In the modern age of opinion blogging, in which nothing is so highly valued as steadfast certainty and strength of conviction, to confess skepticism and hesitancy in drawing a firm conclusion about any given subject is nothing short of a cardinal sin. You’ll forgive me then for admitting that I’m unprepared to render a judgment on former Secretary of State James Baker. I am a flawed vessel.
The Obama administration has embraced the despicable project of delegitimizing the elected Israeli government over a deeply personal dispute between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Republicans have largely and admirably objected to the administration’s treatment of America’s longstanding ally in the Middle East. But not every Republican is so unflinchingly supportive of the Israeli position.
On Monday, the former chief diplomat for the George H. W. Bush administration expressed his deep dissatisfaction with the Likud-led government of Israel and Netanyahu, in particular. “Frankly, I have been disappointed with the lack of progress regarding a lasting peace — and I have been for some time,” Baker said, denouncing the “diplomatic missteps and political gamesmanship” of Netanyahu’s government. “[I]n the aftermath of Netanyahu’s recent election victory, the chance of a two-state solution seems even slimmer, given his reversal on the issue.”
Baker said while Netanyahu has said he’s for peace, “his actions have not matched his rhetoric.”
“Although Netanyahu and his right-and-center coalition may oppose a two-state solution, a land-for-peace approach has long been supported by a substantial portion of the Israeli body politic, by every American [administration] since 1967 — Republican and Democratic alike — and a vast majority of nations around the world,” Baker said.
Baker is buying into a misconception about Netanyahu’s comments regarding the viability of a two-state solution given the conditions that prevail presently in Gaza and the West Bank, not to mention the Arab World more broadly. It is an intentional misapprehension, in fact, and one that has permitted the White House to threaten Israel with the full wrath of the United Nations; an institution that serves no greater purpose than cutting the Jewish State down to size.
Baker made those comments to wild applause at an event for what even Politico describes as the “left-leaning Israeli advocacy group J Street.” If Baker is trying to communicate a message of tough love for Israel, the love was nowhere to be found.
Jms Baker gets his biggest applause of the nite when he talks about Bush's withholding of loan guarantees b/c of settlm't building #JSt2015
— Rebecca ShimoniStoil (@RebeccaStoil) March 24, 2015
This was the policy of Bush 41’s administration, and it’s not necessarily out of character for Baker to make these comments given his prior statements about the Jewish state. Baker has long advocated the creation of two states, and he adheres to an interpretation of Middle Eastern politics that submits the region won’t know peace until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved. Slightly more inflammatory are comments Baker is alleged to have made in private decades ago that the GOP should be happy to “f*** the Jews; they didn’t vote for us anyway.”
More substantively, the George H. W. Bush administration’s pro-Arab tilt yielded few lasting achievements. As a result of GHWB’s approach to issues involving Middle East peace, the American Jewish community was deeply suspicious of how George W. Bush would approach the peace process. More specifically, they were afraid that Bush 43 would abandon the effort to secure a lasting solution to the vexing problems of the Palestinian territories that had so stung his father. They were proven incorrect on that assumption, but George W. Bush’s efforts to again light a fire under the peace process were as fruitless as his father’s.
So, yes, James Baker is seriously out of step with the rest of his party on the issue of Israel. Republicans have grown more protective of Israel over the years as Democrats have become more contemptuous of that Middle Eastern democracy. Jeb Bush has already dispatched his campaign spokespeople to put out the fires of controversy ignited by Baker’s J Street comments, and there is no question that the former secretary of state is a liability for the former Florida governor as he seeks to augment his appeal to conservatives. But does that mean that Baker should be drummed out of the party to which he has devoted his life? I’m so not sure.
While Baker’s achievements on the Middle East peace front are suspect, his accomplishments in securing peace in Eastern Europe are beyond laudable. It was Baker’s State Department that facilitated the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. When the Iron Curtin was crumbling across the continent, it was the agency Baker led that advocated restraint and gradualism, which likely prevented a repeat of the Soviet invasions of Warsaw Pact member nations like those in 1956 and 1968. It was Baker who, along with his Soviet counterpart, Eduard Shevardnadze, helped to negotiate a soft landing for the Soviet Union at a particularly productive meeting in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, that helped precipitate country’s dissolution.
The Cold War did not have to end peacefully. German reunification was not an act of God nor a preordained inevitability. These were managed feats, engineered by the members of the Bush administration and including James Baker. In his memoirs from the period, former National Security Council Director for European Affairs Robert Hutchings describes the grueling and at times fraught diplomatic landscape that typified the end of the Cold War, and the reactionary forces on both sides of the East-West divide that opposed gradualism. Had the Baker wing failed to win the policy arguments of the day, a more rash approach to speeding the collapse of communism in Europe might have spiraled beyond policymakers’ control. Indeed, Baker sparked controversy when he appeared to support Soviet intervention on the side of the pro-democracy forces in Romania and against the violent and collapsing Ceausescu regime. Many saw this as a policy designed to legitimize America’s own interventions against communist regimes in Latin America. It was also, however, this kind of apparent deference to the Soviet position that allowed the pro-democracy forces inside the USSR the space they needed to redraft the Union treaty and usher in the decomposition of the Evil Empire.
Surely, Baker’s role as a statesman is not free of blemishes. He is, like any other man, a complex figure and one with a legacy that is perfectly up for debate. But Baker’s artless comments about Israel, however condemnable they may be, do not overshadow his achievements as a diplomat. James Baker’s role in ending America’s longest and most dangerous conflict peacefully is commendable. The former secretary of state helped consign one of the most grotesque regimes the world has ever known to the dustbin of history, and it would unjust for the GOP to condemn him to the same fate merely over a tasteless speech the elder statement delivered on the talking circuit.