WASHINGTON - Former Secretary of State James Baker is riding to the rescue of President Bush. So what else is new?
Baker has been there many times before for the Bush family -- to pull their chestnuts out of the fire.
This time it appears he is being called to help President Bush finesse his way out of the Iraqi debacle and save face.
Baker is a master at resolving tricky situations, and he does it with a smile.
He is the Republican co-chairman of a bipartisan panel, called "The Iraq Study Group," created last March with a nudge from Congress.
The group is working on a report on Iraq which may offer an exit plan as an alternative to the president's widely touted "stay the course" policy. But it won't be released until after the November election. Naturally!
Ultimately, the report may get Bush off the hook in the no-win situation in Iraq. At a news conference Wednesday, the president reiterated his pledge not to "get out (of Iraq) before the job is done."
But Bush said he was prepared "to change tactics" if Baker's team recommends a switch. The word "tactics" may be a rhetorical device to help ease an inglorious U.S. exit from the war, now nearing its fourth year.
In an interview on Sunday on ABC-TV, Baker said in his usual manner of lawyerly obfuscation: "I think it's fair to say our commission believes that there are alternatives between the stated alternatives -- the ones that are out there in the political debate -- of 'stay the course' and "cut an run.' "
The phrase "cut and run" has become the president's favored jibe at Democrats who urge a pullout from Iraq.
Former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democrat, is co-chairman of the group. One can only hope that its report will have a major impact on the floundering administration, which has to contend with growing American casualties in an unpopular war and rising discontent among its own loyal Republicans in national polls.
Unfortunately Baker flatly rejected a quick withdrawal from Iraq on grounds that "you would see the biggest civil war you've ever seen." Well, what does Baker think is going on in Iraq right now?
Meantime, Bush has rejected as "just not credible" a report of public health researchers that there have been more than 600,000 Iraqi civilian casualties since the U.S. invasion in 2003.
Bush is seeing some of his own party leaders turning off on the war. Sen. John Warner, R-Va. chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, returned from a trip to Iraq last week and said there might have to be a "change in course in three months."
Baker, a skilled Texas political operative, had served as chief of staff in the Reagan administration and as secretary of the Treasury before becoming the nation's chief diplomat in the administration of George Herbert Walker Bush, father of the president and Baker's close, lifelong friend.
Baker is well-schooled in Middle Eastern politics. In his 1995 memoir, Baker recalled his 1991 warning not to take Baghdad and topple Saddam Hussein after the successful Persian Gulf War, fearing it would provoke a civil war that would take U.S. forces a long time to quell. For the same reasons, the previous President Bush decided against a full-scale invasion of Iraq after liberating Kuwait.
But the current President Bush preferred to take the word of the neocon advisers who told him the invasion of Iraq would be a "cakewalk."
Both Baker and the senior Bush are vindicated in their view by the ongoing chaos in Iraq. But they have not sold the present president, who has indicated the war will go on after he has left office.
On Wednesday, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army's chief of staff, said that the army is planning to keep its current level of troops in Iraq through 2010.
Baker has come through for Bush in the past, helping to convince the Supreme Court to halt the Florida vote recount in the presidential election in 2000. For his efforts, a second Bush won the presidency.
Meantime, U.S. officials in Baghdad and Washington seem bent on trashing the Iraqi government, blaming it for not bringing the aggressive militias under control and indicating Iraqi officials are not up to the job of running the country.
That's what I call chutzpah. We invade and tear up a country; install our style of government in Baghdad and then criticize them for weaknesses and mistakes. Is that our passport out of Iraq?
What's more, those who play ball with us such as Iraqi Vice President Amir al-Hashimi -- who lost three siblings by assassination this year -- pay a heavy personal price.
If Baker's group does not find a way to extricate U.S. troops from the Iraqi quagmire, the American people surely will.
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