James Baker’s last mission

Political insiders are buzzing with the question: will Mark Foley, the disgraced lawmaker, cost Republicans control of Congress? But Washingtonians with a longer view are asking a different question: Can James A. Baker III, the distinguished statesman, save George Bush’s presidency?

Baker is co-chairman of a bipartisan commission that is expected to recommend, after the election, significant changes in current Iraq policy. That report could represent the president’s last, best chance for a decent exit strategy. But does Bush want one?

At the moment, he seems more convinced than ever that his course is correct. As Bob Woodward reports in his new book, “State of Denial,” the president insists, “I will not withdraw even if Laura and Barney are the only ones supporting me.” Given the current desertion rate, Bush’s wife and dog might soon be the last loyalists left.

A key Senate Republican, John Warner, recently proclaimed that the American mission was “drifting sideways” in Iraq. If the escalating violence is not controlled within two or three months, he said, the White House has to ask: “Is there a change of course we should take?” Former Secretary of State Colin Powell weighed in: “Stay the course isn’t a good enough answer, because to stay the course you have to have a finish line.”

Sen. Susan Collins, the Republican chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, was equally blunt: “We’ve heard over and over that as Iraqis stand up, our troops will stand down. Well, there are now hundreds of thousands of Iraqi troops and security forces, and yet we have not seen any reduction in violence.”

The public is even more disenchanted. In the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, 63 percent say the war was not worth fighting – the highest number ever. Barely half share the president’s view that Iraq is central to the struggle against terrorism – the lowest number ever. Two out of three disapprove of the president’s handling of the invasion.

In the face of this disaster – on the ground and in the public’s mind – someone has to tell the president the truth, and James Baker was made for the role. A Bush family loyalist his whole career, he served George the Elder as secretary of state, and then, after the 2000 election, captained the legal team that made George the Younger president.

The Iraq Study group (which Baker co-chairs with Democrat Lee Hamilton) is a strange animal, created by Congress and a bunch of think tanks. Its recommendations would probably disappear on a dusty shelf except for one thing: the widespread belief that Baker is acting with the blessing of his old friend, Bush 41.

There’s a long and complex history here. Bush the Elder refuses to criticize his son in public, but after the first Persian Gulf War, he made clear his view that invading Iraq was a dreadful idea. Baker shares that opinion, and wrote recently that deposing Saddam Hussein after the 1991 conflict would have triggered a civil war and left the United States confronting “a military occupation of indefinite duration.”

Bush the Younger obviously didn’t listen to these prescient warnings. Instead he picked a defense secretary, Don Rumsfeld, who his father deeply distrusted, and made invading Iraq the keystone of his presidency.

So Baker is already on thin ice with Bush 43, and it’s not clear what advice he can offer. He said on ABC’s This Week that he’s looking for a middle ground between the current polarizing alternatives, “stay the course and cut and run.” But what would that be?

The Wise Man has ruled out a rapid withdrawal of American troops, fearing that outside powers would quickly fill the vacuum. He worries that dividing Iraq into a loose federation, with Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis each governing their own territory, could lead to civil war.

Baker did offer a glimpse into his thinking when he told ABC: “I believe in talking to your enemies.” One option: a regional plan that involves a phased draw down of American troops with Syria and Iran acting as guarantors of regional borders and security. Perhaps his model is the famous suggestion of Sen. George Aiken during Vietnam: say we won and go home.

His main aim, Baker says, is “to take this thing out of politics,” by producing recommendations that all members of the study group, Democrats and Republicans alike, can support. Then Baker can go to the president and say, “We all agree, this is the way out”. But will the president listen?

Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2006, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.

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