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For James Baker, a tough task on Iraq

In his new memoir James Baker writes of focusing on the achievable. It’s the sort of pragmatism that his backers say he brings to his latest task — trying to help the United States find a way forward in Iraq.
/ Source: Reuters

In his new memoir James Baker writes of focusing on the achievable. It’s the sort of pragmatism that his backers say he brings to his latest task — trying to help the United States find a way forward in Iraq.

There is much at stake — for the country; for President Bush, the son of one of Baker’s oldest friends; and for himself.

Now 76, Baker — former secretary of state, secretary of the treasury and White House chief of staff —  has one of Washington’s most accomplished résumés.

His most recent high-profile success — helping save Bush’s disputed 2000 election — left a partisan aftertaste, spotlighting his talents as a “play-to-win” political operative for the Republican Party and the Bush family.

A successful conclusion to his latest mission — helping forge a bipartisan alternative to the current violent morass of Iraq — could provide both a public service and seal Baker’s legacy as a statesman.

'A virtually impossible role'
As the daily death toll mounts and Iraq creeps ever closer to all-out civil war, the task may be too much.

“Everyone is setting former Secretary Baker up to be the deus ex machina of Iraq,” said Wendy Sherman, former counselor to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and now a partner in The Albright Group LLC, a consulting firm.

“That is a virtually impossible role,” Sherman said in an interview.

The 10-member Iraq Study Group of five Democrats and five Republicans chaired by Baker and Democrat Lee Hamilton, a well-regarded former congressman who heads the Woodrow Wilson Center think tank, met in secret this week to decide its recommendations.

The panel, created by the U.S. Congress, is under pressure to complete its work before lawmakers conclude a brief “lame duck” legislative session that begins Dec 4.

Baker and Hamilton are aiming for a consensus report. Participants in the process say there has been a conscious effort to put politics aside and search for conclusions that serve the country.

Some experts say the Nov. 7 election, which gave Democrats control of Congress for the first time in 12 years, may have made it harder for the panel to consider radical changes in U.S. policy and reach agreement.

“It can’t look like the Republicans are caving to Democrats,” one analyst said.

Among the more contentious issues is U.S. troop levels in Iraq. Baker has not favored a quick withdrawal of the 150,000 American forces now in the country. Two other options are a phased withdrawal and “stay the course.”

The New York Times Monday said a draft report prepared for the panel sets no schedule for a troop withdrawal from Iraq and the group may be split on setting a timetable.

History of encouraging dialogue
The panel also has discussed convening an international conference on Iraq and urging dialogue with Iran and Syria, two neighboring states Bush has sought to isolate but which could be crucial to stabilizing Iraq.

Encouraging dialogue is vintage Baker. He was instrumental in organizing the 1991 Madrid conference that revived Middle East peacemaking and made more than a dozen trips to Damascus to win Syrian participation.

Unlike Bush, Baker does not consider it appeasement for the United States to talk to its enemies. He spent more than six hours talking with Iraqi Foreign minister Tariq Aziz in a failed eleventh-hour bid to avert the 1991 Gulf War and was deeply engaged with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

In their work with the Iraq study group, Baker and Hamilton have had endless meetings with divergent interests, including Syrian and Iranian officials.

As a powerbroker, Baker has long been known for his tough negotiating style, quick mastery of complex issues, iron nerves, patience and killer instincts.

A powerful Washington force
In more than three decades of public life, the suave Texas lawyer held many of Washington’s most powerful appointed positions and established himself as one of the most dominant secretaries of state of the last half of the 20th century.

On his watch, the Cold War was won as the Soviet Union crumbled, Eastern Europe reshaped itself and Germany was reunited. A U.S.-led multinational coalition defeated Iraq in the Gulf War and Mideast peace talks were launched.

Over time Baker has had his critics, including conservatives in his Republican Party. Some felt he expended too much effort trying to involve Moscow in the Gulf alliance, which left Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in power. Yugoslavia’s civil war mushroomed without U.S. action during his tenure.

By and large Baker emerged with his reputation intact. He was deft at making successes his own while failures appeared either inevitable or due to the shortcomings of others. He was occasionally mentioned as presidential material, but experts said he didn’t have skills as a retail politician.