James A. Baker and Iraq Strategy

George W. Bush was doing everything he doesn't usually like to do. He was traveling in foreign lands (when Bush campaigns, he likes to fly home every night to sleep in his own bed). The carefully choreographed president was hit with a sudden change in schedule. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, America's thin hope to create a stable government in Iraq, had seemingly snubbed Bush and was now standing frostily a few feet away at a press conference after a mini-summit meeting, held at a fancy hotel in Jordan because, nearly four years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, it is still too dangerous to meet in Iraq. Maliki was reportedly sore because someone high in the Bush administration had leaked a secret memo from national-security adviser Steve Hadley to the president saying, in essence, that Maliki was well intentioned but either out of touch, weak or deceitful.

Bush hates leaks almost as much as he dislikes meeting with the journalists who now surrounded him, clamoring to know about reports that a long-awaited independent panel was about to call for a substantial troop pullout from Iraq. The Iraq Study Group, also known as the Baker Commission after its co-chairman, former secretary of State James A. Baker, has been widely seen as a gambit by Republican moderates close to Bush's father, the 41st president, to rescue the 43rd president from his disastrous plunge into Iraq. Of all the things Bush dislikes, the idea of needing to be rescued by Daddy may well top the list.

So no wonder the president was a little out of sorts. "I know," Bush began, trying, unsuccessfully, to stifle a tone of deep exasperation, "there's a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there's going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq. This business about a graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all."

A few days later, many thousands of miles away at his ranch in Texas, Jim Baker was resting up, lying low, waiting for his moment. The leak, reported in The New York Times, that the Iraq Study Group was about to call for substantial troop pullback was wrong, Baker knew. In fact, the Iraq Study Group report, scheduled to be released this week, will set no time-tables or call for any troop reductions, according to a source familiar with the report, who, like everyone involved, requested anonymity owing to the sensitivity of the subject. It will speak more generally of shifting U.S. troops from an active combat role to advising Iraqi forces, and suggest that the president could, not should, begin to withdraw forces in the vaguely defined future. The report will also urge more diplomatic initiatives to secure Iraq and the region.

Persuading Bush to listen--and to change course, even at the margins--will be very difficult. One of the myths that the Bush camp has tried to perpetuate over the years is that the president follows the model, learned as a student at Harvard Business School, of a chief executive who delegates, listens to advice and only then decides. Bush is the "decider," as he calls himself, but there is little evidence that he listens to advice that he doesn't want to hear. It may be that the last really serious call for a midcourse correction heeded by George W. Bush was the hangover he experienced at Colorado's Broadmoor Hotel one morning in the summer of 1986, when he decided to quit drinking--a decision that put him on the path to the presidency. That was indeed a momentous example of evaluating options and choosing to change, but it happened two decades ago.

People who know Bush well say, as one presidential friend put it to NEWSWEEK, that he "realizes that the disappointments on the ground in Iraq--not just the election--require new thinking." (The source spoke anonymously for fear of alienating Bush.) "He is looking for a militarily effective and politically sustainable approach that gives Iraq the chance to succeed in the long term," says the friend, "and I think he is very open to change, very open to the Baker Commission and the internal review," referring to the administration's forthcoming in-house study of Iraq policy. Yet even Bush's most loyal lieutenants can only point to relatively minor examples such as the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (which Bush initially opposed) and the doomed Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers as instances of a president's being, as the Bush friend said, "willing to change his mind." (Other Bush confidants point to his decision to fire longtime chief of staff Andy Card and Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld as evidence of his willingness to change, but both were drawn-out decisions that many friends believed came too late.)

The tone of Bush's senior aides, who were interviewed this week by news-week, was dismissive, even condescending, toward Baker and the Iraq Study Group. The word from the White House was not entirely Stay the Course, but pretty close. The Iraq Study Group is just one of three ongoing reviews of Iraq policy, say the Bush aides, and not the most important one at that. Bush is also hearing from his Joint Chiefs of Staff as well as a team under Hadley. Bush may trim and fiddle here and there, say his advisers, but he is determined to send a signal of unwavering determination--that he is in charge, and he will not abandon Iraq.

Bush's reluctance to change course--Bill Kristol, The Weekly Standard editor, calls Bush "the last neocon in power"--may come as a disappointment to voters who thought they were sending the president a message last Election Day. Bush seems determined to play the role of a 21st-century Winston Churchill, steadfast in the West's darkest hour, when many Americans see Bush as the captain on the bridge of the Titanic. But in fact the dire situation in Iraq--and the reality that there are no magical fixes--may push the president into listening to Baker and other advisers, if only for a moment, and then maybe with only half an ear. At least that is what Baker, according to those who know him, is hoping and maneuvering for--a chance to get his foot in the door of the Oval Office, to make one last pass at getting Bush to make an attempt at true diplomacy in the Middle East.

Bush may have dismissed talk of a "graceful exit," but Baker, who knows something about getting out of tight spots, is looking for just that. Baker realizes, however, that getting any kind of successful outcome will take a great deal of diplomacy on many fronts, starting with his long but somewhat cool relationship with the president of the United States. According to friends familiar with his thinking, Baker realizes that his panel's report could wind up just sitting on a shelf somewhere. But he wants a shot at sitting down with the president--at getting Bush to ponder new approaches to keeping Iraq, and possibly the entire Middle East, from disintegrating even further.

Baker likes to be the man behind the scenes. He is very deferential to his Iraq Study Group co-chairman, Lee Hamilton, a respected former Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. (Ba-ker refused to be photographed by news-week unless Hamilton was also pictured.) Baker is mindful of Ronald Reagan's old dictum that you can accomplish a lot if you don't care who gets the credit. But Baker's critics, on both the left and the right, think he is engaging mostly in a classic Washington cover-your-rear operation. He wants, the skeptics say, to get credit for making a noble effort to bring light and reason to the dunderheads in power--even if the effort is doomed. That may be an unduly cynical view of Baker's motivations, though it may describe the ultimate outcome.

The odds for "victory" in Iraq, whatever that means, are long. The star-crossed country first conceived on the back of a British imperialist's envelope 80 years ago seems fated to consume itself in sectarian blood-letting. But the debate roiling in Washington is not just for show. It represents a basic clash of approaches to getting out of the worst American mess since Vietnam. No one wants to say it, but the real question is whether the United States can manage to be defeated in Iraq in a way that does not lead to worse disasters in the region--or another terrorist attack at home.

Baker is a charter member of what is known in foreign-policy circles as the Realist School. The chief apostle of the Realists is Brent Scowcroft, Bush 41's national-security adviser. In public and private statements, Scowcroft has been deeply skeptical of the dream of the neoconservatives to bring democracy to the Middle East. Scowcroft consistently and openly warned that invading Iraq would not herald a new age of freedom in the region but rather inflame old sectarian passions. Better, Scowcroft urged, to aim for policies that would promote stability in the region. Those policies might keep despots in power, but they would at least keep the region from exploding into violence that could cut off America's vital pipeline to Middle East oil and create generations of resentments that could breed more terrorists. Scowcroft's sober-minded op-ed pieces and candid remarks to reporters before, during and after the invasion of Iraq succeeded in making him persona non grata in the White House of George W. Bush.

Baker, Scowcroft's old friend and colleague as Bush 41's secretary of State, has been more circumspect in public, trying not to unnecessarily antagonize the younger Bush and his True Believer followers. Baker and Scowcroft talk often, and they both stay in touch with Bush 41, who is also a charter member of the Realist School, even if he religiously avoids being seen second-guessing his son.

To the neocon faithful who shaped Bush 43's world view after 9/11, Baker is often depicted as a creature of Washington who favors compromise over conviction. For the record, Baker mostly makes jokes about his cautious approach when it comes to the use of force. "I used to get asked why I didn't want to push on to Baghdad [in the 1991 gulf war]," Baker likes to say. "I don't get asked that question much anymore."

It is well known that Baker is a firm believer in talk over force, not just because, as Churchill once said, "jaw-jaw is better than war-war," but because Baker has great faith in his own powers as a negotiator. Time after time through a long career as Reagan's chief of staff and Treasury secretary and as a top adviser to Bush 41, Baker was able to deliver deals against great odds. Baker is crafty and endlessly patient. He can sit for hours listening to statesmen bloviate, waiting for them to run out of gas and start to bargain.

The Iraq Study Group report has been written with the sort of high-minded generalities needed to achieve consensus among strong-minded Republicans and Democrats. It will not demand an international peace conference on the future of the Middle East or insist that the Unites States pressure Israel to restart the vexed peace process with the Palestinians.

Baker starts from the premise that none of Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria, want Iraq to dissolve into the kind of bloody chaos that can spread through the region, pitting Sunnis against Shiites and faction against faction. He has also been a longtime believer that the best way for the United States to establish credibility in the Arab world--and in Europe, for that matter--is to get serious about the creation of a viable Palestinian state. As Bush 41's secretary of State, Baker was willing to lean on the Israelis to try to make peace with the Palestinians by forgoing the establishment of settlements on the West Bank. Under pressure from Israel's friends in Congress, Bush 41's team backed off. But Baker's own desire to use the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as a key to defusing the wider animosities in the region is well known.

Baker also believes a successful negotiator never goes into talks by publicly laying down conditions for the other side to meet. By that measure, President Bush is making a mistake by insisting that Iran agree to give up enriching uranium that can be used to build a nuclear weapon before the United States will even sit down at the table. Of course, slowing or stopping the Iranian nuclear program should be a prime goal for American diplomacy. But, in Baker's view, according to those familiar with his thinking, it won't happen just by refusing to talk to the Iranians. The question of engaging Iran could be the stickiest of all between Baker and Bush, for people who know Bush well say that the president regards a nuclear Iran as an issue on par with Iraq--the two nations that, with North Korea, formed the "Axis of Evil" of Bush's post-9/11 presidency.

Of course, Baker's emphasis on diplomacy may be naive. As conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer has argued, the Iranians are content to foment chaos in Iraq that could eventually produce a Shiite state that would lean, if not bend, toward Tehran. The best check on Iranian ambitions in the region would be a stable Iraq that represents Sunnis and Kurds as well as Shiites, and that is what the current administration is working to achieve, if sometimes clumsily and with uncertain success. Why do anything to legitimize the Islamic radicals who run Iran? By the same token, why should the Bush administration want to talk to Syria? The Syrian regime has been trying to impose its will on Lebanon's fragile democracy. This may not be the time to be making nice with Syrian strongman Bashar Assad. Bush has said that Iraq is a sovereign state and should conduct its own diplomacy with its neighbors. He may be right that America's attempts to dicker between Iraq and Iran or Syria are futile and possibly even counterproductive.

On the other hand, Baker may be right that jump-starting the Israeli-Palestinian talks is necessary to achieving some wider Middle East peace process. The Bush administration has already been making some moves to gently push the Israelis toward talking to the Palestinians. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been traveling back and forth to the region, and Vice President Dick Cheney journeyed to Saudi Arabia to visit his old friends in the royal family--to speak privately of many things, no doubt, but also to sound out the Saudis on the seemingly eternal Palestinian crisis.

These diplomatic gestures may be a way of saying that the Baker Commission isn't recommending anything new or different, that the Bush team is already on the case and even a step ahead. Indeed, earlier this fall a top adviser to Bush privately told a NEWSWEEK reporter that Bush's greatest ambition was to leave behind a Palestinian peace pact and a viable Palestinian state. But at the moment, prospects for a deal between Israel and the Palestinians are just about as bad as ever. The Palestinians are feuding among themselves; the lead faction in control of Parliament, the sometimes-terrorist group Hamas, refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist.

The prospects for improving matters on the ground in Iraq seem just as vexed. Last week, Anthony Cordesman, a widely respected analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, gave a highly discouraging briefing to reporters. The administration's devout wish and goal is to stand down its forces as Iraq stands up its own. Indeed, last week, Prime Minister Maliki asserted that Iraq would be able to take over its own security in six months. Cordesman's statistics make a mockery of that promise. By his count, maybe one in four of Iraq's Army battalions are able to "perform a useful function." Cordesman pointed out that the latest Defense Department report says there is no way to count the number of men in the Iraqi police force, and there is no system for rating the effectiveness of police units. But the daily carnage suggests that the police are overwhelmed--if they're not actually in on the killing of civilians.

Washington's tendency to blame the Iraqi government for the current disaster is misplaced, Cordesman says. "The idea that when you send the bull in to liberate a china shop, you blame the china shop for breaking the china is, shall we say, somewhat ingenuous and probably misleading."

Bush has not given up on Maliki. The president continues to believe in the 56-year-old prime minister as the best hope of creating some kind stability in Iraq, say Bush's advisers. The Americans have been spying on Maliki, according to administration officials who declined to be identified for obvious reasons, and they have not caught him double-dealing or trying to sell out the United States. (A reference in the leaked Hadley memo to "sensitive reporting" may have alluded to eavesdropping on Maliki.) Indeed, his snub of President Bush apparently had more to do with local politics. Maliki did not want to appear to get too close to Jordan's King Abdullah II, who was also meeting with Bush. Abdullah, who keeps warning of Iraq's falling into a "Shiite crescent" stretching across the Middle East, is not popular with the Shiite majority in Iraq.

But if Maliki is, in the old cold-war saying, "our son of a bitch," he's not a very formidable one. At times he seems to be a second-tier bureaucrat caught between Sunnis who want to kill him and his Shiite allies--particular the sinister Moqtada al-Sadr.

Maliki's aides were encouraged by the Bush summit. They asked for and got assurances that Maliki could communicate directly through the White House and not have to work through the balky State Department. The Iraqis don't really expect to have control of their own security by next summer. But they want more freedom to try. "It's like the father with a baby and a bicycle," one Maliki aide told Bush. "You have to let him fall and if he scrapes himself you can run and pick him up. But if you hold on too long, trying to mentor everything, he will never be able to ride on his own."

The American military is fed up with Maliki. The ground commanders in Iraq felt betrayed by him this summer when he undermined a push to get control of the streets of Baghdad. The Iraqis failed to deliver on a promise to put enough troops on the ground. A four-star general who declined to be identified discussing a confidential conversation told of this encounter with Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who was in charge of day-to-day ground operations. "Do you have enough forces? Enough to clear an area and stay there to secure it 24/7?" Chiarelli replied, "Of course not." The four-star recalls replying, "It's going to fail, it's absolutely going to fail." The Americans never had enough forces to sweep even half the city, much less secure it. Maliki made their job tougher by in effect forbidding the U.S. military from taking on Shiite fighters; ordering them to lift roadblocks around Sadr City, the Shiite slum, and ordering them to release prisoners suspected of running death squads.

It's not clear whether the military made its frustrations known to the White House. Generals tend to salute and say can-do; if anything, the military has not been accurately portraying the dismal events on the ground, at least in the eyes of some White House aides. But with Donald Rumsfeld's departure, the Pentagon is entering a new era of leadership, in hopes it will be one in which the uniformed brass and their civilian bosses will communicate better. Gen. John Abizaid, the overall theater commander, and Gen. George Casey, the ground commander, are exhausted and overdue for replacement. ("There might be a sense that a fresh perspective is needed," said a senior White House aide.) Rumsfeld's former right-hand man, Stephen Cambone, has announced that he is stepping down. Others are expected to follow, stripping the Pentagon leadership of the group around Rumsfeld whose neocon certainties led to such catastrophic miscalculations in Iraq.

The job of rebuilding a demoralized and war-weary Pentagon will fall to the new Defense secretary, Robert Gates. Popular among the ranks as CIA director under Bush 41, Gates is low-key and rarely acts before he examines all the evidence. He has a dry, sardonic sense of humor; though he can affect Texan bonhomie, he's not really the towel-snapping type. He is said to have some spine. He was a big supporter of Bush 41's desire to dramatically (and unilaterally) scrap the U.S. stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons even though the military warned against such a bold move.

He'll have his work cut out for him winning over President Bush, who is not patient with advisers who take time getting to the point. White House aides speaking anonymously to NEWSWEEK seemed to suggest that Gates would not have a lot of impact on crafting a new Iraq policy; any tweaks in the policy, they say, will be made before Gates is sworn in sometime in January. This portrayal of Gates's role may be a further attempt to play down the picture of Bush 41's old cronies riding to the rescue. Gates is close to Bush 41.

It is not out of the question that Bush 43 will be brought around by the so-called Realists. Fantasies of a liberal democracy in Iraq are long gone. The most Bush can reasonably hope for in Iraq is some measure of stability, which is what the Realists want, too. Bush's situation--and petulant tone--are not unlike Lyndon Johnson's in 1968, when the Vietnam War was getting no better, despite troop levels' reaching a half-million men and a heavy bombing campaign. Johnson's new secretary of Defense, Clark Clifford, was a clever fixer/statesman, just like Baker. Johnson ranted to his advisers, "Let's get one thing clear! I'm telling you now that I'm not going to stop the bombing!" (Bush last week: "There's one thing I'm not going to do: I'm not going to pull the troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete.") But Clifford and the other Wise Men he brought into the White House did persuade LBJ to halt the bombing and open peace talks with the North Vietnamese. Baker & Co. might still nudge Bush onto a track that involves more diplomacy and less force.

There is, however, a cautionary coda to the Vietnam comparison. The revolt of the Wise Men in 1968 did change administration policy--but it did not end the war. The peace talks dragged on until Richard Nixon became president in 1969; he then re-escalated the war, which didn't end until another five years had passed and 25,000 more American soldiers had been lost. Iraq has not cost nearly as many American lives. But Vietnam fundamentally shaped America in ways that reverberate even today, and no matter what happens between George Bush and Jim Baker in the coming days and weeks, it is likely that Iraq will be with us for as long as Vietnam has been--or longer.