Perhaps nothing epitomizes the state of affairs in the Republican Party today more than the estrangement of James Baker from the Republican establishment. Nothing, because for what seems like decades James Baker was the Republican establishment. White House Chief of Staff to Presidents Reagan and Bush 41, Secretary of the Treasury to the former and Secretary of State to the latter, Baker was the quintessential political insider, negotiator and diplomat, mover and shaker.
Baker's fall from grace began on a gentle slope in 2002 when he and Bush 41 National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft demurred on the wisdom of launching the second Iraq War. Baker and Scowcroft had opposed toppling Saddam at the end of the first Gulf War for fear that a civil war would ensue, and they saw the same risks in the plans of the ascendant neoconservatives who had grabbed the reigns of American foreign policy under Bush 43. As the promised dream of a brief war leading to a grateful new democratic nation deteriorated into the beginnings of a national nightmare, Baker had one last moment in the sun. In 2006, as the co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, Baker stood as a reminder of what internationalism in foreign policy was supposed to look like.
That moment, of course, was short lived. Baker endorsed bringing Syria and Iran into negotiations on regional issues to settle the hemorrhaging Iraq conflict. But realism in foreign policy had been replaced by the "revolutionary utopianism" of the neoconservative movement, as Scowcroft described it in 2005: “How do the neocons bring democracy to Iraq? You invade, you threaten and pressure, you evangelize... This was said to be part of the war on terror, but Iraq feeds terrorism.” Democracy, freedom and liberty were on the march, and the tip of the American spear would not be negotiation among adversaries, it would be regime change. Baker's worldview was outdated. It smacked of compromise, at best, of appeasement, at worst.
After a decade when he receded from public view, Baker's slide went into free fall last month when he addressed the liberal, pro-peace Jewish organization J Street. In one fell swoop, Baker ran afoul of the mainstream Jewish establishment--with whom he has had tendentious relations over the years--when he lent credibility to the anti-establishmentarian, anti-AIPAC, J Street organization, and of the leadership of the Republican Party when he criticized Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, who has become a god among men in Republican circles, and enjoys the personal protection of casino magnate and Republican Jewish mega-donor Sheldon Adelson.
It is all about Iran, of course, and about the searing hatred in Republican circles of President Obama. Netanyahu, Adelson, and at least forty-nine Republican Senators are on record opposing any deal that might emanate from the current negotiations. In the wake of Baker's J Street criticism of Netanyahu's judgment on Iran and commitment to peace in the region--comments that placed him closer to the views of the President than Congressional Republicans--Presidential aspirant Jeb Bush moved to distance himself from his father's consigliere--and the man who orchestrated his brother's victory in the Florida recount of 2000--further deepening Baker's estrangement from the party that he once owned.
This week, the National Journal reported on a GOP poll that suggests that the 2016 election could revolve as much around national security and foreign policy as the economy. In the wake of two long wars, metastasizing conflicts within the Muslim world, growing hostility between Russia and the west, and the national embarrassment of the President and forty-seven Republican Senators competing for the attention of the Ayatollahs in Tehran, a full throated debate over foreign policy is certainly long overdue. But the enthusiasm of GOP operatives for the poll and the conviction that American anxiety over national security necessarily bodes well for one party in particular may be misplaced. It may be that the estrangement of James Baker from the center of gravity of the Republican Party mirrors the widespread disillusionment of Americans with our nation's war policies, where less than 40% of Republicans and Democrats alike believe that we have achieved our objectives in the Iraq and Afghan wars.
American foreign policy has shifted profoundly since the Reagan-Bush years when Baker was at the apex of his career. The neoconservative embrace of regime change during the Bush 41 years has become central to our relationship with others in the world with whom we have disagreements. We eschew negotiations with our enemies or outcomes that reflect a balance of interests--that is to say all of those things that remain central to James Baker's worldview--in favor of overt demands for regime change. It has become central to our relationship with Vladimir Putin and with Syria's Bashir al Assad, as it is with Iran. In each case, we work assiduously to seek the downfall of a regime in power, and in each case, we presume to know that what would come next would be better should we succeed.
Yet the events of the past decade suggest that things are not that simple. There is scant evidence that what would come next in any country whose system we are determined to overthrow would necessarily be better. In Russia, as much as we disdain the naked aggression and hubris of Vladimir Putin, the chance that his downfall in the wake of steadily increasing western pressures would lead to a liberal, democratic alternative seems far less likely than the ascendency of a more chauvinistic, right wing successor, allied with the intelligence services, the military and the Russian Orthodox Church. In Syria, the rise of Sunni radicalism in the forms of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra have given credence to warnings from Russia and others--to say nothing of Syrian Christian and other minority communities that support Assad--that continuing American pressure for Assad to resign could lead to a situation that would be worse, not better.
The regional sectarian war that James Baker and Brent Scowcroft feared as an outgrowth of the first Iraq war in 1991 is now coming to be, drawing in Saudi Arabia and Iran as they foresaw. In the upcoming presidential campaign, the candidates are likely to tell us how tough they are and how they will take the fight to our adversaries. But after years of war and vitriol, Americans may wonder how it is that Richard Nixon could bring the cold war to an end and normalize relations with the Soviet Union and China, and how Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin could ink a peace treaty with Egypt, and ask why those who aspire to lead our nation seem to have lost the capacity to imagine any path to peace with our adversaries today other than through war.