WASHINGTON – Is Jim Baker bailing out the Bushes once again?
The former secretary of state and confidant of President George H.W. Bush visited Baghdad two weeks ago to take a look at the vexing political and military situation. James A. Baker III was there as co-chairman of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, put together by top think tanks at the behest of Congress to come up with ideas about the way forward in Iraq.
The group has attracted little attention beyond foreign policy elites since its formation earlier this year. But it is widely viewed within that small world as perhaps the last hope for a midcourse correction from a venture they generally agree has been a disaster.
The reason, by and large, is the involvement of Baker, 76, the legendary Bush family troubleshooter who remains close to the first President Bush and cordial with the second. Many think that if anyone can forge bipartisan consensus on a plan for extricating the United States from Iraq – and then successfully pitch that plan to a president who has so far seemed impervious to outside pressure – it is the man who put together the first Gulf War coalition, which evicted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf, R-Va., who came up with the idea for the study group and pushed for its formation, said he thinks the administration is “waiting anxiously” for the group’s recommendations. He cited the “impeccable credentials” of the 10-member group, which also includes former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, investment banker and Bill Clinton adviser Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and former White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta. The other co-chairman is the Democratic former Indiana congressman Lee H. Hamilton, who also co-chaired the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Baker himself is not revealing much of his hand. He has indicated that recommendations will not be forthcoming until after the November elections, an effort to keep the group above the political fray. He has also asked those involved in the study group – members and staffers alike – not to talk to the media, so most of those interviewed for this article spoke only on the condition of anonymity. Baker’s assistant said the co-chairman would not be available to be interviewed.
Baker has offered some hints of his thinking – and his dismay with the way the Iraq occupation has been handled by the administration.
“The difficulty of winning the peace was severely underestimated,” Baker wrote in a recent memoir, citing “costly mistakes” by the Pentagon. These included, he wrote, disbanding the Iraqi army, not securing weapons depots and “perhaps never having committed enough troops to successfully pacify the country.”
But in an interview in the current issue of Texas Monthly, Baker also dashed the idea of “just picking up and pulling out” of Iraq. “Even though it’s something we need to find a way out of, the worst thing in the world we could do would be to pick up our marbles and go home,” he said, “because then we will trigger, without a doubt, a huge civil war. And every one of the regional actors – the Iranians and everybody else – will come in and do their thing.”
The study group appears to be struggling to find some middle ground between such a pullout and the administration’s strategy of keeping a heavy American troop presence until the Iraqi government can maintain security on its own.
Baker and panel members have been exploring different ideas, such as a greater degree of regional autonomy for Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite regions. But those familiar with the group’s work said there is far from a consensus yet on what to do. One well-placed source said panel members came away from their trip sobered, with “a sense that we can’t continue to do what we have been doing,” adding that Baker was not simply looking to protect the administration.
Some are skeptical that the president will be open to advice seeming to come from one of his father’s top advisers. In some ways, Bush has distanced himself from the people and policies of the first Bush administration – though Baker himself has been called on occasion to perform sensitive missions, such as heading the Bush campaign’s efforts in the 2000 Florida recount and leading negotiations to provide debt relief to Iraq.
The administration’s more hawkish supporters, meanwhile, are nervous about Baker’s involvement, counting him as one of the “realist” foreign policy proponents they see as having allowed threats against the United States to grow in the ‘80s and ‘90s.