Dueling Views on Diplomacy Pit Baker Against Rice
The New York Times
By DAVID E. SANGER
Published: December 8, 2006
WASHINGTON, Dec. 7 — Many of the blistering critiques of the Bush administration contained in the Iraq Study Group’s report boil down to this: the differing worldviews of Baker versus Rice.
Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III was the architect of the “new diplomatic offensive” in the Middle East that the commission recommended Wednesday as one of its main prescriptions for extracting the country from the mess in Iraq. Ever since, he has been talking on television, to Congress and to Iraqis and foreign diplomats about how he would conduct American foreign policy differently. Very differently.
At a midday meeting with reporters on Thursday, Mr. Baker insisted that the study group had “rejected looking backward.” But he then proceeded to make a passionate argument for a course of action he believed Condoleezza Rice, the current secretary of state, should be pursuing — while carefully never mentioning Ms. Rice by name.
The United States should engage Iran, Mr. Baker contended, if only to reveal its “rejectionist attitude”; it should try to “flip the Syrians”; and it should begin a renewed quest for peace between Israel and the Palestinians that, he maintained, would help convince Arab moderates that America was not all about invasions and regime change.
Meanwhile, Ms. Rice remained publicly silent, sitting across town in the office that Mr. Baker gave up 14 years ago. She has yet to say anything about the public tutorial being conducted by the man who first knew her when she was a mid-level Soviet expert on the National Security Council. She has not responded to Mr. Baker’s argument, delivered in a tone that drips with isn’t-this-obvious, that America has to be willing to talk to its adversaries (a premise Ms. Rice has questioned if the conditions are not right), or his dismissal of the administration’s early argument that the way to peace in the Middle East was through quick, decisive victory in Baghdad.
Aides to the 52-year-old Ms. Rice say she is acutely aware that there is little percentage in getting into a public argument with Mr. Baker, the 76-year-old architect of the first Bush administration’s Middle East policy. But Thursday, as President Bush gently pushed back against some of Mr. Baker’s recommendations, Ms. Rice’s aides and allies were offering a private defense, saying that she already has a coherent, effective strategy for the region.
She has advocated “deepening the isolation of Syria,” because she believes much of the rest of the Arab world condemns its efforts to topple Lebanon’s government, they said; and in seeking to isolate Iran, they said, she hopes to capitalize on the fears of nations like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan that Iran seeks to dominate the region, with the option of wielding a nuclear weapon.
Ms. Rice makes no apology for the premium she has placed on promoting democracy in the Middle East, even though that is an idea that Mr. Baker and his commission conspicuously ignored in spelling out their recommendations. “I don’t think that the road to democracy in Iraq is at all utopian,” she said in April.
It is plenty utopian to Mr. Baker, who has made clear his view that the quest is entirely ill-suited to the realities of striking a political deal that may keep Sunnis and Shiites from killing each other, and that may extract American forces from Iraq.
Mr. Baker said nothing on Thursday about looking for Jeffersonian democrats in Iraq; he would be happy with few good “Iraqi nationalists” who can keep the country from splintering apart.
“They start from completely different places,” said Dennis Ross, the Middle East negotiator who worked for Mr. Baker years ago and left the State Department early in the Bush administration.
“Baker approaches everything with a negotiator’s mindset. That doesn’t mean every negotiation leads to a deal, but you engage your adversaries and use your leverage to change their behavior. This administration has never had a negotiator’s mind-set. It divides the world into friends and foes, and the foes are incorrigible and not redeemable. There has been more of an instinct toward regime change than to changing regime behavior.”
To some degree, the Bush administration has softened that approach in its second term, and Ms. Rice’s aides contend that much of what is recommended in the Baker report, including a regional group to support the country, is already under way.
Mr. Bush himself seems uncertain how to handle his always-uncomfortable relationship with his father’s friend. It was Mr. Baker who in 2000 ran the strategy for winning the Florida recount, but he has also made little secret in private that he regards the administration as a bunch of diplomatic go-cart racers, more interested in speed than strategy and prone to ruinous crashes.
The administration has sent out word that it regards Mr. Baker’s recommendations as more than a little anachronistic, better suited to the Middle East of 1991 than to the one they are confronting — and to some degree have created — in 2006 three years after the Iraq invasion. It is a criticism that angers Mr. Baker, members of the study group say.
Iran and Syria illustrate the differing approaches of Mr. Baker and Ms. Rice. “If you can flip the Syrians you will cure Israel’s Hezbollah problem,” Mr. Baker said Thursday, noting that Syria is the transit point for arms shipments to Hezbollah. He said Syrian officials told him “that they do have the ability to convince Hamas to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist,” and added, “If we accomplish that, that would give the Ehud Olmert a negotiating partner.”
Ms. Rice’s allies argue that if it were all that simple, the Syrian problem would have been solved long ago. Stephen J. Hadley, national security adviser and Ms. Rice’s former deputy, said recently that the problem “isn’t one of communication, it’s one of cooperation.” Now that Mr. Baker has taken his differences public, the mystery is this: is he speaking for Mr. Bush’s father? “We never figured that out,” said one fellow member of the panel. “There was always this implication that there was a tremendous amount of frustration from the old man about what was happening. But Jim was always very careful.”
The elder Mr. Bush was careful, too. Asked if he wanted to offer his insights to the panel, he declined.