December 11, 2003

Middle East Muddle? Check out

Middle East Muddle?

Check out this Richard Wolffe piece. Aside from his pretty spot on criticisms re: the Administration's handling of Geneva in the context of the Road Map, there is also this part about Jim Baker's appointment:

"Today Iraq’s biggest crisis is not financial, even if its debt is a large and unresolved problem. The lack of investment and jobs in Iraq has little do with its national debt, and everything to do with security and Saddam’s misrule. And for many other countries, the solution to Iraq’s debt mountain has nothing to do with the U.S. official tasked with climbing it. The solution is the creation of a new Iraqi government that can re-negotiate its debts with the Paris Club of creditors. “Never in the history of the Paris Club has it ever signed a rescheduling deal with an entity that wasn’t an independent and sovereign state,” says one senior French official.

Unless Baker is about to declare Iraq’s independence, there are only two explanations for his appointment. Either the president feels that Powell, Snow and the rest of his cabinet are incapable of dealing with Iraq’s debts. Or the president is giving Baker a far broader role in resolving Iraq’s future. Both explanations are deeply unsettling for his much-vaunted foreign policy team and for the rest of the world. When Baker travels to European and regional capitals, the world’s leaders will think that Baker—not Powell, Donald Rumsfeld or Condoleezza Rice—has the influence with the president to get things done in Iraq. Yet we, and they, can’t be sure of that. After all, in official terms, Baker is just talking about Iraq’s debts."

I'm in the school of thought that thinks Baker is not going to be merely negotiating the technicalities of debt restructuring agreements. His balliwick will likely be a lot larger. Imagine how quickly a debt restructuring pow-wow at the head of state (or foreign minister) level can metamorphosize into a wide-ranging discussion/untrammeled horsetrading session in likely Baker ports of call like Moscow, Paris, Berlin and Riyadh.

But I'm not quite as pessimistic as Wolffe that this means there will be mammoth confusion from world leaders about who speaks for the Administration--at least not much more than there's been over the past three years.

Of course, this depends on Baker not crossing Powell too much. Those two need to try to work in tandem. Baker and Rummy will be pretty natural opponents--as Baker is going to be using some carrots to coax key Euro and Arab countries to give up some cash in return for, well, something. Whatever that something is, it is likely something Rummy (and maybe Cheney) wouldn't have wanted to give up.

But Baker has to try to operate in rough coordination with Foggy Bottom. Even with the direct ear of the President--he's not the Secretary of State with a whole building behind him. Powell still, even as a presumptive lame duck, can still throw some heft around.

And both, ostensibly, have similar goals speaking broadly. Getting more cooperation from the "allies" and such--whether debt forgiveness, aid monies, or constabulatory forces and the like. So I think, to some extent, these gentlemen are going to, if not outright need each other, at least not wish to operate at cross purposes so as to scuttle each other.

That said, it's fair to say that Baker's appointment wasn't exactly a ringing endorsement of the President's confidence in Powell and Snow's ability to run the ball on these issues efficaciously. He evidently felt consigliere-style professional back up was necessitated. I mean, with the road map on the ropes, is Powell that busy that, with Snow, he couldn't have taken this debt restructuring gig on because his schedule was full up?

So, too many cooks pace Wolffe? Maybe, but likely not. Why?

Rummy and Wolfy will focus more on the military efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq (though the timing of this was sure odd . And it certainly doesn't make Baker's job easier. Unless this was done purposefully to give Baker another chip to persuade the French, Canadians, Germans, etc to make major concessions on debt restructuring, ie. Wolfy's declaration is reversible?).

Put differently, Baker's appointment will further signal to Rummy that he can't play Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense simultaneously. Cheney will likely continue to play a critical behind the scenes role--with Dubya likely bouncing some of what Baker reports directly to him off Cheney for feedback. (Still, the post-war Iraq travails have taken Cheney down a peg or two two in term of omniscient Beltway sage status. It's not just Ahmed Chalabi's cred that taken a beating or two in the past seven odd months).

Condi continues auditioning for Secretary of State--while, unfortunately (as the result is often policy paralysis) not really playing a real NSC advisor broker role like Brent Scrowcroft did. And Powell, the loyal soldier, tries to keep it cordial with Baker and try to ensure their mutual diplomatic efforts are complementary--while trying to keep Baker pretty wedded to the restructuring agenda and not too much more.

Yeah, it's a lot of moving parts. What the French might call a bouillabaisse. But it's not necessarily quite the train wreck Wolffe sketches out.

Let's see how the first few months of the Baker missions go. If there appears to be a coherent Administration message enunciated, with Bush setting the overall message, we might be O.K.

Note too, it's crunch time for Dubya. He really has to step up to the plate and make sure all these beltway barons (Powell, Cheney, Rummy, Baker) can get along and make good, smart policy in concert. Here's hoping they pull it off. After all, we're all in this together. And the stakes don't get much higher.

Posted by Gregory at December 11, 2003 12:01 AM
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