James Baker’s Zombie Foreign Policy

Column: It’s a problem for Jeb Bush

James Baker J Street Facebook
James Baker / J Street Facebook

Jeb Bush is cleaning up a mess he helped create. It’s a distraction from what he’d rather be doing, which is building an "aura of inevitability" around his soon-to-be presidential campaign. He’s spent the past week distancing himself from the speech that one of his foreign policy advisers, former secretary of State James Baker, delivered to the annual meeting of J Street, the liberal fringe group that pushes tough policies against Israel.

Baker’s speech couldn’t have come at a worse time. The Obama administration is in the midst of a campaign to demonize Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, greeted Netanyahu’s election victory with abuse and threats to abandon Israel to the anti-Semites at the U.N., and is hurtling toward a flawed nuclear agreement with Iran. Having a former high-ranking Republican official tell moldy anecdotes and agree that Israel is responsible for the standstill in the peace process only legitimized J Street and suggested a division in GOP ranks when there isn’t any. The speech risked confirming the suspicions of conservatives and Republicans that Bush isn’t really one of them. Two advisers to national political figures appeared at the J Street conference: White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and James Baker. Surely this White House is company the Bush crew doesn’t want to keep.

The Baker speech was publicized for weeks. Bush must have known it would offend pro-Israel Republicans, who are deciding whom to back in 2016. It’s unclear whether he asked Baker to cancel. His campaign’s statements to the Washington Free Beacon emphasized Bush’s reliance on a "broad group of advisers, reflecting different views," his personal disapproval of J Street, and his disagreement with what Baker had to say. But critics are right to find Bush tepid. If one of his advisers planned to take the stage in front of a group of immigration "nativists," one assumes Bush would have done everything he could to stop that speech from happening, even dropped the adviser from his campaign.

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From what I read in the papers, Bush is an effective manager and advocate. The New York Times reported a few weeks back that he "used his connections freely" while his father was vice president and president, and a beat-sweetener in Wednesday’s Tampa Bay Times reminded Florida voters that in the 1980s Bush pushed his father to help airlift Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Yet this same wheeler-and-dealer was remarkably passive in the run-up to the J Street conference. He didn’t act until after the fact, writing an op-ed on the U.S.-Israel alliance for National Review Online, telling Brian Kilmeade in a radio interview that Baker shouldn’t have gone, and attacking President Obama’s "Alice in Wonderland" foreign policy.

It was a panicked and reactive performance that could have been avoided if Bush hadn’t released a list of foreign policy advisers before settling on a foreign policy, or had demanded that Baker cancel his speech and throw the J Street conference into disarray. That would have been unlikely, considering who Bush is and what Baker means to his family. And Bush does seem to be in this tough situation because of his family, but it’s not his brother who’s the problem. On issues of national security the party remains committed to W.’s post-9/11 vision: strong on defense, internationalist, hawkish, and unabashedly pro-Israel.

It’s Baker and the other Cold War realists associated with the senior Bush who are old, tired, haggard, removed, out of it. They’re the products of a bipolar world in which the Soviet Empire was an ever-mindful presence. Members of the waning WASP elite and beholden to the zombie theory of linkage, which says the source of instability in the Greater Middle East is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Baker and company treat Israel not as an asset for the United States but a liability. For Bush to repudiate Baker or the other friends of H.W. would be a rebuke of long-lasting relationships; it would also be just the sort of act that would establish Bush’s identity as "my own man."

Republicans don’t have any need or desire for James Baker’s foreign policy because they’ve spent the last six years seeing it enacted by Barack Obama. The hostility and fisticuffs that characterized Baker’s approach to the Jewish State when he held power more than two decades ago is repeated every day by this president, this chief of staff, this national security adviser. Baker threatened loan guarantees to Israel because of settlement activity; Obama demanded a settlement freeze his first year in office and threatens to withhold U.S. support for Israel at the United Nations. Baker banned Netanyahu from the State Department; Obama refused to see him on his most recent visit to the capital and waited two days to congratulate him on his election victory. Baker "argued strongly for punitive actions against Israel" when it destroyed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor at Osirak; imagine how Obama would react if Israel bombed Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. (And recall that George W. didn’t lift a finger when Israel bombed Syria’s reactor in 2007.) Baker famously said "F—k the Jews"; Obama officials call Netanyahu "chicken-shit."

Baker said "F—k the Jews," the story goes, because Jewish voters favor the Democrats and so what good were they to him. Jews still earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans—though by declining percentages—but Baker’s outburst just shows how badly he misunderstands American politics. Support for Israel isn’t limited to Jewish voters, but includes millions of Christians who do vote Republican, indeed base their votes for Republicans on what candidates have done or what candidates say they will do to support our only stable, liberal, democratic ally in the Middle East. Support for Israel is no longer just about loan guarantees and foreign aid and balancing Egypt, Jordan, and the Saudis against Syria and Iraq; it’s become a metaphor for the war on terror, America’s moral standing, democracy abroad, the peril from Iran. On none of these issues is the Republican base closer to Jim Baker or to J Street than it was when Obama took office.

Nor are Republicans in any rush to adopt Baker’s foreign policy; they’re reacting in horror to its results. So much of what Barack Obama has been up to can be traced to the 2006 report of the Iraq Study Group, which was written by deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes and co-chaired by Baker. The only recommendation of the commission that George W. Bush adopted was its tentative support for a "surge" of troops; he combined the increase in soldiers with a change in strategy and left office with a stable Iraq.

Obama has taken up the other recommendations, such as:

"The United States must not make an open-ended commitment to keep large numbers of American troops deployed in Iraq."

"Given the ability of Iran and Syria to influence events within Iraq and their interest in avoiding chaos in Iraq, the United States should try to engage them constructively."

"The United States cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict and regional instability. There must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts."

What we’ve been left with is a humanitarian and geopolitical catastrophe in Syria, a genocidal Caliphate, Iranian control of Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut, and Sana’a, proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and a nadir in U.S.-Israel relations. The United States is providing air support for Iran in Iraq while condemning Iranian-backed militias in Yemen, and is about to establish the conditions for an Iranian nuke. How any of these developments constitute "realism" or enhance American security continues to elude me, but then I don’t have an MFA in fiction.

Baker and the realists are wrong to say Arab-Israeli peace is the most important concern in the Middle East. On the contrary, the rise of a neo-Persian Empire is what worries our allies in the region, fueling destruction and threatening the regional order far more than the invasion of Iraq or last summer’s Gaza war ever did. It’s not only the Israelis but also traditional Sunni allies such as the Saudis, the Egyptians, and the Jordanians who have looked on aghast as America hands Ayatollah Khamenei the keys to the Middle East. We’ve abandoned them as much as Netanyahu through our schizophrenic Syria policy, our desultory ISIS policy, our appeasing Iran policy. You could ask Baker about this diminution of American deterrence and prestige and he’d be likely to respond in the same numbing clichés as a member of the Obama administration: the world is complex, the Middle East isn’t all that important, it all goes back to 2003, Syria and Iran can become contributors to the "international community," why is that awful Netanyahu such a meanie.

The man most likely to lament the current state of the world is Jeb Bush’s older brother, who has had to watch as the hard-fought gains U.S. soldiers made in Iraq and Afghanistan have slowly collapsed. The highlight of Jeb’s speech at the 2012 convention was when he told the audience, "I love my brother. He is a man of integrity, courage, and honor, and during incredibly challenging times, he kept us safe." The crowd erupted in cheers. It’s W.’s advice Jeb Bush should be listening to, not Jim Baker’s. And if Bush can’t stand up to an 84-year-old Texas lawyer who became secretary of State the year Taylor Swift was born, how on earth is he going to stand up to Putin, Baghdadi, Khamenei, Kim, Maduro, Xi, and all the other monsters in the world?