A new role an old warrior

Times Staff Writer

His hair was a touch thinner, the skin on his face less taut.

At one point Wednesday, James A. Baker III joked that he was presiding over a "bunch of has-beens" as he unveiled the findings of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel of former government officials charged with charting a new course for the United States in Iraq.

But in many ways, Baker was a remarkably familiar presence in a remarkably familiar role -- talking diplomacy in his Texas twang, seeking solutions for a crisis in Iraq and trying to rescue a president named Bush.

It's been 14 years since Baker, 76, served as secretary of State to the elder President Bush during the first Gulf War. And six since Baker led the GOP legal fight during the Florida election recount that delivered the presidency to his longtime friend's son.

Since then, Baker's influence in the Oval Office has seemed to range from minimal to nonexistent.

But as co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, Baker has reemerged. Along with Robert M. Gates, who was confirmed Wednesday as the next secretary of Defense, Baker is part of an old guard of foreign policy realists elbowing its way back into a debate dominated since the Sept. 11 attacks by hard-line neoconservatives.

During Wednesday's news conference, Baker outlined a series of steps that the White House has previously scorned, including diplomatic engagement with Iran and Syria, and eventual withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq.

For a man long seen as the ultimate Bush family insider, he also offered a pointed rebuke to the president.

"We do not recommend a 'stay the course' solution," he said, using a phrase that was a favorite of President Bush early in the year. "In our opinion, that approach is no longer viable."

For his part, Bush praised the work of the panel, saying, "We probably won't agree with every proposal," but stressing that "we take it very seriously, and we'll act on it in a timely fashion."

The study group was launched in relative obscurity nine months ago, conceived by a Republican congressman, Frank R. Wolf of Virginia, who was dismayed by the deteriorating situation in Iraq. The first member to sign on was Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana who had been vice chairman of the bipartisan panel that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks.

But those involved in the formation of the study group said that the crucial recruit was Baker, and that his involvement had been key to capturing the attention of policymakers and improving the odds that the panel's findings would not be brushed aside by the White House.

"We talked about a number of possibilities" to lead the panel, said David Abshire, president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency, who helped Wolf form the Iraq Study Group and made the initial call to Baker.

"They were all prominent people," Abshire said of the other candidates. "But none would have had his cachet."

Baker agreed to take the job only after securing permission from the president. Once that was in place, Baker stepped into the latest in a series of assignments he has taken for members of the Bush clan since he and the elder Bush became friends and tennis partners in Texas in the late 1950s.

Baker, who had been a lawyer and a registered Democrat in Houston, took his first political job when the senior Bush asked him to help run his 1970 campaign for the U.S. Senate. Bush lost, but Baker proved adept in the world of politics, and the job helped bring him out of a depression that had gripped him when his first wife died of breast cancer earlier that year.

Baker went on to handle a series of subsequent campaign assignments and high-level positions in Washington. He ran Bush's unsuccessful 1980 campaign for president, then served as chief of staff and Treasury secretary for President Reagan. After leading Bush's successful 1988 campaign for the White House, Baker stepped into the role he savored most, secretary of State.

From that post, he witnessed the end of the Cold War and pushed for Arab-Israeli peace. But he is best known for leading the effort to assemble a broad coalition of countries to expel then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War.

As the elder Bush's reelection campaign in 1992 foundered, Baker was called upon to leave the State Department and step back into the campaign -- a sacrifice he did not relish.

His perceived lack of enthusiasm for returning to politics is said to have strained his relationship with Barbara Bush, as well as with George W. Bush.

In a book, Baker described the younger Bush as "the cut-up in the Bush family."

When that cut-up decided to run for president and enlisted advisors, Baker said he was not included.

But George W. Bush's campaign team did come calling the morning after the 2000 election, when the vote in Florida was deadlocked. But after that successful mission, Baker was sidelined again until the Iraq Study Group was formed.

From the beginning, Baker insisted the group shouldn't release its findings until after the midterm election. Others thought it was a mistake to wait while soldiers were dying and conditions in Iraq continued to deteriorate, Abshire said.

But Baker's judgment proved wise, because a report released before the White House had been chastened by a Democratic election sweep probably would have been ignored.

"He's a very shrewd operator," Abshire said of Baker. "He's a strategist."

During Wednesday's news conference, Baker said Bush and other policymakers were free to ignore the group's findings -- but do so at their own peril.

The group's report "doesn't bind the leadership on the Hill, and it doesn't bind the president," Baker said.

"But it is the only recommended approach that will enjoy, in our opinion, complete bipartisan support, at least from the 10 people that you see up here."



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