Called From Diplomatic Reserve

Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, left, talks with former secretary of state James A. Baker III in August during a visit of the Iraq Study Group. The panel is seen as a glimmer of hope for U.S. Iraq policy.
Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, left, talks with former secretary of state James A. Baker III in August during a visit of the Iraq Study Group. The panel is seen as a glimmer of hope for U.S. Iraq policy. (By Daniel Berehulak -- Getty Images)
By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 17, 2006

Is Jim Baker bailing out the Bushes once again?

The former secretary of state, James A. Baker III, a confidant of President George H.W. Bush, visited Baghdad two weeks ago to take a look at the vexing political and military situation. He 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 this year. But it is widely viewed within that small world as perhaps the last hope for a midcourse correction in a venture they generally agree has been a disaster.

The reason, by and large, is the involvement of Baker, 76, the legendary troubleshooter who remains close to the first President Bush and cordial with the second. Many policy experts 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.

"Their recommendations will carry a lot of weight," said Wolf. "If they come up with a unanimous opinion, the administration, Congress and the American people will have to listen."

Baker is not revealing much of his hand. He has indicated that recommendations will not be forthcoming until after the November elections, in 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 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.

"If this war is consumed by partisan attacks, if the choice is presented as simply one between 'stay the course' or 'cut and run,' we will never be able to do what is right," panel member Panetta wrote following the group's trip to Iraq in an article for his hometown paper, the Monterey County Herald in California.

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.

"I think he basically wants to call it the way he sees it," said this source, a critic of the administration's approach to Iraq. "He's also been frustrated by the mistakes that have been made. In many ways, it has damaged the legacy he established as secretary of state."

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 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. Gary J. Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute voiced concern that the Iraq group was not listening to those advocating a more muscular military strategy to defeat the insurgency.

But Schmitt added: "People can worry about what Baker is going to say, but the president has a way of doing what he is going to do. There could be a lot of wishful thinking on the part of the older Bush crowd that the son got into trouble and now he's going to listen to Baker the strategist."

Publicly, the administration is supportive, though inside the foreign policy apparatus there appears to be skepticism that the Iraq Study Group will come up with any breakthroughs. At first, the administration was divided about whether to cooperate with the panel. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave her support only after being assured by officials with the federally funded U.S. Institute of Peace, under whose aegis the group was formed, and other think tanks involved in the project that the venture would be a forward-looking exercise and not an examination of past mistakes, according to people familiar with the project.

Baker himself secured the personal approval of President Bush before signing on. "As I always do," Baker told Texas Monthly, "I said . . . I want him to look me in the eye and tell me he wants me to do this."

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