War Stories

The Fastest Way To Send a Message

Why is James Baker talking to the president via the New York Times op-ed page?

Baker: The elder statesman speaks
Baker: The elder statesman speaks

Is there about to be a breakthrough in U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict? If the signs aren’t quite hopeful, they’re at least extremely intriguing.

Most intriguing is an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times by James A. Baker III, urging President George W. Bush to promote the resumption of negotiations, adding, “The time to start is now.” The article is fascinating not so much for what it says but for the fact that Baker wrote it at all.

Baker is not merely the man who was secretary of state during the presidency of Bush’s father. He also ran the father’s re-election campaign. He led W.’s fight against the Florida recount in the 2000 election—which is to say, he’s largely responsible for the son’s victory. He is widely known as one of the most closely trusted advisers to the entire Bush family. Last year, when Bush tried to persuade European leaders to forgive Iraqi debt, he sent as emissary not his own secretary of state, Colin Powell, but rather, James Baker—as a signal to one and all that the trip was truly serious.

Baker could have called the president on the phone to talk about the Middle East, or any other subject, anytime he wanted. Why did he send the message through the New York Times?

It’s worth recalling the last time Baker wrote a Times op-ed piece. It was in August 2002, as the Bush administration was getting set to invade Iraq. In his piece, Baker supported invasion, but he urged Bush not to “go it alone” and to “reject the advice of those who counsel doing so.”

The article raised eyebrows all over Washington—and among foreign policy cognoscenti worldwide—for two reasons. First, it amounted to a critique of Bush’s foremost security advisers, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, from inside his own family’s circle. Second, it was widely assumed that Baker would not have published such an article without at least the tacit approval of the president’s father himself, who, along with Baker, had put together a genuinely broad and successful coalition for the 1991 Gulf War.

The following month, President Bush did go to the U.N. General Assembly—against the advice of Cheney and Rumsfeld—and delivered a stern, eloquent, and well-received speech, calling on the Security Council to threaten Iraq with “serious consequences” if Saddam continued to thumb his nose at U.N. resolutions. (Bush’s unilateralists won out in the end, six months later, but Baker’s arguments seemed to hold sway for at least a while.)

Today’s op-ed appears to have been designed with a similar purpose—to send a message to the president, with the pressure of publication behind it. In 2002, Baker meant to thwart action that Bush was about to take as a result of his advisers (invading Iraq without a coalition). Now he means to incite Bush to take action (jump-starting Arab-Israeli peace talks) against some of his advisers’ inclinations.

The premise of Baker’s piece is that Yasser Arafat’s death has “created a unique opportunity for negotiating peace between Arabs and Israelis.” Yes, he writes, the president should “continue with his goal of spreading democracy in the Middle East,” and the January elections in Iraq are a “critical step in the right direction.” But promoting Arab-Israeli peace is “imperative”—both in itself and for these larger goals.

“The road to peace,” Baker writes, “does not run through just Jerusalem or just Baghdad. … Today it runs through both.” This is a clear reference to the slogan that Bush’s neoconservative advisers liked to recite before the invasion of Iraq: “The road to Jerusalem runs through Baghdad.” In other words, to topple Saddam would be to remove a leading supporter of Palestinian terrorism; moreover, a stable, democratic Iraq would light a blazing trail of freedom across the Middle East. Once this theory proved fanciful, Bush’s critics liked to twist the slogan—the road to Baghdad, they said, runs through Jerusalem. In other words, the insurgency can’t be defeated—and America’s image in the region can’t be repaired—until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is addressed. Baker is telling Bush that the critics are right—the road runs both ways.

Baker allows that Palestinian candidates in the upcoming presidential elections must renounce terrorism. Yet he also writes that Israel should announce that, upon the election of such a Palestinian, “it is prepared to resume substantive negotiations for peace without requiring that all terrorist activities cease in advance.” The reason is purely pragmatic: Insisting on such a requirement would “simply empower the terrorists themselves to prevent the resumption of peace negotiations.”

Following this advice would require Bush to switch his policies and to apply at least a little pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon—in other words, to “reject the advice” (as Baker put it, in the context of Iraq, two years ago) of those in his inner circle who are fine with letting Sharon do whatever he wants, an attitude that may seem “pro-Israel” but that in fact goes against Israel’s long-term interests.

Finally, Baker writes that, while the outcome of talks can’t be prejudged, “the plan presented by President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000—and rejected by Yasir Arafat—surely offers one plausible place to start.” This must have been the hardest passage for Bush to read—as Baker must surely have realized when he wrote it. The primary watchword of George W. Bush’s first term was to do the opposite of whatever Bill Clinton did. Baker is telling Bush to get over this neurosis and do the right thing, whatever Clinton may or may not have done.

Baker is probably stepping in at this time, pressuring Bush to get involved in this issue right away, because this is a crucial moment, a rare convergence of opportunities, and Baker—like anyone who’s been involved in the delicacies of Middle East peace talks—must be fearful that we might let it pass by.

Violence in the territories has markedly declined since Arafat’s death. An apparent moderate, Mahmoud Abbas, is the top candidate to replace Arafat. The announcement by Marwan Barghouti, who is in an Israeli prison for terrorism, that he too might run for the office has been denounced by leading Palestinians and by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Yet in the face of all these trends, a vacuum looms at the top of America’s foreign policy apparatus. Powell is a lame-duck secretary of state whose words and actions carry no weight whatever. His replacement, Condoleezza Rice, won’t be confirmed for a couple of months at least. Iraq and now Iran are occupying the little space for attention that foreign issues can occupy. Baker is telling his friend that he has to open that space a bit wider to allow for the Arab-Israeli conflict too; that this conflict may hold the key to settling the other conflicts; and that he shouldn’t let his advisers—the same advisers who led him astray on Iraq—toss up obstacles on this one.