to secure its participation in the U.S.-led Gulf War and in subsequent negotiations in 1991, despite the fact that at the time Syria was on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Baker’s new prominence is a result of his selection last spring to serve as co-chairman, along with former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, of a bipartisan, congressionally appointed “Iraq Study Group” (ISG), which plans to submit specific policy recommendations to Congress some time between the November midterm elections and next spring.
It will also hand over its report to the White House, which after some hesitation endorsed the ISG’s creation. Baker has said he would not have agreed to chair the group without first gaining Bush’s approval.
Baker, who served as White House chief of staff and treasury secretary under former president Ronald Reagan, has been on a national tour to promote his memoir, Work Hard, Study . And Keep Out of Politics. The tour has featured appearances on national television programs, including Comedy Central’s popular “Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” in which he has spoken out with unusual candor.
In his ABC interview, for example, he said he expected the ISG to conclude that “stay[ing] the course” in Iraq, as advocated by Bush, was not a viable option, and that Washington should enter into direct talks with North Korea (although, in the wake of Monday’s test, he has backed off that position), Syria, and Iran.
Indeed, as co-chair of the ISG, Baker met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem in New York City on September 20 and with a “high representative” of the Iranian government within the last two weeks, according to his Houston law office, which declined to provide further details.
Those meetings, which were cleared by the White House, would naturally be relevant to the ISG’s specific mandate to devise a bipartisan strategy on Iraq. Baker and ISG members, on whom Baker has imposed a strict gag order, have also met with senior envoys from Iraq’s other neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, and Kuwait, with which Washington has close relations.
Nonetheless, the meetings with the Iranian and Syrian officials raise the question of whether Baker was authorized to raise additional issues on his own that went beyond the ISG’s mandate and that may have been of interest to the administration. Asked about that possibility at an ISG press briefing in September, Baker said he would not comment. But the fact that Baker has felt increasingly free to make public remarks that are at least implicitly critical of the administration’s policies, particularly its refusal to engage directly with its “enemies,” suggests a certain confidence in his position.
In a front-page article about the ISG last week, the New York Times reported that Baker “has been talking to President Bush and his national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, on a regular basis.”
“Baker is no fool,” wrote hardline neoconservative Michael Ledeen in a recent article for the National Review Online. He suggested that Baker’s maneuvering is part of a State Department scheme to “engage” the Iranians, in particular. “He would not be making such statements . unless he were confident of consensus.”
Baker, who has served the Bush family as its chief consigliere since the 1970s and headed the legal team that successfully defeated Democratic challenges to the younger Bush’s presidential victory in Florida in the 2000 election, has held only one other official position under the administration. From late 2003 through 2004, he negotiated substantial reductions in Iraq’s foreign debt on behalf of the White House. It remains an open question, however, whether Baker’s current efforts can salvage the severely tarnished Bush record-or stem the growing debacle in the Middle East.
Jim Lobe is a contributor to Right Web (rightweb.irc-online.org) and the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service.