To have read the neoconservative press here over
the past month, one would think that former Secretary of State James Baker poses
the biggest threat to the United States and Israel since Saddam Hussein.
As the ur-realist of U.S. Middle East policy who once had the temerity to threaten
to withhold U.S. aid guarantees from Israel if former right-wing Prime Minister
Yitzhak Shamir failed to show up at the 1991 Madrid Conference, Baker has long
been seen by neoconservatives, as well as the Christian Right, as close to the
But his role as co-chairman and presumed eminence grise of the bipartisan
Iraq Study Group (ISG), whose long-awaited recommendations on how the U.S. can
best extract itself from a war the neoconservatives did so much to incite will
be released here Wednesday, has provoked a new campaign of vilification of the
kind that they normally reserve for the "perfidious" French.
The specific aim of the campaign which has been waged virtually daily
on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, the Washington
Times, and the online and printed versions of the Weekly Standard
and National Review has been to discredit the ISG's presumed conclusions,
even before they are published.
Its recommendations, general and remarkably vague accounts of which have appeared
in the New York Times and the Washington Post, reportedly include
a gradual reduction in the U.S. combat role in Iraq in favor of a much bigger
effort at training and strengthening Iraq's army. It is a strategy that the
military brass appear to have already adopted and that ISG consultants have
said could reduce the number of U.S. troops there from around 140,000 today
to 70,000 in 2008.
On the other hand, neoconservatives, backed by Sen. John McCain, among others,
favor a "surge" of as many as 50,000 more troops to stabilize the
country. They have attacked any troop reduction as a betrayal of Bush's dream
of democratizing Iraq and the region, leaving their harshest attacks for the
ISG's anticipated call for Washington to seriously engage Syria and Iran, as
well as Iraq's other neighbors, as part of its diplomatic strategy.
Baker himself telegraphed this aspect of his approach after meeting with Damascus's
foreign minister and Tehran's UN ambassador, Mohammed Javad Zarif, who reports
directly to Iran's supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "[I]n
my view, it's not appeasement to talk to your enemies," he said.
Those remarks set off a tidal wave of protest and criticism beginning with
the published announcement in the Weekly Standard by Michael Rubin, a
fellow at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), that he had
resigned from an "expert working group" advising the ISG. Rubin accused
Baker and his Democratic co-chair, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, of having "gerrymandered
[the] advisory panels to ratify predetermined recommendations" panels,
he noted, which included Middle East experts who had actually opposed the Iraq
In a preview of attacks that appeared with increasing frequency over the following
month, Rubin also assailed Baker for what he called the former secretary of
state's "legacy" in the Middle East namely, his approval of
the 1989 Taif Accords which "sacrificed Lebanese independence" to
Syria and his "betrayal" of Kurdish and Shi'ite rebels after the first
Rubin was quickly followed by Eliot Cohen, a member of the Pentagon's Defense
Policy Board, who, writing in the Wall Street Journal, mocked the ISG
as a "collection of worthies commissioned by Congress that has spent several
days in Iraq, chiefly in the Green Zone."
"To think that either [Syria or Iran], with remarkable records of violence,
duplicity, and hostility to the U.S., will rescue us bespeaks a certain willful
blindness," Cohen wrote.
The campaign against Baker and the ISG hotted up after the Nov. 7 Democratic
landslide followed by the resignation of Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and
his replacement by Robert Gates, an ISG member who two years ago had called
for negotiations with Tehran.
The Journal published a series of harsh attacks in mid-November by both
Rubin and columnist Bret Stephens on Baker and other alumni, like Gates, who
held top posts in the realist-dominated administration of former President George
H. W. Bush.
In an appeal to "progressives" who had opposed the realism of both
the Reagan and senior Bush administrations, Rubin noted that Baker served as
Ronald Reagan's chief of staff and Gates as his deputy CIA director when Washington
sided with Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war and "sent people across
the third world to their graves in the cause of U.S. national interest."
The following day, Stephens blamed Baker for forcing Israel to take part in
the Madrid conference "which set the groundwork for the Oslo Accords [which]
meant more terrorism, culminating in the second intifada,
and for the Palestinians it meant repression in the person of Yasser Arafat
and mass radicalization in the movement of Hamas."
Things got even more personal with columns by Frank Gaffney, president of the
neoconservative Center for Security Policy, and Mark Steyn in the Washington
Times suggesting that Baker's thinking was motivated as much by anti-Semitism
as by realism.
"Jim Baker's hostility towards the Jews is a matter of record and has
endeared him to Israel's foes in the region," wrote Gaffney, suggesting
that the ISG which, in another column published Tuesday, he called the "Iraq
Surrender Group" would recommend a regional approach similar to Madrid
that would "throw free Iraq to the wolves" and "allow the Mideast's
only bona fide democracy, the Jewish State, to be snuffed in due course."
Indeed, the past week has witnessed a veritable orgy of Baker- and ISG-bashing,
beginning with a Weekly Standard article by former Republican House of
Representatives Speaker and AEI fellow Newt Gingrich that warned that "any
proposal to ask Iran and Syria to help is a sign of defeat" and "appeasement."
At the same time, the Washington Post's Charles Krauthammer, an Iraq
war hawk who has blamed Washington's troubles in that country on the Iraqis
themselves, resurrected the charge that "Baker gave Lebanon over to Syria
as a quid pro quo" for its backing in the 1991 Gulf War and mocked the
notion that "Iran and Syria have an interest in stability in Iraq."
For sheer consistency, however, the Weekly Standard, which in this week's
edition featured no less than three articles denouncing the ISG including
one that described the Commission's membership as "deeply reactionary"
and the "K-Mart version of the Congress of Vienna" has led
In successive lead editorials by chief editor William Kristol and Robert Kagan,
the magazine first assailed the notion that Washington should engage Syria and
Iran as "capitulation," and then, reassured by Bush's declaration
last week that he was not prepared to follow the ISG's advice on talking with
either Damascus or Tehran, accused Baker of having "quite deliberately
the disastrous impression
that the United States is about
to withdraw from Iraq."
"At home and broad, people have been led to believe that Jim Baker and
not the president was going to call the shots in Iraq from now on. Happily,
that is not the case," according to Kagan and Kristol, who recently called
Bush "the last neocon in power."
(Inter Press Service)