Iraq panel co-chair switches political hats

Baker forges image as statesman

November 26, 2006|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Everyone in Washington knows that President Bush has a lot riding on the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan panel searching for an exit strategy in Iraq. But so has the man whose name has become synonymous with the group: its Republican co-chairman, James A. Baker III.

The last time he dominated the news was in 2000, in Florida, when Baker -- a former secretary of state who has been a friend and a tennis partner of the first President George Bush since the current president was 13 years old -- led the legal team that delivered the White House to its current occupant. That was Baker in partisan mode, cementing his reputation as Bush family confidant and Republican fix-it man.

Now, at 76, Baker is in high diplomat mode, on a mission, friends and supporters say, to aid his country and rescue his president -- and, while he is at it, seal his legacy in the realm of statesmen, a sphere he cares about far more than politics.

"I think he'd like to be remembered as a 21st-century Disraeli," said Leon E. Panetta, a Democratic member of the group, referring to the 19th-century British statesman and prime minister. "I think deep down he is someone who believes that his diplomatic career, in many ways, helped change the world."

Tomorrow, the 10 members of the Iraq Study Group -- five Republicans and five Democrats -- will convene in Washington for two days of deliberations, to try to produce a report by mid-December. The panel, formed at the urging of a bipartisan group in Congress, has a broad mandate to conduct a forward-looking analysis of the entire situation in Iraq, including military, economic and political issues.

The group has conducted hundreds of interviews, but some question whether even the most thorough report can have any effect on the ground in Iraq, where sectarian violence is escalating.

The panel remains deeply divided over several critical issues, most notably whether to accede to calls by Democrats for a phased withdrawal of troops. Baker, who would not be interviewed for this article, has said he wants bipartisan consensus, but the panel's Democratic co-chairman, Lee H. Hamilton, acknowledges that it will be difficult.

"It's not a guaranteed result," Hamilton said. "There is a lot of focus on our work, and a lot of attention to it, and high expectation from it. I think Jim and I both feel that pressure."

Baker is no stranger to world affairs; he presided over the end of the Cold War, the 1991 invasion of Iraq (arguing famously against ousting Saddam Hussein) and was an aggressive deal-maker in the Middle East.

Baker has let information slip out when it has suited him -- like news of his quiet rendezvous with officials from Syria and Iran, rogue nations in the White House's view -- but has demanded absolute secrecy about the substance of the panel's work.

"We've all been issued cyanide pills," said Edward P. Djerejian, who is helping Baker write the draft and is director of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, a university Baker's grandfather helped found.

As a two-time former Cabinet secretary (at the Treasury Department under President Ronald Reagan and the State Department under the first President Bush) and a two-time former White House chief of staff (Reagan and the first President Bush), Baker has been around Washington long enough to know how to play the expectations game. Right now, he is playing it to the hilt, putting out the word that Iraq 2006 is hardly Florida 2000.

"The expectations have gotten well beyond where he wanted them to get," said one person close to Baker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "You're talking about a political equation as much as you are a strategic and diplomatic one. And one of the things that's making the situation difficult is this image that Baker's coming in, Baker's riding to the rescue. There are some very smart and very strong Democrats on this panel, and they're not going to do what Baker tells them to do."

Aides to both Bush and Baker insist that Baker has not used private Oval Office meetings to tip the president off to the commission's work. But then, Baker would never be that unsubtle.

"He's treating the president just like he is everyone else, as somebody to be co-opted, and brought into the process," said one outside adviser to the study group, who was granted anonymity to talk about the process.

Some Democrats consider that a good thing.

"Baker has the great good possibility of success because he's so close to the president," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat and incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "He's able to give the president a way out, a way of saying, `I didn't do what the Democrats said. I listened to Baker, my old buddy, Jim Baker.'"

By all accounts, Baker relishes his encore as elder statesmen.

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