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Something's Gotta Give

James Baker Versus the Lobby

by MIKE WHITNEY

The tension between the Bush administration and the members of the Iraq Study Group, illustrates the widening chasm between old-guard U.S. imperialists and "Israel-first" neoconservatives. The divisions are setting the stage for a major battle between the two camps. The winner will probably decide US policy in the Middle East for the next decade.

The failed occupation of Iraq has put the entire region on the fast-track to disaster. That’s why James Baker was summoned from retirement to see if he could change the present trajectory and mitigate the long-term damage to US interests. Baker was opposed to the invasion from the onset but his 4 day trip to Baghdad convinced him that something had to be done quickly. The ISG report reflects the unanimous view of its authors that Iraq is disintegrating into chaos and that action must be taken to reduce the level of bloodshed.

Baker is not merely an objective observer in this process. He clearly "has a dog in this fight". As Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan he put together the basic scaffolding for America’s imperial presence in the region and he continues to be connected to many of the corporations which benefit from US relations in the Middle East. But he has also always taken a "pragmatic" approach to regional policy and cannot be considered a war-monger. Some critics of Baker say that his business interests suggest that he indirectly supports the Bush policy. But this is an oversimplification. In fact, Baker sees war as a blunt instrument that is essentially incompatible with commercial interests. There are simply more efficient ways for clever men to achieve their objectives.

In Antonia Juhasz’s recent article "Oil for Sale: Iraq Study Group Recommends Privatization" shows how Baker was more than happy to overlook Saddam’s domestic repression as long as it didn’t damage business dealings. As Juhasz’s says:

"Baker’s interest was focused on trade, which he described as "the central factor in the US-Iraq relationship". From 1982, when Reagan removed Iraq from the list of countries supporting terrorism until August 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, Baker and Eagleburger worked with others in the Reagan and Bush administrations to aggressively and successfully expand trade.

The efficacy of such a move can best be described in a memo written in 1988 by the Bush transition team arguing that the US would have to decide whether to treat Iraq as a distasteful dictatorship to be shunned where possible, or to recognize Iraq’s present and potential power in the region and accord it relatively high priority. We strongly urge the latter view.’ Two reasons offered were Iraq’s vast oil reserves’ which promised a lucrative market for US goods’ and the fact that the US oil imports from Iraq were skyrocketing. Bush and Baker took the transition teams advice and ran with it".

This is the real James Baker. He’s not ideological and he’s certainly not on a religious crusade. His approach may seem cynical, but it shows that he prefers commerce (even with a brutal dictator) over war. This proves that his role with the ISG is not simply to provide cover for Bush. Baker’s task is to salvage the imperial system which he helped to create. Besides, it’s clear that Bush is unhappy with the report and has already rejected its two critical recommendations; negotiations with Syria and Iran, and a commitment to troop reduction. Furthermore, Bush is doing everything in his power to minimize the effects of the report. In fact, he even flew Tony Blair to Washington so that he wouldn’t look as isolated in his position.

Baker has done a good job grabbing headlines and making his case directly to the American people, but his effect on Bush has been negligible. Bush appears to be brushing the report aside just like he brushed aside the results of the midterm elections. His summation of the ISG’s work was intentionally condescending; he dismissed it as "interesting" and "sincere", blah, blah, blah.

But Baker won’t be patronized or put-off. In fact, his tone has been unusually threatening at times. As more than one critic has noted, Baker appears to be offering Bush an "ultimatum" not merely recommendations. He warned Bush not to "pick and choose" the recommendations as he saw fit:

"I hope this is not like a fruit salad and I say I like this but I don’t like that. This is a comprehensive strategy designed to deal with this problem we’re facing in Iraq, but also designed to deal with other problems that we face in the region to restore America’s standing and credibility in that part of the world".

Baker is courteous to the point of seeming unctuous, but his point is clear. He is demanding that Bush execute his plan in its totality and without deviation. This is the cautionary advice of a Mafia consigliore not the empty musings of a retired bureaucrat.

Whatever one thinks about James Baker, he is a seasoned diplomat and a serious man. His record shows that he has broad support among the leaders in the American oligarchy, so he can’t simply be ignored. He represents a powerful constituency of corporate chieftains and oil magnates who are conspicuously worried about the deteriorating situation in Iraq and want to see a change of course. Baker’s their man. He’s the logical emissary for the growing number of jittery plutocrats who see that the Bush policy-train has jumped the tracks.

But if Big Oil wants a change of direction than where is Bush getting his support for "staying the course"?

An AP poll conducted this week shows that only 9% of Americans believe that "victory" in Iraq is possible. Even the hard-core Bush loyalists have abandoned the sinking ship. The only group left touting Bush’s failed policy is the "Israel first" camp which continues to wave the bloody shirt of incitement from their perch at the Weekly Standard and the American Enterprise Institute. These same diehards are leading the charge for a preemptive attack on Iran; a criminal act which will have catastrophic effects on America’s long-term energy needs.

An article which appeared in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz shows how confident Prime Minister Olmert is in the ability of the Jewish Lobby to torpedo the Baker-Hamilton report and steer the US away from changes in Iraq:

"On his way home from Los Angeles, the Prime Minister calmed’ the reporters and perhaps even himself"by saying there is no danger of the US President George Bush accepting the expected recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton panel, and attempting to move Syria out of the axis of evil and into a coalition to extricate America from Iraq. The Prime Minister hopes the Jewish Lobby can rally a Democratic majority in the new Congress to counter any diversion from the status quo on the Palestinians. (Akiva Eldar, "The Gewalt Agenda")

Olmert has good reason to be "calm". While the new Congress is being apprised of its duties to Israel, the Brookings Institute is convening a forum at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy entitled: "America and Israel: Confronting a Middle east in Turmoil". The meeting will be attended by Israeli right-wing extremist, Avigdor Lieberman, as well as political big-wigs, Bill and Hillary Clinton.

The context of the meeting suggests that right-leaning Israelis will be informing their friends in the Democratic Party about the anticipated attack on Iran, as well as discussing strategies for sabotaging Baker’s report. If we see the Democrats lambasting the ISGs recommendations next week; we’ll know why.

So, the battle lines have been drawn. On one side we have James Baker and his corporate classmates who want to restore order while preserving America’s imperial role in the region. And, on the other side, we have the neo-Trotskyites and Israeli-Jacobins who seek a fragmented and chaotic Middle East where Israel is the dominant power. (see "A Clean Break")

The one group that has no voice in this "Battle of the Titans" is the American people. They lost whatever was left of their shrinking political-clout sometime around the 2000 Coronation of George Bush.

In any event, Baker and his ilk are not going to sit back and watch the empire (and the military) they put together with their own two hands be systematically pulverized by a cabal of zealots pursuing an agenda that only serves Israeli hardliners.

That ain’t gonna happen.

Expect Baker to wheel out the heavy artillery and fight tooth-and-nail to reassert the primacy of the American ruling class. "The Lobby" may be powerful, but it’s going to be tough-going to take the country away from the people who believe they own it.

The struggle between the political heavyweights is about to break-out into open warfare.

MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He can be reached at: fergiewhitney@msn.com