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October 10, 2006

James Baker works for middle ground on Iraq

Posted by David Postman at 8:25 AM

When former Secretary of State James A. Baker talked Sunday about what his bipartisan Iraq strategy group was thinking, the New York Times said, "he expected the panel would depart from Mr. Bush's repeated calls to 'stay the course' and he strongly suggested that the White House enter direct talks with countries it had so far kept at arm's length, including Iran and Syria."

In a week where congressional Republicans were desperate for any spot of good news, I bet Baker's words on ABC's "This Week" brought comfort to GOP incumbents being tagged in their campaigns as blind followers of Bush's call to stay the course.

I would not be surprised if in our state's top two races, the Senate and the 8th Congressional District, we hear more about Baker and the Iraq Study Group and some version of Baker's Sunday money quote:

"I happen to think, and I think it's fair to say our commission believes, that there are alternatives between the stated alternatives ... of stay-the-course and cut-and-run."

Even before Baker's well-publicized comments, Congressman Dave Reichert was relying on his support for the Iraq Study Group to show daylight between him and the president on the war. In response to a Democratic ad criticizing his support of the president, Reichert's campaign sent me an e-mail last week that said in part:

Congressman Reichert has been vocal in his support of a new approach in Iraq that takes into account the changing enemy in the region. He supports Congressman Frank Wolf's initiative, the Iraq Study Group that formed through the Institute of Peace. This bipartisan group led by former Secretary of State James Baker and former 9/11 Commissioner Lee Hamilton (D-IN) is looking on behalf of Congress at new strategies for victory in Iraq.

Suddenly there's a third way.

In a great backgrounder on the Baker group, Robert Dreyfuss writes in the September issue of the Washington Monthly that the Bush administration was slow and reluctant to support the bipartisan group Wolf put together. But there may have been political motives that pushed the President to give his OK:

If — and it's a very big if — Baker can forge a consensus plan on what to do about Iraq among the bigwigs on his commission, many of them leading foreign-policy figures in the Democratic Party, then the 2008 Democratic presidential nominee — whoever he (or she) is — will have a hard time dismissing the plan. And if the GOP nominee also embraces the plan, then the Iraq war would largely be off the table as a defining issue of the 2008 race — a potentially huge advantage for Republicans.


In any case, the Iraq Study Group won't issue its report until some time early in 2007. In a recent speech, according to a member of the task force, Baker said that to do something before the November 2006 elections would inevitably politicize the report, something that Baker desperately wants to avoid.

Baker didn't give details on TV Sunday. But he certainly said enough to generate a round of news coverage and, perhaps, to politicize the report some. (Though it was largely lost in talk of Foley and North Korean nukes.) And it's likely that if Baker and his panel are looking for some middle ground it has already been approved by the President. The New York Times reported yesterday:

According to White House officials and commission members, Mr. Baker has been talking to President Bush and his national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, on a regular basis. Those colleagues say he is unlikely to issue suggestions that the president has not tacitly approved in advance.

And the Washington Post adds:

The comments by Baker, a former secretary of state and a close confidant of the Bush family, are particularly significant because the blue-ribbon panel's findings, to be released after the November elections, are expected to carry significant weight with Congress and the president.

There already are critics and skeptics. The Common Ills could be called cynical:

Until he demonstrates otherwise, Baker's doing what he always does, providing protection for Republicans and acting like a problem's being addressed.


James Baker helps James Baker, always. This "study group" may provide some false security to some American voters (and possibly that's why Baker did the chat & chew Sunday) but Baker's dirty hands were involved some time ago and there's little reason for anyone to swallow his self-serving statements that do not, note it, call for an end to the war.

Taegan Goddard's Political Wire says:

With former Secretary of State James Baker back on the political talk show circuit, many hoped it was because he finally felt the Bush administration needed some help in dealing with Iraq, North Korea, Iran, etc.

As it turns out, he's pushing a new book: Work Hard, Study...and Keep Out of Politics!: Adventures and Lessons from an Unexpected Public Life

Even before Baker's TV appearance Dreyfuss was clearly picking up on the prospect of Baker trying to split the political differences in Congress on the war:

Is there really a true middle ground between "staying the course" and "getting out"? ... No team of experts, even those on the Iraq Study Group, is likely to come up with a silver bullet that can defeat the Sunni insurgents, get the religious Shiites to disarm the militia forces, block the Kurds from trying to seize Kirkuk and Iraq's northern oil fields, rebuild Iraq's shattered infrastructure, and prevent civil war. In the end, the choices are: Either we stay and fight, whatever the cost in lives and in money — or we set a date for withdrawal, start an orderly redeployment, and do what we can to encourage Iraq, its neighbors, the Arab League, and the United Nations to step in.

And recognizing the importance of a catchy phrase for even the most serious policy, The Moderate Voice asks:

What would this middle approach be called? "Cutting and staying" — or "running the course?"

MORE: Chad Shue has more thoughts on Baker's work.

And be sure to check the comment threads for a response to Reichert's position from Darcy Burner's campaign manager, Zach Silk.

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