Pres. Bush: Looking for a Way Out of Iraq

The rendezvous in the supermarket parking lot was a secret. On the Sunday before the elections, Robert Gates, the president of Texas A&M University and the deputy national-security adviser and CIA director in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, drove two hours from College Station, Texas, to the small town of McGregor, where he switched from his own car to one driven by White House chief of staff Josh Bolten. Gates was quietly taken to President George W. Bush's office on his ranch at Crawford, where the two talked long enough to convince Bush that Gates was the man to replace Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Guests at the presidential ranch, assembled for the 60th birthday of First Lady Laura Bush and the First Couple's 29th wedding anniversary, didn't even notice Gates's coming and going.

Across the state of Texas, at his house in Houston, James A. Baker III was following his favorite Sunday-afternoon routine. He was taking a nap. Later, it would be widely speculated that Baker was somehow in on the secret, that he helped arrange the firing of Rumsfeld and the appointment of Gates as part of a fundamental power shift, a last-ditch rescue operation--by the old guard of Bush 41 to save Bush 43 from sinking ever deeper into the Iraq morass. Baker is the co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, which is looking for a solution to the Iraq riddle, and Gates was a fellow commissioner, as well as a mutual friend of Baker and of Bush 41. Rumsfeld would have been a surefire obstacle to whatever Baker was proposing. Gates is likely to welcome the Iraq Study Group recommendations as if they were his own (which, in a manner of speaking, some of them are). Baker is one of the great behind-the-scenes manipulators of any age. So, NEWSWEEK asked the former secretary of State, Treasury secretary, White House chief of staff and all-around Wise Man, was he in on the deal?

"You don't have a virgin here," Baker said with his customary twang. Indeed not. He meant he wasn't about to be lured by a reporter into spilling any secrets--not, of course, that he had any secrets to spill. (The White House says that Baker had nothing to do with the Pentagon swap.) Baker warned against getting too optimistic about some sudden deliverance from the agonies of Iraq. "Look," he protested. "This is not a precooked deal. And there is no magic bullet."

Baker is known for lowering expectations shortly before he delivers the goods. But he has reason to want to downplay his role and the prospects for success. Over the next month or so, the Iraq Study Group must find a middle way, a plan of action that can be characterized neither as "cut and run" nor "stay the course." Judging by the election returns and the exit polls, it's what the people want--along with an end to rancorous partisan squabbling and ideological posturing. But getting a plan--and carrying it out--will be difficult to achieve.

For one thing, Baker still has to convince George W. Bush. At his post-election press conference, the president looked like a base runner trapped in a rundown, unable to go forward or scurry back. The president is probably stuck--he will have to embrace some kind of compromise approach on Iraq. He didn't look too happy about it. As he japed and mugged and fidgeted, he seemed worried by something more than Iraq or the election returns; his whole character appeared to be wrestling with some more personal, inner demon. Last week Bush's aides were resisting the story line that Bush was caught in a cosmic episode of "Father Knows Best." The president himself was said to be indifferent to the press chatter. "I don't care," he told his advisers when they asked him, the morning after the elections, how he wanted to deal publicly with the suggestion that he was picking one of his father's advisers. "He doesn't think the neocons ran him over a cliff and now he has to go to Dad," said a senior Bush aide, preferring to remain anonymous while discussing Oval Office conversations. "It's not the way he sees this. He wants the best and brightest."

It is an irony of history, and the tragedy of the Bush family saga, that President Bush has all along had the best and the brightest just a phone call away. His father is a deeply seasoned and wise foreign-policy expert. Had, say, Sen. John McCain been elected, Bush 41 would have been jetting around the globe helping to resolve conflicts. Instead, aside from some tsunami and Hurricane Katrina relief work, Bush Senior has been relegated to watching all those political talk shows his son refuses to watch, wincing each time he hears his son's name being mocked or criticized. George H.W. Bush has been, in effect, sidelined by nepotism. He has repeatedly told close friends that he does not believe it is appropriate or wise to second-guess his son, or even offer advice beyond loving support.

This time, however, was different. A source who declined to be identified discussing presidential confidences told NEWSWEEK that Bush 41 left "fingerprints" on the Rumsfeld-Gates decision, though the father's exact role remains shrouded in speculation. "This would have been done by nuance and indirection. Forty-one would have said to 43, 'One of the people who I've been talking to who might be helpful is Bob Gates'," said a veteran of previous GOP administrations who declined to be identified talking about the Bush family. A onetime director of the CIA and loyal member of Skull and Bones, his Yale secret society, Bush "is a master of deniability," says an old aide to Jim Baker, who asked for deniability while discussing Bush.

Baker's role in the affair remains shadowy. He was spotted with both Bush father and son, as well as Bob Gates, in early October at the launching of the new aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush. But the four men may have just been discussing the Texas A&M football team. Baker, like Bush, is not likely to have been plotting in public. "For a meeting like that," says the former Baker aide, "the maximum number of people involved is two."

It's not even clear that Baker ("Bakes," to Bush 41) and Bush ( el jefe , to Baker) spoke to each other about the Rumsfeld-Gates switch. Baker's relationship with the Bush family is close but rivalrous, and it has endured jealousies and suspicions. The two men became friends while playing doubles at the Houston Country Club in the 1970s ("although I still preferred and continued to play singles," writes Baker in a typical aside in his just-published memoir, "Work Hard, Study ... and Keep Out of Politics"). The two dads and their eight boys played an annual Turkey Bowl at Thanksgiving. ("It was touch football, but the touching sometimes looked a lot like tackling.") Baker has, on occasion, wondered why he wasn't the one elected president. Barbara Bush was widely reported to be miffed at Baker for not trying hard enough to get her husband re-elected in 1992.

George W., who sometimes reflects his mother's resentments, did not call on Baker for advice when he was preparing for his presidential run. "That was okay with me," writes Baker, who nonetheless answered the call when George W. needed a good lawyer to take on the Florida voting fiasco in 2000. Baker's cleverness and diligence for the Bush clan in its hour of need were possibly decisive. But make no mistake: Baker is no mere lawyer for the Bushes. Trying to describe Baker's role and his true allegiances in the Iraq Study Group, the former Baker aide quotes Justice Louis Brandeis, who once said that in certain cases the lawyer has a responsibility to represent the situation, not the client. In this case, the situation is the national interest in getting a solution to the Iraq mess--not protecting the president or the Bush family. "It so happens that this also serves Baker's interests," says the aide. As his memoir makes clear, Baker cares deeply about being remembered as a statesman, not a pol or a hired gun.

When the Iraq Study Group was launched in March 2006, the inspiration of some retired Washington foreign-policy ma-vens, its conclusion seemed destined for a dusty shelf. Baker had been fairly quiet on Iraq. Though it was general-ly known that the Bush 41 crowd was skeptical about invading Iraq, most of the attention fell on Brent Scowcroft, who was outspoken in his disappointment with Bush 43's advisers. "Dick Cheney I don't know anymore," Scowcroft told The New Yorker. Baker signed on to the Iraq Study Group only after getting Bush 43's personal assurance that the White House wanted him to take the job. (According to a source knowledgeable about the study group who requested anonymity discussing sensitive negotiations, Baker also received a backstage promise that Rumsfeld would stay out of the way as the commissioners interviewed generals and diplomats.) Baker did not have high hopes or expectations, he says. But the group--in part because of Baker's winning aura, and in part because Baker had a hand in choosing them--attracted first-rate commissioners like former justice Sandra Day O'Connor and ex-New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. Baker's co-chairman is tailor-made for bipartisanship. Lee Hamilton, a longtime Democratic congressman and former chairman of the House foreign-affairs committee, was known for fair-mindedness and deep substantive knowledge, qualities he showed again as co-chair of the 9/11 Commission. Baker refused to pose for NEWSWEEK unless Hamilton was photographed as well. "This has got to be bipartisan," says Baker. "Or it's not going to happen." Baker knows that if newly emboldened Hill Democrats see the Iraq Study Group as a tool of the administration and wait until the new Congress in January to call for their own pullout plan, the hopes for a middle-way compromise could collapse.

Baker's style is to prearrange deals by patiently and quietly lining up the parties before going public. He has had more success at bringing together potential adversaries than any one Washington politician or statesman in modern history, at least since Clark Clifford. Baker's fingerprints are on many legislative accomplishments (for which congressmen took all the credit, like the Tax Reform Act of 1986). For the Iraq Study Group, he has reached out to Iranian, Syrian and Saudi diplomats; he has traveled to Iraq and met with local civilian and military leaders, and he has stroked the large and sometimes fractious egos of his own commissioners. He may have a difficult time with hard-liners like former attorney general Ed Meese, who stepped into a commissioner's slot vacated by Giuliani (who quit possibly to pursue his presidential ambitions). Baker will have a month or more to line up his commissioners before they make their final report in December. But "we can't wire it," he insists.

The commissioners are just now receiving a draft of the recommendations. The contents are a closely guarded secret, but the commission is certain to call for some kind of diplomacy with Iraq's neighbors, reversing the Bush administration refusal to negotiate with enemies like Iran and Syria. "There are going to be some things in this report that the administration is not going to be excited about," says Baker, choosing his words carefully. There may also be some kind of call for a troop drawdown or redeployment, though Baker says he is very reluctant to dictate to the U.S. military.

Baker says he drops in on President Bush from time to time to "chew the fat." But he insists he has not discussed the work of the Iraq Study Group. "Timing is everything for Baker," says the former aide, and the timing was not right until Bush could see the public registering its dissatisfaction at the polls. Baker is an avid hunter of wild turkeys, a sport that requires endless patience. "You can wait all day and you only get one shot," says the former aide, who marvels at Baker's ability to sit for hours in the cold or heat, silent but watchful. "When the time comes, and it's only a split second, he doesn't hesitate to pull the trigger," says this aide.

Baker's powers of persuasion are formidable. James Carville, no slouch himself at the art of politics, once described him as "the gold standard." Although his tongue can be sharp--he once described Bush 43's core principles as "God and exercise"--Baker is probably the best pure flatterer in Washington, which is saying something. He is also always prepared. He was schooled by his father, a patrician Texas lawyer, in the "five P's": "Prior preparation prevents poor performance." Baker's father--who was known by his children, not always affectionately, as "the Warden"--did not tolerate weakness or excuse. When little Jimmy was slow to get out of bed in the morning, the Warden doused him with a bucket of cold water as he lay there.

Baker is at once earthy and genteel. He is the sort of Texan, one local writer once observed, who can be seen drinking beer out of a can while wearing black tie. One old Princetonian recalls, with a certain awe, that Baker was president of something called "the 21 Club." That meant that he had been chosen as the champion of his eating club (the most exclusive, of course) in a contest to drink 21 straight shots of hard liquor. Baker was the last man standing. This does not mean that he was a wild frat boy (Baker is the living antithesis of John Belushi)-- just that he was willing to do what it takes. At the University of Texas Law School, to please his father, he pledged his dad's old fraternity. This required carrying a dead fish somewhere on his person for a week. He had been a Marine lieutenant and had a wife and a child at the time.

Baker is 76 years old, silver-haired, more easily tired, but still formidable. He would be the obvious choice to pursue the diplomatic initiative that the Iraq Study Group will surely call for. In fact, if President Bush is looking for a tag team of worldly, seasoned and persuasive ambassadors, he knows where to find a pair of old tennis partners who live not too far from each other in Houston. Would Baker take the job? "That's too hypothetical," answers the former secretary of State, who is no virgin.