Baker bailout likely too late

October 24, 2006|By Trudy Rubin

PHILADELPHIA -- Waiting for Mr. Baker.

That may be the last, desperate Bush administration hope for rescuing its flailing Iraq policy. U.S. officials are anxiously awaiting the report of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group - co-chaired by James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state and a Bush family confidant - whose task is to reassess Iraq strategy.

The group's report won't come out until after the November elections, but in a sign of how bleak the Iraq situation has become, Mr. Baker is being looked at as a sort of Houdini. Never mind that he has warned "there is no magic bullet" for the Iraq situation.

Yet the study group has galvanized Washington's attention by virtue of the fact that the president endorsed its creation. The same president who has incessantly said he would "stay the course" has anointed Mr. Baker to propose a change of course.

It's worth pondering what this Bush concession means. Mr. Baker is hardly the man one would have expected the president to call on as rescuer in chief. True, he operated as the Bush family's consigliere in the 2000 Florida election. But George W. Bush was never fond of his father's friend, who is a foreign policy realist with no illusions about the Mideast.

By endorsing the study group, the president is making a humiliating admission that he needs rescuing from his Iraq mess.

In fact, the normally stubborn Mr. Bush made a stunning admission in an Oct. 11 news conference. "I think the characterization of `let's stay the course' is about a quarter right," he said. "`Stay the course' means, keep doing what you're doing. My attitude is, don't do what you're doing if it's not working - change."

However, finding a new course that will work at this late date will be a staggering task for Mr. Baker. Virtually every premise that the White House held about postwar Iraq has been proved wrong; the dire results leave the study group little to work with. With Iraq convulsed by sectarian killing, and the Sunni insurgency unchecked, Mr. Baker will have to pick and choose among a list of unsatisfactory choices:

1. Change the Iraqi government. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has proved incapable of the tough leadership needed to reconcile with "moderate" Sunnis, stop the sectarian slaughter and undercut the Sunni insurgency. But this is not South Vietnam in 1963; the gung-ho-for-democracy Mr. Bush can't depose an elected Iraqi leader. The White House is stuck with an Iraqi government that can't govern.

2. Pull out immediately. Mr. Baker has rejected this option. He fears that a chaotic Iraq would become a regional battleground, as Iran, Syria, and Sunni Arab states rush to fill the power vacuum left by the U.S. exit.

3. Push for the division of Iraq into three federal states for Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, in the hope this would stop the fighting. Mr. Baker says he can't see how one could draw the boundary lines, because Iraq's cities and towns are mixed. Sunnis and many Shiites bitterly oppose this idea, and I see no way U.S. occupiers could impose such a plan on Iraqis.

4. Send more troops. This isn't on, because the U.S. military has run out of available bodies.

5. Draw down U.S. forces, but insert more teams of U.S. military trainers inside Iraqi security force units. A good idea - but military experts say it will be hard to find enough additional U.S. trainers because this requires stripping officers out of their units.

6. Give the al-Maliki government a finite deadline to design a reconciliation pact with the Sunnis, and ratchet up the pressure by setting a timetable for the withdrawal of most U.S. forces - say, in two years. Then convene a conference of Iraq's neighbors and big powers to help stabilize the country. Such a conference would require the White House to deal with Iran.

My guess is that Mr. Baker's Iraq Study Group will propose some combination of 5 and 6, with no guarantees that Iraq or American policy can be salvaged.

Would Mr. Bush adopt such a radical course change? White House spokesman Tony Snow is cautioning that the president won't hand Iraq policy off to Mr. Baker's group. But Mr. Bush is drowning in Iraq trouble, and Mr. Baker offers the only life raft.

How tragic that Mr. Bush wouldn't turn to the Mideast-savvy Mr. Baker three years ago when his advice might have prevented disaster. At this point, Mr. Baker may be able only to save Mr. Bush some face - not to save Iraq.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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