Can Jim Baker Save the American Establishment?

The Queen, a film directed by Stephen Frears with Helen Mirren in an Oscar-winning performance as Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, is meant to be the cinematic account of the composed – well, chilly – response by the queen to the death of Princess Diana in a car crash in a Paris tunnel in 1997, which enraged the hysterical British masses.

But, in fact, the movie is about the way Prime Minister Tony Blair ends up saving the monarchy. The head of the New Labor government (played by Michael Sheen) explains to Her Majesty that she needs to contain the threatening populist wave by demonstrating to her subjects that she feels their pain.

Blair’s political instincts put him at odds with his wife and advisers, who spurn the Royals. But the savvy PM understands that if you start questioning the legitimacy of the reign of the queen, you are in danger of sliding down a dangerous slippery slope that could threaten all of Britain’s traditional institutions. Hence, by helping to save the monarchy, Blair is really protecting the interests of the entire British establishment. If Blair was seen by many as being responsible for saving Queen Elizabeth II, the conventional wisdom in Washington now is that former United States Secretary of State James Baker has taken it upon himself to save U.S. Iraq policy, and by extension, the political fortunes of President George W. Bush.

Baker, a longtime personal friend and political ally of the Bush dynasty, has been appointed by Congress as co-chair of the Iraq Study Group (ISG), a high-level panel of prominent former officials charged by Congress with taking a fresh look at America’s policy on Iraq.

His panel, which is co-chaired by former Democratic representative Lee H. Hamilton is scheduled to issue its report some time after the 2006 midterm elections. And everyone in the U.S. capital – the Bush administration, Congress, the media – are now holding their breath waiting for the words of wisdom to be dispensed by the U.S. capital’s ultimate wise man.

In a way, if Baker succeeds in drawing up constructive ideas for getting the U.S. out of the quagmire in Mesopotamia, he will not only be protecting America’s geo-strategic position and saving the political legacy of Bush the Second; he will also be helping to save that very elusive creature, the American establishment.

"The Establishment," according to Wikipedia, is a slang term, popularized in the 1960s and 1970s to refer to the "traditional ruling class elite and the structures of society they control."

Many Americans, who pride themselves on a relatively open political and economic system ("My child could grow up to be president"), insist that, unlike Britain and Europe, the U.S. doesn’t have such a rigid political ruling class.

Conspiracy theorists imagine that decisions in Washington, especially when it comes to issues of war and peace, are made by the members of a small cabal associated with the Pentagon, the big corporations, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Trilateral Commission.

The reality is, as the developments leading to the war in Iraq have demonstrated, the major decisions in U.S. foreign policy are made by a relatively small elite of policymakers, led by the White House and shaped by powerful bureaucrats, lawmakers, lobbies, and pundits.

While these influential political players include Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, they all seem to share a common interest in the aftermath of the Cold War in maintaining U.S. global political, economic, and military primacy.

If anything, the war in Iraq and its aftermath have exposed a debate among leading members of this establishment.

On the one hand, realist internationalists such as James Baker, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and other public figures with ties to the administrations of Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush have argued that the U.S.’ leading position in the world and the Middle East can be secured only by playing a leadership role in multilateral structures and through cooperation with allies.

U.S. Hegemony

On the other hand, neoconservative ideologues such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle and their patrons (George W. Bush, Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld) have advocated a unilateralist diplomatic and military strategy to protect American global hegemony.

This has been a dispute over means, not goals, between those members of the American establishment who are willing to permit allies to set some constraints on U.S. policies in order to achieve core American interests, and those who argue that the American Gulliver cannot allow himself to be constrained by the weak and useless Lilliputians who are bound to follow him if he only projects his power. The 9/11 terrorist attacks provided an opportunity for the neoconservatives to apply their preferred strategy in the Middle East and worldwide.

And for a while, in the aftermath of the initial military victories in Afghanistan and Iraq, it seemed as though the realist internationalists such as Baker and Brzezinski had lost the debate and were being marginalized within the establishment.

But the failure of the unilateralist U.S. project in Iraq and the Middle East – no weapons of mass destruction and no Saddam-Osama ties; the anti-occupation violence and the civil war; continuing opposition from regional partners and international players and rising anti-American sentiment – have made it clear that the neoconservatives are the ones losing the debate and gradually being marginalized.

Ironically, the invasion of Iraq coupled with the ensuing effort to export American values to the Middle East exposed the major threat that neoconservatism posed to the American establishment by strengthening the forces that challenge U.S. primacy – Iran and its Shi’ite allies in Iraq and Lebanon, Syria, and the radical Hamas in Palestine – while eroding America’s ability to resolve the nuclear crises with North Korea and Iran and manage its relationships with great powers like the European Union, Russia, and China. The most important concern of the American establishment is the impact that a disastrous outcome of the war in Iraq would have on the attitudes of the American public toward continuing the U.S.’ leadership role in the world.

A costly U.S. defeat in Iraq followed by the collapse of that country, a bloody civil war, and possible intervention by outside regional players could devastate America’s position in the Middle East and produce pressure from voters to reduce, and perhaps even end, the expansive American military engagement in the region, followed by similar demands to reassess U.S. intervention in other parts of the world. And that kind of rising isolationist sentiment could challenge the core beliefs and interests of the American establishment, whose members – Republicans and Democrats alike – continue to regard Washington as the modern-day Rome, the central and dominant player in the global system.

Moreover, all the major potential presidential contenders in 2008, including Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican John McCain, supported the decision to go to war in Iraq, and a devastating blow to that undertaking could strengthen the position of antiwar, populist figures in both parties who might decide to join the race to the White House.

Indeed, savvy Democrats like Hillary Clinton recognize that if one starts questioning the decision to go to war in Iraq, the next thing you know, doubts arise about the central tenets of U.S. foreign policy. Before you know it, the American public is sliding on a dangerous slippery slope, a process that could threaten the entire American establishment.

No Surprise

So it is not surprising that Baker and Hamilton, two traditional realist internationalists, are being called to the rescue by the Hillary Clintons and John McCains of Washington.

According to some reports, the ISG will probably draw the outlines of a plan similar to a Bosnia-like partition of Iraq, providing wide political autonomy to the Shi’ite south, the Kurdish north, and the Sunni area, including arrangements to divide the country’s energy resources among the three regions.

Baker and his colleagues are also expected to call for U.S. negotiations with Iran and Syria as part of an effort to involve other regional players in securing the stability of Iraq, and the launching of an international initiative to resolve the other critical Middle East problems: Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, and the Iran nuclear crisis.

Both Democrats and Republicans hope that the adoption of such a plan by Washington would create the conditions for gradual withdrawal of American troops from Iraq as Iraqi military and police forces provide security and make it possible to begin the economic reconstruction of that country.

In that context, such a process coupled with progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the integration of Hezbollah into Lebanon’s political system, and the possible transformation of Iran into a responsible regional and international actor could mark the beginning of the end of the Bush administration’s neoconservative-driven strategy and a return to the more "Empire-Lite" approach that had been advanced by presidents Clinton and Bush Sr.

The U.S. would be able to maintain a leadership position in the Middle East by working with global powers (EU, Russia, and China) and regional allies (Turkey, the moderate Arab states, and Israel) while co-opting rivals like Iran and Syria and trying to bring peace to the Holy Land, Lebanon, and Iraq. But it’s quite possible that it is getting too late to save American positions in the Middle East.

The Bush administration may have unleashed powerful, destructive forces in the Middle East that cannot be restrained and contained anymore. It may be impossible to close Pandora’s box.

At the same time, other global players, such as the EU and Russia, may not have enough incentive to help Washington stabilize its position in that region and may prefer to leave the U.S. twisting in the wind.

And one cannot dismiss the possibility that even if the Baker commission presents a realistic plan for Iraq, President Bush will not be ready to change the course. After all, Tony Blair was able to save Queen Elizabeth II only because she wanted to protect the British monarchy and establishment. Is Bush ready to be saved by Baker? Inquiring minds in the American establishment want to know.

Copyright © 2006 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.