Now It’s Iraq on the Agenda for Mr. Fix-It of the G.O.P.
WASHINGTON, Nov. 25 — Everyone in Washington knows that President Bush has a lot riding on the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan panel searching for a fresh 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 Mr. Baker — a former secretary of state who has been a friend and a tennis partner of the first President Bush since the current president was 13 years old — led the legal team that delivered the White House to its current occupant. That was Mr. Baker in partisan mode, cementing his reputation as Bush family confidant and Republican fix-it man.
Now, at 76, Mr. Baker is in high diplomat mode, on a mission, friends and supporters say, to aid his country and 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 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.”
On Monday, 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 an analysis of the 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. Mr. 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 it will be difficult.
“It’s not a guaranteed result,” Mr. 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.”
Mr. 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 dealmaker in the Middle East. He has always been “the quintessential pragmatist,” in Mr. Panetta’s words, a master at intertwining politics with diplomacy, at consulting everyone in the beginning so no one feels left out in the end.
That has been his modus operandi at the commission, where he has functioned almost as a shadow secretary of state, using his vast personal Rolodex to reach out to international figures the Bush administration has shunned — while testing the political waters at home.
He has made ample use of his Bush connections, dropping in on the president for private Oval Office tête-à-têtes. He led the study group on a mission to Baghdad, where they donned helmets and flak jackets to meet leaders of every political stripe. (“A lot of them knew him,” Mr. Panetta said.)
He has included Mr. Hamilton on every decision, going so far as to reject a photo shoot at Newsweek unless it included Mr. Hamilton, colleagues said. He insisted the report be released after the November election. He 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 Mr. Baker write the draft and is director of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, a university Mr. Baker’s grandfather helped found.
As a two-time former cabinet secretary (at Treasury 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), Mr. 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 Mr. Baker, who spoke on 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.”
Nor will President Bush; his press secretary, Tony Snow, insisted that the White House would not “outsource this problem to the Baker commission.” The White House is already pushing back against the report, even before it is issued. The Pentagon is doing its own review of Iraq policy, and the White House has commissioned another. President Bush, meanwhile, is traveling to Jordan this week to meet Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq, where he is expected to reassure the prime minister that the United States is not pulling out anytime soon.
Mr. Baker’s relationship with the president is one of the great curiosities of Washington, and many here are trying to divine how he will use that tie to advance the Iraq Study Group. The two are not nearly as close as Mr. Baker is with Mr. Bush’s father; Mr. Baker’s recent autobiography, “Work Hard, Study and Keep Out of Politics,” suggests tension just under the surface.
Mr. Baker writes that he did not mind being left out of the current administration: “We had our turn. Now it was his.” Though people in Washington see a certain irony in his return to manage a new Iraq war gone wrong, he insists he is not “implicitly criticizing” Mr. Bush for the invasion. Yet Mr. Baker takes pains to point out, in a one-sentence footnote, that Mr. Bush is “an alumnus” of the “office boy pool” at Baker Botts, Mr. Baker’s law firm in Houston. In one scene from the elder Mr. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign, he refers to “the ever-playful presidential son, George W.”
These days Mr. Baker refers to that son as “Mr. President.” The president calls Mr. Baker, 16 years his senior, “Jimmy.” Aides to both insist Mr. Baker has not used his private Oval Office meetings to tip the president off to the commission’s work. But then, Mr. 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 Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., the 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, Mr. Baker relishes his encore as elder statesmen.
“Look, he was certainly a very effective politician, a wise political strategist,” said Donald L. Evans, a close friend of Mr. Baker’s who served as commerce secretary in President Bush’s first term. “But that was a means to an end. He’s playing, I think, the role that he should be playing at this moment in life — the distinguished statesman that is there for leaders to go to, and listen to.”
The study group, formed in March, operated below radar for months. But the assignment just happened to overlap with Mr. Baker’s October book tour. Mr. Baker left no media outlet unturned, even appearing on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” (“Don’t think for one minute they don’t sell books,” he later told The Houston Chronicle.)
Mr. Baker used the appearances artfully, promoting the book and setting the stage for public acceptance of the Iraq Study Group. He made clear his differences with the White House, telling the ABC news program “This Week” that “it’s not appeasement to talk to your enemies” and that his panel would search for a middle ground between “ ‘stay the course’ and ‘cut and run.’ ”
The political landscape, though, has changed dramatically since then. If Mr. Baker can guide his group toward recommendations that are accepted by the White House and Democrats, and that yield real improvement in Iraq, he will be more than a Republican fix-it man. Mr. Evans, the former commerce secretary, said he would be remembered as “America’s fix-it man.”
But foreign policy experts and politicians alike say there is no miracle elixir for Iraq; if there were, someone would have thought of it already. Ivo Daalder, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, says the real test for Mr. Baker is to pull the White House “out of the quicksand” in a way that has lasting political effects at home and strategic effects in Iraq.
“This is an impossible job,” said Mr. Daalder, adding wryly: “Even God couldn’t meet those expectations. Perhaps Jim Baker can.”