Neocons Move to Preempt Baker Report

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 devil himself.

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 war.

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 Gulf War.

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] for Israel … 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 the field.

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 created … 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)

Read more by Jim Lobe

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.