Baker helps smooth Bush's foreign relations

Special envoy represents more conciliatory stance

December 31, 2003|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - James A. Baker III's just-completed forays to Europe and Asia as President Bush's special envoy are widely viewed here and abroad as a change for the better in America's often bitter relations with other major nations over Iraq.

After a summer and fall of watching the president's poll numbers drop as the death toll among U.S. forces in Iraq rose, world leaders now seem to believe that Bush stands a good chance of being re-elected and want to repair damaged ties, a senior U.S. official said this week.

Overseas, Bush's choice of the pragmatic Baker, the first President Bush's secretary of state, was viewed as a step back from the administration's go-it-alone approach before the war and a signal of his wish to rebuild an alliance shaken by one of its worst crises in half a century.

"The fact that it took place, and that it was Baker, was viewed very importantly in Paris," said Jeremy Shapiro of the Brookings Institution's Center on the U.S. and France. Bush was "effectively apologizing, in the French view."

Western nations view Baker as an internationalist who has a long record of cutting deals with allies. A lawyer-politician who has often been enlisted by the Bush family at times of political need, Baker returned yesterday after the Asia leg of his mission to persuade world leaders to reduce and restructure Iraq's $120 billion international debt burden - a major impediment to that nation's economic recovery after more than two decades of war and sanctions.

Baker, who ran several campaigns for the president's father, served as White House chief of staff and Treasury secretary under Ronald Reagan. Most recently, in 2000, he oversaw the successful legal strategy that won Florida, and the presidency, for George W. Bush.

When Baker's assignment was announced early this month, the news from Iraq was bleak, with almost daily casualties among U.S. and other coalition forces and U.S.-trained Iraqi police.

Saddam Hussein remained in hiding, Democratic politicians were reaping political gains from the administration's failures in postwar planning, and the United Nations and aid agencies were afraid to send people to Iraq. France and Germany, in a rebuke to the U.S.-led occupation, had refused to donate major sums to Iraq.

Since then, though much remains the same, Hussein has been captured and Bush's poll ratings have rebounded.

From the standpoint of its announced purpose, Baker's mission has been a success. Although Baker has yet to meet with Persian Gulf leaders, Iraq's major debt-holders in the industrialized world - Germany, France, Japan, Russia and China - have all agreed to reduce Iraq's debt and restructure repayment so the country can invest future oil revenues in reconstruction.

France disclosed its intent to ease Iraq's debt even before President Jacques Chirac met with Baker. Eager to forge ties with Iraq's new leaders, Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin announced the initiative after a friendly meeting with members of the Iraqi Governing Council.

Germany quickly agreed to follow suit. Last week, Russia offered to cut Iraq's debt from $8 billion to $ 3.5 billion in return for favorable treatment of Russian companies, particularly firms that had made prewar deals to develop Iraq oil fields.

But Europeans didn't view the Baker trip as merely a negotiation over Iraq's debt, seemingly viewing him as having license to discuss broader issues. Chirac took the occasion of his 40-minute meeting with Baker on Dec. 16 to state his own views about Iraq's future, a French diplomat said.

He urged the United States to accelerate a genuine handover of power from the U.S. occupation authorities to Iraqis, and before that to grant Iraqi ministries more authority to make decisions. He also urged the United States to include more members of the minority Sunni Muslims in the political process and carve out a major role for the United Nations in guiding Iraq's transition to self-government.

Baker is believed by diplomats to have gotten a similar message from German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, along with a pledge not to block a possible U.S. request for NATO to take over the military operation in Iraq. Having stubbornly refused to supply extra aid to Iraq in October, Germany is likely to increase donations in the months ahead, a European diplomat said.

The quick results of Baker's trip marked a shift away from the glee some Europeans felt as American forces became bogged down by a postwar insurgency that seemed to take Bush strategists by surprise.

"France and Germany are probably privately taking an I-told-you-so attitude, but they also realize that if Iraq unravels and the U.S. cuts and runs, it will be a major setback for the Middle East, for the U.S. and for the whole global system. They're going a certain distance to prevent from happening," said Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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