James Baker, co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, cuts an impressive figure, having put together a record of extraordinary successes in both the private sector and government service, including stints as secretary of state, secretary of the treasury and White House chief of staff. But the capabilities that enable someone to rise to the top of the corporate world and become a success in navigating Washington bureaucracies are not always transferable to diplomacy — especially when it comes to dealing with rogue states. Mr. Baker’s mixed record as secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush from 1989 until August 1992 — when he resigned at the behest of the White House to chair Mr. Bush’s unsuccessful re-election campaign — illustrates this.
On the positive side, Mr. Baker’s State Department (thanks in large part to the work of then-Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations John Bolton) won repeal of the notorious 1975 U.N. resolution that equated Zionism with racism. Following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, Mr. Baker on the whole performed ably in putting together an international coalition in support of forcing Iraq out of Kuwait. Were it not for Mr. Baker’s success in winning U.N. Security Council support for a resolution, it is doubtful that the Bush administration could have persuaded the House and Senate, which were in Democratic hands, to approve the use of force in Iraq.
But all too often, Mr. Baker’s tenure as secretary of state was characterized by a disconcerting tendency to focus on winning the kind of short-term diplomatic victories that ended up costing the United States a great deal in the medium and longer term. This was particularly true of U.S. policy toward Saddam prior to the invasion of Kuwait and to Syrian strongman Hafez Assad. In the case of Iraq, one could plausibly argue in favor of U.S. efforts to engage Saddam during the 1980-88 war with Iran, arguably the most dangerous threat to U.S. interests in the region. The problem with Mr. Baker’s approach was that such policies continued after the conclusion of the war — even as it became clear that Saddam was girding for conflict with his Arab neighbors and Israel. In fact, throughout 1989 and 1990, Mr. Baker’s State Department spent much of its time fending off efforts by Democratic and Republican lawmakers and officials in other federal agencies to prevent transfers of militarily related technology to Iraq. The same was true for agricultural subsidies and Export-Import Bank credits benefiting Saddam’s regime. These policies were pursued by the State Department until shortly before the invasion of Kuwait.
In February 1990, for example, just one month after the president waived a congressional prohibition on Export-Import Bank financing for Iraq, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs John Kelly pressed for continuation of Commodity Credit Corp. subsidies for agricultural deals with Iraq. The State Department continued lobbying for these subsidies even after the Agriculture Department suspended them because of fraud and concern that the money was being diverted to Saddam’s military. Also, the Baker State Department stood alone among U.S. agencies in opposing a sting operation that would have prevented Saddam from obtaining kryton switches that are used to detonate nuclear weapons.
After the invasion of Kuwait, Mr. Baker, intent on securing Arab support for military action against Saddam, traveled to Syria in an effort to woo Mr. Assad, who demanded a free hand to act against Lebanese Christians. One month later, Syrian forces invaded Christian areas of Lebanon, massacred hundreds of Lebanese and consolidated their control over the country. It is no exaggeration to say that many of the problems Lebanon faces today — with a weakened Christian minority and moderate Muslims up against powerful Islamofascist forces — are traceable to Mr. Baker’s green light to Mr. Assad.