Baker's Return = Cheney's Heartburn
by Jim Lobe
December 13, 2003

It may be that, by four or five months from now:

  • Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz will have heard the siren song of academia and returned to teach in ivy-covered halls somewhere, and that

  • His deputy, Undersecretary for Policy, Douglas Feith, will have decided he can't really afford to put his young kids through school on a government salary, and that it's time to return to a lucrative law practice, and that

  • Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton will have been advised that the sustained excitement of defending U.S. national sovereignty against all comers – from Al Qaeda, to the French, to Amnesty International – was simply too much for his nervous system, and that it was time to take a long vacation with lots of rest; and even that

  • Vice President Dick Cheney will have been sternly warned by his doctors that his chronic heart problems make his participation in a rigorous reelection battle simply out of the question and that he will have to take himself off the ticket for the sake of his own survival, if not for that of his deeply concerned family members.

Fantasy? Mindless speculation? Wishful thinking? Desperation?

Perhaps, but that doesn't change the fact that such scenarios suddenly appeared far more real when former Secretary of State James Baker returned in the flesh this week to take up his new office in the White House – close to the Oval Office – as President George W. Bush's personal envoy for persuading other countries to forgive tens of billions of dollars in Iraqi debt.

In returning, Baker, the longtime consiglieri to the Bush family whose last mission on its behalf was to secure all of Florida's electoral votes for George W. in 2000 regardless of the state's actual voting laws or how people actually voted, made what was already a bad week for administration hawks much, much worse.

As one unnamed "senior administration official" quoted by the New York Times Friday said in noting that Baker has a vastly greater influence on the Bushes than Secretary of State Colin Powell, his fellow-realist, could ever hope to be: "Baker is Bush." Other countries know that Powell doesn't win all the (intra-administration) battles.

"If you deal with Baker, you know you're going to get what you need," said the source in a phrase that must have sent chills down the backs of the neo-conservatives and their right-wing fellow-travelers, most notably Cheney himself.

Of course, it is not yet known how much Baker, the master diplomatic puppeteer of the first Gulf War who also served as White House chief of staff and Treasury Secretary under Ronald Reagan, intends to weigh in on policy decisions that go beyond his specific brief.

But the fact that he is now in the White House and dealing directly with all of Washington's major allies in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East on the future of Iraq, if not the entire region, places him in the thick of the administration's foreign policy, to put it mildly. From now on, very little is likely to be decided on anything that affects Iraq or US alliances without his "input."

And one can only imagine what kind of input he has given Bush on Wolfowitz's incredibly timed decision to make Baker's task far more difficult and expensive by announcing that the allies holding most of Iraq's debt will not be permitted to bid on some 18.6 billion dollars in reconstruction contracts.

If Baker chooses to interpret Wolfowitz's move as a deliberate effort to sabotage his mission ab initio (as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman did Friday), the consequences for the former dean of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, whose hopes of becoming secretary of state in a second Bush term were already on the wane, could be severe.

But the threats posed by Baker's presence to the hawks, especially the neo-conservatives both in and out of the administration, goes far beyond personal score-settling in which Baker has historically shown little interest; they are strategic. By all accounts, Baker believes their dominance of US foreign policy since Sept. 11, 2001, and especially the Iraq invasion, has been disastrous for the country and, perhaps more important, for Bush Jr.'s reelection.

On Iraq, Baker made no secret of his opposition to waging unilateral war before the US invasion, although he was more discreet about it than Bush I's national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, with whom he remains close.

Baker, like other realists, has also been deeply skeptical, not to say incredulous, about neo-conservative ambitions to "remake the face of the Middle East" by exporting democracy. Long associated with Big Oil, Baker would find the radical change in the region of the kind promoted by the neo-cons unacceptably risky and destabilizing.

Moreover, he has always disdained the Likud Party in Israel; it was he who threatened to cut off housing guarantees if then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir did not take part in the 1991 Madrid peace talks (that led eventually to the Oslo peace process), much to the public dismay and anger of neo-conservatives like Feith, the powerful former chairman of the Defense Policy Board, Richard Perle, and Elliott Abrams, the current Middle East director on the National Security Council.

And he has also sided consistently with those, like Powell and Bush's father, who have favored constructive relations with Beijing, a position which Bush Jr. has clearly come to share, as he showed this week during the visit of Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

Finally, as secretary of state, Baker gave top priority to close ties to traditional European allies, including Germany and France, or what the neo-cons and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld has referred to disdainfully as "Old Europe." In that respect, Wolfowitz, in issuing his directive banning German and French contractors from bidding on reconstruction contracts now, not only made Baker's job more difficult (and more costly for the US taxpayer), has confirmed that the hawks have their priorities upside down.

But Baker, Scowcroft, Powell and their fellow-realists had already reached that conclusion 12 years ago when some of the neo-cons, like Wolfowitz and Perle, were furious that the Gulf War ended without the US army in Baghdad.

Similarly, it was Wolfowitz and his boss, then-Secretary of Defense Cheney, who kept up a stream of strident warnings that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev remained a committed Communist whose designs for global conquest were no different from his predecessors right up until...well, right up until the Soviet Union collapsed. Even then, they thought it might be a trick.

And it was, of course, Wolfowitz and his top deputy, I. Lewis Libby – who is now Cheney's powerful chief of staff – who prepared the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance (DPG) draft in which they called for the US to pursue a strategy of global domination and preemption, nuclear if necessary, against rogues states and possibly emerging rivals.

Baker, Scowcroft, and then-Armed Forces Chief of Staff Powell, not to mention Bush Sr., were so alarmed – as were senior lawmakers and US allies in Europe after parts of it were leaked to the New York Times – that it was only Cheney's promises to overhaul the text that saved the jobs of the two main authors, whose radical proposals would guide US policy after the 9/11 attacks a decade later.

In many ways, therefore, the hawks themselves already see Baker as their nemesis, but they have been steadily losing power over the last several months in any case.

Bush's harsh words for Taiwan's leader this week, and the readiness with which neo-cons, like Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, accuse him of appeasement testify to the very serious strains between the White House and the neo-con network which until now has assiduously avoided attacking the president himself for any disagreements it has had with the administration.

In addition, intra-administration fights over Iran, Syria, and North Korea in which the hawks appeared to have the upper hand after the Iraq war have been tilting back towards the realists. This week's decision by the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), for example, to disarm and deport the Iranian Mojahadin e Khalq marked a signal defeat for Cheney and the neo-conservatives, who have wanted to use them against the Islamic Republic. Similarly, the acceleration of "Iraqification" in neighboring Iraq without a thoroughgoing "de-Ba'athification" marks a triumph of the realists.

Indeed, Baker's arrival in some ways may crown the successful development of an effective "counter-network" within the administration that has gradually eroded the hawks' authority since September. Aside from Powell and senior officers in the uniformed military and the intelligence community who were always dubious of the hawks, key members of this group include the National Security Council's (NSC) Coordinator for Strategic Planning, Amb. Robert Blackwill, who came on board in September, and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) chief, Amb. L. Paul Bremer, in Baghdad.

Both are former foreign service officers who are conservative but not ideologues. Bremer and Blackwill have known each other since they both worked for arch-realist Henry Kissinger in the early 1970s. Blackwill is particularly interesting, both because he was Rice's boss as NSC director for European and Soviet Affairs under Scowcroft in the first Bush administration who, in that capacity, clashed with Wolfowitz and Cheney over Gorbachev. He reportedly met Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a political officer in the US embassy in Tel Aviv and has remained on good terms, although he disdains neo-conservatives.

When hired by Rice, Blackwill's job was to assert firm White House control over Iraq policy, which had been seen increasingly between August and October as having been botched by the Pentagon, especially Feith's office. By most accounts, he has made so much progress in that regard that he also has begun weighing in on overall Middle East policy, possibly at Abrams' and the neo-conservatives' expense.

Of course, the situation in Iraq is the most important single factor in the changing the balance of power within the administration. But Blackwill was also brought in to ensure that the NSC enforces discipline – something which Rice on her own was unwilling or unable to do – over all the policy agencies, particularly the Pentagon which, under Cheney's protection, has often appeared to act on its own. The fact that Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, who warned several months ago that there should be "no more wars" before the November election, also supported these changes has also had its impact.

But the larger, foreign-policy impact of the resurgence of the realists capped by Baker's return may already be tangible.

While Sharon clearly is under growing domestic pressure to take steps to reinvigorate peace negotiations with the Palestinians, his recent moves – as well as Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's unexpectedly far-reaching proposals for territorial compromise – may suggest that the Israelis themselves perceive a shift in the administration's internal balance of power that needs to be accommodated.

If Baker's European interlocutors next week suggest that real pressure by Washington on Israel – perhaps of the kind Baker wielded back in 1991 – could make them more amenable to reducing Iraq's official debt, the larger implications of Baker's appointment become more tangible. In any event, Wolfowitz's timing has clearly given Mssrs. Chirac, Schroeder, Putin, and other European leaders more leverage to raise issues of this kind.

And for the hawks, even the recognition that the Europeans enjoy significant leverage over US foreign policy is very bad news, indeed.

It's just the kind of news that makes Dick Cheney's heart go ''Thumpa-Thumpa-Thumpa."

(Inter Press Service)

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Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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