Baker and the Challenge of Mideast Harmony Secretary Moves Patiently, Methodically Middle East Conference

October 27, 1991|By MARK MATTHEWS

Washington. -- James A. Baker III confronts any challenge, be it an election campaign, major legislation or assembling the anti-Iraq coalition, as a treacherous minefield. Patiently and methodically, allowing little to distract him, he sets out to identify each mine and do whatever it takes to defuse it.

Today, after eight months and eight trips through seven time zones, scores of hours in tense meetings in at least eight capitals, he has successfully crossed the biggest political minefield of his career: drawing all the major warring Middle East parties to the peace table after more than four decades of conflict. The peace conference begins Wednesday in Madrid.

Unlike his stewardship of two presidential campaigns, the passage of 1986 tax-reform legislation while he was Treasury secretary and negotiation of Conventional Forces in Europe, START and Two-plus-Four accords over unification of Germany, the peace conference is unquestionably his own doing.

The effort, his riskiest as secretary of state, tested the limits of his determination, fear of failure, negotiating prowess and energy.

It also displayed all his modes of operation: a passion for order and discipline over both himself and others, secrecy, thorough preparation, mastery of pressure tactics and the careful building of trust in his negotiating counterparts.

Now a bigger challenge lies ahead, testing whether Syria, Jordan, the Palestinians and Israel actually are serious about peacemaking or are simply seeking to assure American aid, in Israel's case, or Western acceptance, in Syria's.

In part, it will be driven by the political calendar: the aim is to produce an interim agreement on Palestinian autonomy just about the time of the 1992 U.S. presidential elections. Mr. Baker, who lives and breathes at the point where politics and diplomacy intersect, will likely be driven to nail it down.

The goal of an overall Middle East settlement has absorbed and frustrated successive administrations, the only major breakthrough coming with the Egyptian-Israeli peace of 1978 at Camp David.

For President Bush, the Middle East is the last remaining source in the world of real tension and instability, fueling terrorism, an arms race and radicalism, a region always at risk of small-scale conflict that can lead to large-scale war. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait added to his drive to pursue peace.

The post-gulf war landscape showed promise: the Soviet Union lacked the power or inclination to meddle; Syria, together with the gulf states that have replaced the Soviets as its benefactor, had been on the same side with the United States and Israel, which cooperated by staying out of the conflict; the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israel's nemesis, was discredited and weak.

On the negative side were an inflexible Israeli government, its military supremacy unmatched, volatile pockets of radicalism inflamed by war, and no regional leader who approached the charisma and courage of Anwar Sadat.

In the Bush-Baker relationship, the president sets the direction in consultation with his top advisers, including the secretary. Then Mr. Baker, a former Houston corporate lawyer, figures out how to deliver for his client.

Mr. Bush voiced cautious hope; his national security adviser Brent Scowcroft was privatelypessimistic.

Mr. Baker was enigmatic; he walked a fine line between raising expectations that could explode in his face and poor-mouthing his chances to the point of blocking momentum. He spoke of a "window of opportunity," while saying no one could impose a peace process on the Middle East from outside.

For the next eight months, he rotated between his seventh-floor State Department suite, a princely enclave of Oriental rugs, rich paneling and antiques, and the cramped cabin of an old Boeing, driving himself and his aides relentlessly.

Apart from the rare tour or social event done largely for show, his schedule confined him to the plane, his motorcade, bilateral meetings and hotel suites, where he plotted strategy and worked after hours on messages to update the president. He battled jet lag with the occasional sleeping pill and late-night scrounging for reading matter.

The restraints on a traveling delegation suited his penchant to control information. Aides were kept on a short leash, rarely speaking to the press outside of semi-formal background briefings held under the shrewd gaze of his spokeswoman and adviser Margaret Tutwiler.

Mr. Baker is a firm believer that if you don't want something to leak, you don't tell anyone.

In the tense diplomacy preceding the gulf war and even more during his Middle East shuttle, he all but clammed up. Even in background briefings, his lawyerly phrases were as precisely tailored as his suits.

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