Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Jim Baker's last dance

Has there been a commission that has risen to rock star status before? Certainly there have been some legendary commissions, and no doubt Arlen Specter can point to his deft presentation of the Single Bullet Theory as staff counsel to the Warren Commission as the launching point for his rise to the United States Senate. But in this era of the 24-hour news cycle, James Baker and the Iraq Study Group are riding high.

And riding for a fall.

Baker did well to time the release of his memoir––whose title touts the virtue of staying out of politics––with the President’s thumping in the mid-term elections and the imminent presentation of the Iraq Study Group recommendations to the President and Congress. Baker’s reputation has never been higher, as the wiley partisan who served in the administrations of Presidents Reagan and Bush ’41, and who led Bush ’43 to the White House through the swamp that was the 2000 election, is now seen by Democrats and Republicans alike as the Man on the White Horse who might yet bring the White House to heel and chart a new direction for America’s policy in Iraq.

While on his book tour in the weeks preceding the election, Baker offered an early glimpse into the direction that the Iraq Study Group was taking. Specifically, he suggested that the United States should bring both Syria and Iran into direct negotiations over the future of Iraq and the region, and described at length the successes he achieved as Secretary of State through determined negotiations with Syria. It is, he submitted, more important to negotiate with one’s enemies than with one’s friends.

Since the election, events have proceeded at a furious pace. First, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld––viewed as a key roadblock to any recommendations that the Iraq Study Group might present––was jettisoned by the President, and former Baker aid and Study Group member Robert Gates was nominated to be his successor. Rumsfeld’s departure was immediately heralded as a victory for Jim Baker and his circle of foreign policy Realists over the Vulcans––the coterie of Cheney, Rumsfeld and Neocons––who have held Bush ’43 in thrall and led the nation into Iraq.

Then, over the past several days, Iraq Study Group members met with the President and Congressional leaders to discuss the Group’s work and to solicit ideas. The meetings and the press conferences that followed could not have been staged to provide a more deliberate contrast to the administration’s own conduct of foreign policy, as leaders from both parties praised the commission for its openness to new ideas.

Lost in all of this excitement, however, was the President’s own notable lack of enthusiasm. Speaking before the cameras, the President would only offer that he was impressed with the membership of the Iraq Study Group––which incidentally he had approved in advance––and that they asked good questions. Perhaps a stronger statement that he was growing weary with being bullied in public by his father’s team came later, when during a meeting with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert the President called for greater international isolation of Iran.

Unless Jim Baker has lost the political instincts that have served him so well over the years, he must know that he is at risk of having overplayed his hand. Coming on the heels of a massive public rebuke at the polls, the performance of the Iraq Study Group prancing before the cameras and Baker’s own public admonishments on matters of diplomatic strategy have publicly embarrassed the President. Since the election and the dismissal of Rumsfeld, President Bush has been stripped bare by the media and presented as an errant child turning to his father to be bailed out of a terrible mess, and Jim Baker has been the lead agent of the President’s humiliation.

Baker’s challenge is to clean up the mess that he himself has made. President Bush ’41, who has remained silent throughout his son’s presidency, must by now have taken Baker to the woodshed. After all, it is not just the public humiliation that Baker has visited on his son, but the damage that Baker and his group have done to the nation’s interests. After all, success in foreign policy and diplomacy are rooted in credibility and leverage, and the events of the past two weeks have weakened the President’s hand considerably. Now, the President is being pushed into negotiations that he has demurred at the moment when his position is weakest, and the perception of weakness has been exacerbated by every action Baker has taken.

No one has provided more explicit testimony to the damage Baker has done to the President, to the nation and to his best friend’s son than Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the leader who has gained the most through the course of the Bush’s presidency. Seizing on his adversary’s weakness, Ahmadinejad announced this week that his nation is prepared to enter negotiations with the United States––as Baker has proffered––but only after the Bush administration corrects its bad attitude.

Since the outset of the Iraq war, the damage to the United States has been severe. Our military has been weakened, our treasury spent, and our credibility and moral standing in the world undermined. With the creation of the Iraq Study Group, Baker took on the challenge of fixing the mess that Iraq had become. Baker is no doubt correct in his stance on negotiations and building bi-partisanship, but he should have remembered that his job was to garner results, not accolades, and that at the end of the day his group had an audience of one. For two more years, President Bush will continue to be the arbiter of American foreign policy, and if Baker’s work does not convince him, it will be for naught.

The least Jim Baker and his Iraq Study Group could do is do no harm. But apparently, that moment is past. Unless he can pull a rabbit out of the hat––or perhaps produce the long-sought grand bargain that the Iranians proposed just three short years ago––Baker will only have book sales to show for his last foray into the public square.

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