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Ignore James Baker

The man who has come to rescue U.S. policy in Iraq is actually the man who rescued Saddam Hussein twice. The first time came early during the presidency of George Bush pere. It was James Baker who was in charge, tending Saddam's wounds and building up his arms. At that moment, the Baath dictatorship was still reeling from its brutal eight-year war with Iran, a conflict that presaged the uncivil strife occurring in Mesopotamia now. The second time was toward the close of the first Bush presidency, and Baker was still in charge. Iraq had been forced back from the invasion of a country it had intended to annex. The logic of the victory should have suggested unseating the aggressor--a man at once reckless and conniving, hated by (most of) his countrymen and feared by (all of) his neighbors.

But that logic never penetrated the victors, who maintained Saddam in Baghdad with the goal of keeping him on a tight rope and constraining his economy by a regime of sanctions. Such a regime has rarely worked. He turned out to be especially adept at manipulating it against his longtime domestic victims and for his sectarian, familial, and geographical allies. This suffering was neither here nor there for the especially visible members of the coalition that had defeated him. Arab solidarity does not cut across doctrinal lines. This was only one reason why pan-Arabism turned out to be a roaring tiger but one without teeth.

The primary consideration of Saudi Arabia, for example, was that a Sunni government of one sort or another--like the ones that had been in place since Gertrude Bell (the T.E. Lawrence of the north) installed the Emir Faisal as king in Baghdad 70 years earlier--not be displaced. This meant a permanent minority was to be in power. And, if history was an accurate predictor, it would be a brutal minority at that. A neighboring Shia state would be an enormous discomfort for the royals in Riyadh. I don't want to be cavalier about this, since, to say the least, nationhood is not a fully matured notion among the Arabs.And, if I were a responsible Saudi official, I, too, would worry greatly if adjacent Iraq became an official Shia state, especially given how the Shia minority fared under Sunni rule of the Arabian peninsula.

Almost uncannily, Baker's instincts and convictions meshed (and mesh still) with the House of Saud. Forgive me for appearing like a Marxist--a vulgar Marxist, no less. But the Carlyle Group of which Baker has been a top factotum is much at home with the Sunni princely and investor dynasts. Their compatibility is almost primordial--and also very practical.

Let's face it: The Baker-Hamilton Commission is a desperate rescue operation for the Iraqi Sunnis. George W. Bush has gotten us all into trouble, and he will now be taken to the woodshed by his father's faithful but resentful lieutenant. George W. never really liked Baker. (But who actually does?) The president might even muse to himself that, had Baker--and his dad--not saved Saddam 15 years ago, he would not have had the chore to do for himself. He probably wouldn't relish the irony of reading a speech by then-Senator Al Gore on September 29, 1992, lambasting the first Bush administration--and Baker, in particular--for leaving the despot-aggressor in power.

Michael Kinsley has written a characteristically hilarious and insightful column in Slate, "BAKE ME A CAKE, BAKER MAN: WHY THE BAKER COMMISSION WON'T FIX IRAQ." It focuses on the predictably "blue-ribbon" members of this gathering of senior citizens. Or, as Mike writes, "This is one torch that has not been passed to a new generation, although former Virginia senator and presidential son-in-law Charles Robb (age 67) is a fresh face in the pool of Washington Wise Men." But perhaps he forgot that, aside from Baker, two other members of the commission have sins to atone for with regard to Saddam as well: Larry Eagleburger and Alan Simpson, who, in April 1990, lectured the "haughty and pampered" Western press that dared report Baathist abuses. And what, by the way, is Vernon Jordan doing on this particular commission of sages?

The truth is that commissioners rarely do the real work of the commission. That is done by its subalterns. It is true that this group is numerous and various.But several names ring alarms: Chas Freeman, Shibley Telhami, William Quandt, Phebe Marr, Marina Ottaway, Augustus Richard Norton--all fading apologists for the exhausted Sunni solution to everything.

What I fear is that the thrust of the moment is to restore as much of the old orthodoxies as possible. They haven't worked for more than two decades, even as superficially as they did before, when resentments were festering not only among the Shia, but among ever more pious--and, yes, fanatical--Sunnis as well. Their ranks, too, are swelling.

Sorry! Give George W. Bush his due. He took down the Taliban. And he also took down the savage Caesar. These are achievements. What he did not grasp--and what, for that matter, Baker and those for whom he speaks also do not grasp--is the sheer and relentless butchery of which both Sunni and Shia are capable. The fiendish barbarism of decapitated heads and mutilated bodies is now a reflex of the warriors and nothing exceptional, a commonplace. Even the bare rudiments of civilization will not soon come back to the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates.

So what is to be done? Inevitably, Baker will deploy the only trick he knows: force Israel to retreat to the 1967 lines. OK, it can't be forced. Then at least hold a peace conference. The 1991 peace conference actually accomplished nothing, except to pay Bush-Baker's debt to their partners in the Kuwait coalition. And the Oslo accords--also nothing. In any case, although many people believe a resolution of the Palestine question is the key to everything, it is actually a key to nothing but itself. It would not affect the bloodshed in Iraq. It would not even affect the strife in Lebanon. It also would not calm the anxieties of the Saudi monarchy. Or the clamor for freedom in Egypt. Well, if a peace settlement doesn't douse these fires, another blue-ribbon panel surely will rise to the challenge.

This article originally ran in the November 27, 2006 issue of the magazine.