Jim Baker was so tickled by his portrayal in the new HBO film Recount that he actually scheduled an advanced screening of the fictionalized Florida recount retrospective at the Houston public policy institute that bears his name.
In some ways, he should be. While the movie makes clear that the facts at the heart of the disputed election mostly favored Al Gore, it can’t suppress its respect for Baker’s shrewd and cutthroat pragmatism. Gore’s legal team is stricken by infighting and ever-shifting strategies, while Baker commands the Republican operation with no hesitation or self-deception: It’s a street fight, and winning is all that matters.
But eight years after the fact, it’s hard to believe that Baker isn’t conflicted about the pivotal role he played in making George W. Bush president.
Surely, Mr. Bush has been a disappointment—to put it very mildly—to Mr. Baker in the one policy area that Mr. Baker, a onetime Democrat known more for his strategic savvy than any ideological convictions, cares passionately about: foreign affairs.
The centerpiece of Mr. Baker’s legacy has been his work as the first President Bush’s secretary of state during a time of global tumult, one that saw the Soviet empire collapse, East and West Germany reunited, and the United States lead a truly multinational coalition in a war to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation.
Even as the elder Mr. Bush’s domestic political standing collapsed during his 1992 reelection campaign, there was a broad bipartisan consensus that Mr. Baker had been a masterful diplomat. His standing was such that in one of that year’s presidential debates, Mr. Bush tried to reassure the nation that a second Bush term would produce better domestic news simply because he planned to enlist Mr. Baker to focus on the economy.
Mr. Baker’s foreign-policy approach was rooted in the realism that once defined Republican philosophy and a commitment to cultivating and maintaining meaningful and ongoing dialogues with both allies and with states that might share strategic imperatives with the U.S. So it was that Baker helped assuage the concerns of Britain and France—both victims of German aggression twice in the 20th century—and convinced both countries to sign off on reunification. And so it was that Baker helped assemble a coalition for the first Gulf War that included France, Syria, Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps when he oversaw George W. Bush’s recount team in 2000, Mr. Baker thought he was ensuring that a man with similar foreign-policy values would assume the presidency. Mr. Bush, after all, had campaigned as a foe of “so-called nation-building” in his campaign, and surely a few lessons from his father’s international triumphs had rubbed off on him.
Instead, the second President Bush has thumbed his nose at the example that Mr. Baker—and his own father—set in foreign affairs. Instead of realists, the younger Mr. Bush filled his inner circle with neocons, hyper-aggressive foreign-policy thinkers who scorned Mr. Baker and others of his ilk for their hesitancy to throw America’s weight around. In the aftermath of 9/11, old Baker allies like Brent Scowcroft loudly warned the president against invading Iraq, but Mr. Bush ignored them. And when France and Germany balked at joining an American coalition, the Bush administration dismissed them as part of “old Europe.”
Needless to say, the U.S. had no Arab partners when the invasion commenced in March 2003, and the lack of meaningful cooperation from other countries in the Middle East continues to haunt the interminable occupation. And when Mr. Baker offered Mr. Bush a way out with his Iraq Study Group report in late 2006, he got the brush-off.
In the process, Mr. Bush has undone virtually all of Mr. Baker’s statesmanship, plunging the country into a war that wasn’t in its interests, erasing whatever goodwill the United States once enjoyed in the Arab world and even eroding America’s credibility with its allies. Moreover, this president has fundamentally obliterated the Republican Party’s foreign-policy tradition, committing the party to a war policy that devastated the party in 2006 and could do so again this year.
The greatest consolation for Mr. Baker in Mr. Bush’s tragic blundering may be that in a perverse way, the Bush presidency has enhanced Mr. Baker’s legacy.
“I have enormous sympathy for the foreign policy of George H. W. Bush,” Barack Obama said recently.
Mr. Baker himself noted the shift in public perception in a recent PBS documentary about the first Bush presidency. For a decade after the 1991 Gulf War, Mr. Baker said, he was constantly asked why the U.S. hadn’t simply invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein after liberating Kuwait.
“No one asks me that anymore,” Mr. Baker wryly commented.
It would take a Machiavellian mind like Mr. Baker’s to appreciate that irony.