Bush's last resort: dad's deal makers

November 14, 2006|By Trudy Rubin

PHILADELPHIA -- Fifteen years ago, I watched the diplomatic wizardry of James A. Baker III as the secretary of state pulled reluctant Arabs and Israelis into the groundbreaking Madrid peace talks.

Mr. Baker was working for the first President Bush; his skills in getting sulky Syrians and skeptical Israelis to meet were impressive. Now the savvy ex-diplomat has been recalled to use his skills to rescue his former boss' son.

What's even more fascinating is the recall of another of George H. W. Bush's team, former CIA head Robert M. Gates, to replace Donald H. Rumsfeld. Mr. Gates is part of Mr. Baker's bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which will offer President Bush a set of Iraq policy options by early December.

Both Mr. Baker and Mr. Gates know that the options for Iraq are circumscribed by past U.S. errors. Iraq is a broken state with a dysfunctional government, its society convulsed by low-grade civil war. So what plausible options can these men offer the White House?

First, some background. The study group, co-chaired by former Democratic Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, has listened to dozens of experts but hasn't begun to formulate its recommendations. However, Mr. Baker - and Mr. Gates - are foreign policy "realists" and not given to grand theories of remaking the Mideast in a democratic mold.

While President Bush still talks of "victory," the Baker group is likely to define victory down. The best possible outcome would be a pact among Iraqi factions that avoids all-out civil war and prevents Sunni areas of the country, such as Anbar province, from falling under the control of ultraradical Islamists.

What plan can the Baker group suggest to stabilize Iraq?

There are three much-discussed options I don't think the group will recommend. One is an immediate pullout of U.S. troops over the next six months. I believe such a pullout would trigger all-out civil war and leave behind a failed state that would give Sunni jihadis a base.

Nor do I think the Baker-Hamilton group will advise sending more troops. This might be desirable - right now, U.S. troops are playing whack-a-mole as they fight radical Islamist insurgents. But the military says there are no more troops to send.

And I doubt the group will endorse a division of Iraq into three federal states, ? la the plan suggested by Democratic Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware. Sunnis strongly oppose this idea and aren't likely to be won over with promises of shared oil revenue.

I think the study group will focus on options that play to the strengths of Mr. Baker, Mr. Gates and the George H. W. Bush realist vision. The goal will be to corral Iraqi leaders into a reconciliation pact by getting their neighbors to help convince them. (Shiite Iran is the primary backer of Iraqi Shiites, and Sunni Arab states support Iraq's Sunni minority.) The goal will also be to change the role U.S. troops play in Iraq.

Mr. Baker is likely to recommend an international conference of Iraq's neighbors and Iraqi political leaders, along with the United States and other major powers. The objective would be to persuade Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states to help stabilize Iraq and stop supporting Iraqi militias. Otherwise, they could face the blowback from a failed Iraqi state.

For such a conference to work, of course, the United States would have to talk directly to Tehran and Damascus. Interestingly, Mr. Gates was co-chair of a 2004 Council on Foreign Relations study that advocated that the United States engage with Tehran. Mr. Baker has said publicly and repeatedly that "it is not appeasement to talk to your enemies." No one knows, of course, whether Iran and Syria would cooperate on stabilizing Iraq, and for what price. Even their cooperation wouldn't guarantee the defeat of hard-line Sunni Islamists and Baathists.

My guess is that to achieve that goal, the Baker group will suggest sending more skilled U.S. military trainers to work within Iraqi armed units while U.S. forces are drawn down over the next two years. If Iraq's neighbors support a unified leadership in Baghdad, Iraqi security forces might finally have a government to fight for. At least, this would be the hope.

Again, solutions on paper in Washington may well fail. But the options suggested by the team of Bush the Father may well be the best choices Bush the Son is likely to get.

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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