Can James Baker Save Iraq?

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The other day I called an Arab security official in the Gulf and joked with him about how well things are going in Iraq. He wasn't in the mood for irony. "The Iranians and the Shi'a are coming to get us," he said, "and you Americans don't have a clue how to stop them."

I heard the same thing from a half dozen other Gulf Arab contacts I talked to the same day. Sure, they're all unhappy about Iraq. But what really concerns them is what happens when the U.S. packs up and leaves. The most likely scenario is an out-and-out civil war, Sunni against Shi'a, with Iran and Saudi Arabia eventually sucked in. And, by the way, can the United States stop Iran from occupying Iraq?

In all the gloom my Arab contacts see one ray of hope—James Baker, the co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group. Most Gulf Arabs—Sunnis, to be sure—look at Baker as a friend. Baker was the brains behind the U.N.-sanctioned coalition that drove Saddam out of Kuwait. Baker had the sense to leave Saddam in power, knowing full well the alternative was civil war. The Iraq policy Baker put in place in 1992 gave the Gulf eleven years of peace.

Another reason the Gulf Arabs trust Baker is because of his financial ties to the region. After Baker left government, he was on the first plane to the Gulf to cash in on his contacts. He was a major player in the Carlyle Group, an Arab-friendly company that solicits Gulf money. In December 2003, Bush appointed Baker to solve Iraq's unpaid debt, much of which is owed to Gulf countries. Baker is doing his best to make sure the Gulf Arabs aren't robbed. Baker's law firm represents the Saudi Defense Minister Sultan bin 'Abd-al-'Aziz in the 9/11 civil suit.

So far, so good. The only problem is, it is those same Gulf ties that keep the Iraqi Shi'a from trusting Baker. And that's not to mention that Baker was Secretary of State when George H.W. Bush, after having exhorted Iraqi Shi'a in the south to stage an uprising, let Saddam put up his helicopters and strafe Shi'a demonstrators at the end of the first Gulf War. To put it mildly, the Iraqi Shi'a are convinced Baker has taken sides.

Baker may know Iraq and the Gulf better than any other American statesman. And on the face of it he's a logical choice to lead the Iraq Study Group, which is widely expected to recommend some kind of policy shift after the election, quite possibly one that would involve Washington actually talking to its enemies in the region, such as Iran and Syria.

But right now, with the Sunni Arabs from the Gulf paying for many of the bombs that are blowing up Shi'a markets and mosques, you have to wonder if Baker is the right person to sort out the differences between Iraq's Shi'a and Sunni. Don't we have unconflicted, disinterested statesmen anymore?

Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is the author of See No Evil and most recently, the novel Blow the House Down.