Two weeks ago, I wrote a post asking whether former Secretary of State James Baker deserved to be disowned by the Republican Party as a result of his controversial support for the Palestinian position vis-à-vis the peace process with Israel. While Baker’s comments regarding Israel are incongruous with today’s GOP, I confessed that it was my opinion they do not and should not overshadow his accomplishments as America’s chief diplomat under George H. W. Bush.
Chief among those achievements is Baker’s successful approach to dismantling the Soviet sphere of influence and fostering trust in the Soviet leadership that led them to pursue reforms without the fear that the United States would exploit the internal unrest they were creating. The Cold War did not have to end peacefully. There were a variety of hardline elements in the USSR that rejected Glasnost and Perestroika, not to mention greater autonomy for Eastern Europe. It was Baker’s influence that led Soviet policymakers to believe that they did not need to pursue an aggressive response to nationalist elements in the Warsaw Pact member states and the Soviet Republics.
It was Baker who helped convince the White House not to provide Hungary and Poland with security commitments or mountains of aid following their internal reforms. It was Baker who affirmed the Soviet position when he backed Moscow-led intervention in Romania to prevent a humanitarian crisis prompted by Ceausescu’s brutal crackdown on pro-Democracy protesters. It was Baker who pledged American monetary and logistical support for the Soviets as they pursued democratization. He feared that an aggressive or demanding United States would forestall or even prompt the roll back of those reforms.
Those fears were proven valid in August of 1991, when Soviet hardliners executed a bumbling and ultimately failed coup that briefly ousted Mikhail Gorbachev. If the United States hadn’t been as accommodating as Baker would have liked, Gennady Yanayev might have had the support of more competent elements within the Soviet Union, and the putsch he led could have been more successful.
But caution can be and often is confused with cowardice. Today’s GOP is a hawkish breed, and that is a justified response to President Barack Obama’s affinity for retrenchment abroad and his accommodation of revanchist elements in foreign capitals around the world. Baker’s position on Israel has isolated him within the GOP, but even his achievements in Europe are the result of a worldview that is anathema to many in the GOP. That tension is evident in the GOP’s 2016 primary race. While Jeb Bush seeks out the advice of his father’s close advisor, Marco Rubio eschews it.
“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?” The Washington Free Beacon’s Matthew Continetti wrote astutely.
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.
According to BuzzFeed, Rubio has sought to capitalize on the neoconservative wing’s discontent with Baker’s approach to Israel and other matters regarding foreign affairs. Following his attendance at an event hosted by GOP donor Paul Singer, Rubio apparently impressed the Republican hawks that came to hear the Florida senator speak.
According to sources who attended the dinner, Rubio was well-received among attendees— one said that “people who walked out of the room were totally in love” — a sign that he could be coming into favor among people influential with the New York Jewish Republican donor class, among whom Singer is the most sought-after. Singer is holding a series of dinners with potential candidates such as the one that featured Rubio, the New York Times reported over the weekend. Singer has not committed to a candidate.
“There is clearly been at the very least a real surge of interest in Rubio — Who is this guy and can he win and can he be a real player? — in a way that even two or three months ago there wasn’t,” said one Republican operative who attended the dinner.
“What I think is attracting these types of Republicans to Rubio is not simply his policy positions, although there is strong agreement here and a feeling that he is truly one of us,” said another Republican operative who was in attendance. “It’s a judgment that he may be the most naturally gifted politician in the party, a sunny, likable figure with an inspiring personal story and a way of talking about conservative ideas that could attract a great many mainstream voters.”
It is a testament to the fact that the party has moved on from the era of Bush 41 (to say nothing of Bush 43) that Baker’s approach to foreign affairs is perceived as such a deviation. This is not necessarily a bad thing; time marches on, and some hawkish revisionism is a justified reply to Barack Obama’s passivity. But Baker’s accomplishments and the prudence that made them possible should not be entirely abandoned by the GOP.