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Baker's Choice

James Baker Returns

These days, the diplomatic energy spent on Iraq isn't coming from Foggy Bottom or the Pentagon, but from an office building near Dupont Circle, where the 76-year-old Baker and nine other Washington establishmentarians have spent the last eight months working on Iraq policy options to be presented sometime before February. Technically, Baker is merely the co-chairman of the commission, which is officially known as the Iraq Study Group. (TheDemocratic co-chairman is Lee Hamilton.) But there's a reason almost everyone calls it "the Baker Commission." With little fanfare, Baker has become America's shadow secretary of state, boasting an Iraq portfolio broader than that of anyone actually serving in the administration.

If the war in Iraq sometimes seems like the tragic consequence ofthe psychodrama starring Bush 41 and Bush 43, Baker's imminent return to center stage will move the plot along nicely. Ever since 1970, when the 40-year-old Baker abandoned his Democratic Party registration and signed on to help manage the (losing) Senate campaign of the elder Bush, Baker's life has been deeply entwined with those of the Bushes--a fact that is already raising suspicions about his commission's looming proposals.

On the left, the conventional wisdom about Baker's return is that the Bush family loyalist will craft his recommendations to provide a face-saving cover for Bush's own modest course corrections in Iraq. On the right, Baker's ascent is eyed warily as an ideological rebuke to the neocons from the realist foreign policy establishment they sought to over throw. But loyalty and ideology are only part of the Baker DNA. What he really craves is respect. The Bushes set Baker on his path to power, helping him become White House chief of staff, secretary of the Treasury, and secretary of state; but they have, at other times, undercut Baker's vainglorious self image by dragging him into what he regarded as gutter-level political assignments--most recently, during the 2000 Florida recount, in which he successfully managed Bush's victory.

Those who know Baker insist that his vanity will ultimately triumph. "What's important about the psychology of James Baker is that he wants to be remembered as a statesman, not a political hack," says a former aide who worked closely with Baker for several years. "That's why the Iraq Study Group is perfect for him. He does not want the first line written about him in his obituary to be, 'James Baker, the man who delivered the contested election to GeorgeW. Bush.'" If the Bush 41- Bush 43 psychodrama got us into Iraq, it may be the Bush- Baker psychodrama that gets us out.

ONE MISTAKE OBSERVERS often make regarding Baker is the assumption that all Bush family loyalists are the same. The archetype is Andy Card, who not only recognized his role as hired help but reveled in it. Baker never fit that mold. He has always had a peer-to-peer relationship with the elder Bush. He once returned some presidential ribbing from Poppy with a "two-syllable, down-home expletive," according to the Times. "The way I've always thought of them is as brothers," says the former Baker aide. "They've known each other for a long time. The way they bonded was over the loss of Baker's first wife"--who died of cancer in 1970--"but they're also like brothers in that they fight like hell. They are close but also capable of not liking each other."

The recurring drama of Baker's government career was his effort to carve out an identity as a respected statesman rather than merely apolitical fixer. Baker once told The Washington Post that his work rounding up Republican delegates for Gerald Ford in 1976 was "demeaning." He once told the Times that he disliked traveling with Bush senior because he felt like "the goddamn butler. "

After serving as Ronald Reagan's chief of staff during his first term and managing the reelection campaign that earned him a second, Baker was rewarded in 1985 with the post of Treasury secretary, where he earned plaudits for helping negotiate the international monetary agreement known as the Plaza Accord, as well as the 1986 tax-reform package. But, in 1988, Bush lassoed the reluctant Baker from his comfortable perch and placed him in charge of running his faltering presidential campaign. James Baker, statesman, reverted to James Baker, hack, running a campaign that became infamous for its slash-and-burn viciousness. "Do you think I enjoyed leaving the office of secretary of Treasury, being fifth in line to the presidency, to come over here to be called a handler?" Baker once snapped to a Boston Globe reporter visiting his dingy campaign headquarters after the move.

After helping Bush win, he was again handsomely compensated, this time with the post of secretary of state, where he spent a consequential four years managing the end of the cold war, the reunification of Germany, and the Gulf war. But, as he traveled the world in 1992 basking in the diplomatic glow that followed success in Iraq, his boss' reelection campaign was fizzling. The inevitable call from Bush came that summer. Baker again resisted, but Bush again wore him down. The secretary of state gritted his teeth and decamped to the White House to try to jump start the Bushpresidency. His reluctance to descend from the heights of Foggy Bottom, perhaps costing Bush the race, would earn him the scorn of George W. Bush.

If Baker had an inflated view of himself vis-a-vis Bush 41--"Every morning, Jim Baker looks in the mirror and says, 'You're better looking than George Bush. You're smarter. Why aren't you president?'" a Republican consultant told The New Republic in 1992--one can only imagine his view of 43. Actually, a flip through Baker's new memoir, Work Hard, Study ... and Keep Out of Politics!, gives a pretty clear indication. There's George W. Bush on page 10, remembered as an "office boy" at Baker's Texas law firm. Later,while Baker negotiates the 1981 budget deal with a Democratic House member from Texas, there's a drive-by reference to Bush as the guy whom the congressman had beaten to win reelection. Bush pops up again in 1988 as "the ever-playful presidential son." At another point, Baker confides, "I always liked him, but I wouldn't have taken a bet in the late '50s or early '60s that he might ever be a governor, much less a candidate for president."

The younger Bush, for his part, famously froze Baker out of his own presidential campaign. "When George W. started preparing for his possible presidential run, a steady stream of policy advisers, political consultants, and GOP heavyweights began flowing into Austin to test his intentions and offer advice and help," Baker writes. "I was not among them, and that was okay with me." (One might be forgiven for believing the inclusion of this passage suggests that it wasn't so okay, after all.)

And, when Bush finally did call Baker, it wasn't to ask for his views on foreign policy. Rather, Baker was brought in to handle the messy, divisive Florida recount, an assignment he seems to have had mixed feelings about taking. "Florida was not the Middle East and fighting over vote recounts was not a high-level diplomatic mission, but in my view helping to preserve the integrity of a presidential election was plenty important," Baker writes, a tad defensively. "My aura as a statesman would just have to take its chances." In typical Baker fashion, he tried to find a balance between statesman and hack, partly by limiting his presence on television. "I didn't want to go out there every day as some sortof hired-gun pol, despite what some of the Bush-Cheney advisers in Austin might have wanted," he writes, taking an idle slap at the Bush team.

Baker seems almost haunted by his role in Florida. At every turn in his retelling of the Florida recount, he comes back to what seems to him to be the most pressing historical question of those five weeks in 2000: Did he sully himself? "I'm sometimes asked," he writes, "if I think I tarnished my reputation by going into the trenches of the Florida election dispute." Not that he thinks he did, mind you. All he's saying is that sometimes people ask.

Baker has taken on a handful of diplomatic missions in the last six years-- Iraqi debt relief, some thorny negotiations over democratic reforms in Tbilisi-- but nothing that enhances his aura as as tatesman nearly as much as his current assignment could. As usual, he is sensitive to the charge that his work is political rather than substantive. "Everybody knows how close I am to the family," he said recently, perhaps sending a warning to the White House." But if they think that I'm going to somehow pre-cook a deal here or something, they're absolutely wrong." As for Bush, he hardly gushes with praise for Baker. "I like him," the president told agroup of conservative writers recently. "Listen, the guy is a skilled guy. He is a very, very confident person, as you know." Not exactly criticism, but not quite a compliment either, given that the attribute that Bush admires in his staff is humility, not confidence.

Among the experts on the advisory groups of the commission, Baker is a Sphinx-like figure. "During Baker's recent media blitz," says one of the Iraq Study Group advisers, speaking of Baker's book tour, "I heard him talk more in his interviews than in any of our meetings. And say more." Baker has shrouded the panel's operations in secrecy. At first, he and Hamilton demanded that all members of the working groups refrain from any public comments about Iraq while working for the commission, an idea that was nixed only when they realized it would cripple public debate about the war for a year. Instead, the experts agreed not to discuss the commission's internal deliberations, a ban that was effective until this fall,when someone leaked to The New York Sun the policy options Baker and his team were considering. The commissioners responded to the leak with what one adviser calls "a blackout. All meetings were canceled. We were absolutely closed off from the commission members."

The expert working groups themselves are civil but balkanized."What's been frustrating about the experts who have been advising us," says a commission staffer, "is the endless foreign-community pissing matches--with each other and in the press. All these leaks are coming from them. There is so much bitterness, neocons versus realists. It's unbelievable."

But the advisory panels are not really the ones driving the process. Baker and his fellow commissioners are. The most common criticism from the experts is not that Baker is steering the discussions to benefit Bush or trying to discredit the neocons, but that his goal of generating consensus recommendations among the commission's Republicans (Robert Gates, Edwin Meese, Sandra Day O'Connor, and Alan Simpson) and Democrats (Hamilton, Vernon Jordan, Leon Panetta, William Perry, and Chuck Robb) will lead to paralysis. "This isn't a non-partisan group, it's a bipartisan group," says one of the advisers. "They are looking for a broadly politically acceptable way to advance America's interests. They are not looking for the most creative way."

Publicly, Baker has already tipped his hand about what he thinks the proper course is. He has ruled out Democratic Senator Joe Biden's plan for three autonomous regions, arguing that it would exacerbate divisions and move the country closer to all-out civil war; he has also come out against an immediate withdrawal of troops. At the same time, he has repeatedly criticized the "stay the course"option associated with Bush. What's left are probably two options more associated with the center-left foreign policy establishment. The first is a modified version of the withdrawal plan proposed by the Center for American Progress's Lawrence Korb, which the Baker Commission refers to as "Re deploy and Contain." Troops would bemoved into neighboring countries, where they would only be used for quick strikes against terrorists in Iraq, and the administration would concentrate on international diplomacy, including talks withIran and Syria, to solve Iraq's political problems. The other option leaked is "Stability First," a cousin of the plan proposed by Kenneth Pollack at the Brookings Institution. It would focus the lion's share of U.S. troops on stabilizing Baghdad and turning itinto a model for the rest of Iraq, a move that would, the thinking goes, start to change perceptions about the occupation and smooth the path toward national reconciliation and an oil-sharing agreement.

According to commission staffers, the few neocons advising the panel argue internally about the global repercussions of losing the war, but they are hobbled because they have no specific plan they are pushing. They are most concerned about Baker's interest in opening dialogue with Syria and Iran and the possibility that the commission will recommend an emergency government--i.e., a strongman--that would spell the end of democracy in Iraq. Baker himself has spoken about a "representative" government, rather than a "democratic" one. But one of the commission's advisers says that Baker "doesn't necessarily want to abandon democracy. [He] was skeptical that forgoing democracy would make our lives any easier or enhance the prospects of stability."

Almost everyone I interviewed agreed that the midterm elections will move the debate left, not right. "What happens in the election is absolutely going to have bearing on what the final recommendations are," says one commission adviser, echoing comments from several others. A big Democratic victory would increase Baker's leverage with Bush regarding how to proceed in Iraq.

Baker has declined previous entreaties to join the Bush administration, but, ironically, in his current role he is shaping up to be more influential than anyone in the Cabinet. Still, some of Baker's admirers think he may eventually require a title upgrade. "If the Baker commission recommends a fairly far- reaching strategy of new regional talks and new diplomacy and links it to other issues in the Middle East, I personally think that Bush is going to need a new person to execute that strategy," says one of the commission's expert advisers. "And I can't think of anyone better than Baker." The shadow secretary, in other words, may soon be out of the shadows.