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Jeb Bush’s James Baker Problem - Commentary

Last month, Governor Jeb Bush unveiled a foreign-policy team with a number of Republican heavy hitters from the past three Republican administrations, and soon thereafter delivered a foreign-policy address at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The big question that many analysts asked was whether Jeb Bush would lean more toward his father’s vision of foreign policy than toward his brother’s. The underlying spin behind that question was that the elder Bush had more foresight with regard to the application of military force and understood the limits of power. While both men oversaw an invasion of Iraq, many foreign-policy analysts and journalists approve of Operation Desert Storm but consider Operation Iraqi Freedom to have been a historic mistake. That’s something historians will decide. But a better question than which Bush would Jeb hone most closely to in foreign policy might be whether, given his most senior advisors, a Jeb Bush foreign policy would differ substantively from that of President Barack Obama.

Jeb Bush gave a fine speech, even if a bit anodyne. Sure, Jeb criticized Obama’s “inconsistent and indecisive” leadership on the world stage, but that’s an issue of style and competence, not philosophy. Pretty much any successor to Obama, whether Democrat or Republican, will do better on the world stage. The same holds true for Jeb Bush’s insistence that red lines should matter. Few presidents would disagree, Obama being the exception. Calling for greater economic growth at home is also a no-brainer: Would any president really want moribund growth? Greater defense spending is a step in the right direction, as so many military and national-security experts and scholars across the partisan divide recognize.

While it may be commendable that Jeb Bush has hired folks who represent different sides of past policy debates, former Secretary of State James Baker who, alongside former Secretary of State George Shultz, is Jeb’s most senior and, perhaps because he is not fishing for a job himself, most influential advisor, has a track record of policy recommendations that hone closer to what Obama has implemented than the clean break Jeb Bush suggests he wants.

Baker was co-chair back in 2006 of the Iraq Study Group, better known as the Baker-Hamilton Commission which, in the darkest days of the Iraq war, not only counseled the type of retreat which George W. Bush refused but also blessed the idea of unilateral retreat which Barack Obama implemented. Baker went further, however, and worked into the report a call for Israel to make concessions under fire and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad to be rewarded. Both a latent hostility to Israel and a benign reading of the Syrian regime have long been characteristic of Baker’s philosophy, as they have been Obama’s. Remember, Obama came into office believing Assad was a reformer and, despite the horrific civil war in subsequent years, now appears ready to again legitimize Assad as a partner. Baker also sought to partner with Iran in order to resolve difficulties in Iraq, leading to this brilliant David Zucker parody featuring Baker.

If there’s one thing that the past decade should have made clear it is that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not central to the divisions and problems which undercut Middle Eastern stability and American national security. The whole Iraq Study Group was a put-up job, with Baker and Lee Hamilton stroking the egos of those testifying all the while ignoring the substance of their input while aides wrote a pre-ordained report. As such, Baker should be held fully accountable for the report’s often counterproductive and self-defeating recommendations.

Alas, the Baker-Hamilton report was the rule rather than the exception. Against the backdrop of the 2008 presidential campaign, Baker traveled to Little Rock, Arkansas, where he appeared to give an endorsement of the type of diplomacy with rogue regimes which George W. Bush shied away from, but which Obama had made the centerpiece of his campaign. Then, again, this merely restated the policy which Baker blessed as secretary of state with regard to North Korea. In The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War, and Peace, 1989–1992, he explained, “Our diplomatic strategy was designed to build international pressure against North Korea to force them to live up to their agreements.” In reality, however, Baker pioneered a philosophy which Obama has now perfected; that is, a belief that a bad deal is better than no deal, even if it means turning a blind eye toward an enemy’s cheating. As the State Department negotiated with Pyongyang, Baker accepted North Korea’s insistence that limited inspections regarding North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure to sites “agreed upon between the two sides,” in effect giving Pyongyang a veto. Baker offered this concession even though the CIA had warned that North Korea was hiding parts of its nuclear program. Such a philosophy laid the groundwork for a process that culminated during the Clinton administration in “The Agreed Framework,” an achievement celebrated in Washington but treated disdainfully in Pyongyang as the North Korean regime pocketed associated aid and accelerated its drive toward a nuclear bomb. Baker, however, bragged in his memoirs (published after the Agreed Framework was signed) that “American diplomacy [was] directly responsible for an end to six years of intransigence by the North.”

Much of Baker’s positive reputation comes from how he and George H.W. Bush handled Operation Desert Storm. And, for this, they deserve plaudits. What is interesting, however, is how Baker was for Saddam before he was against him. On February 15, 1990, after the Voice of America broadcast an editorial into several Arab countries celebrating the collapse of dictatorship in Eastern Europe and castigating Iraq as belonging to a club whose leaders maintained power “by force and fear, not by the consent of the governed,” Saddam was furious. Rather than defend the premise and maintain moral clarity, the Bush administration apologized and decided that the secretary of state, James Baker, would personally clear future editorials. Again, instinct matters.

Baker has been outspoken in his support for Jeb Bush. While Baker is friendly with Jeb Bush’s father, that did not stop the former secretary of state from signaling his displeasure with the governor’s brother. It is hard to imagine Baker giving such full-throated support to Jeb Bush unless he sees in Bush a kindred spirit. If that’s the case, then there is much to worry about as Jeb Bush develops his foreign policy.

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