If I told you that there was something in Washington called the Baker commission but didn't tell you what it was about, you still could probably name many of its members. If you are of a certain age, you might wonder, "Jim or Howard?" And you might have a quibble or two.
Where is Dick Holbrooke? Does Sandra Day O'Connor's new availability mean that Madeleine Albright is out of luck from now on? Are they sure that Larry Eagleburger is still alive? But Vernon Jordan is there, along with Ed Meese and Alan Simpson and Lee Hamilton. This is one torch that has not been passed to a new generation, although former Virginia senator and presidential son-in-law Charles Robb (age 67) is a fresh face in the pool of Washington Wise Men. Welcome, Chuck.
The Baker commission—that's James Baker, of course—was appointed by Congress to look into the situation in Iraq. It is expected to report early next month and is duly bouncing around and staffing up and holding hearings and all the things that prestigious commissions do.
Ordinarily, a commission like this has two possible purposes: action or inaction. Sometimes a problem is referred to a prestigious commission so that the commission can recommend what everybody knows must be done but nobody who must run for election has the nerve to propose. The commission can ram this policy down the politicians' allegedly unwilling throats. If it is bipartisan—and what fun is a commission that isn't bipartisan?—the commission also protects both parties against a stab in the back by the other. This is how Social Security was reformed and saved the last time, when the chairman of the commission was Alan Greenspan, and undoubtedly this is how it will be reformed and saved again. Hey, Greenspan's still available. Come to think of it, why isn't he on this one? He is no expert on Iraq—but neither is Leon Panetta, another recent initiate into the Pantheon. Welcome, Leon.
On the other hand, sometimes a problem is referred to a commission simply to get it off the table. Action is widely perceived as necessary, and the creation of a commission can be made to look like action.
So, which is the Baker commission? It's got elements of both. Part of the idea, certainly, was to get the politicians over the hump of the election and give them something to say in the meanwhile. ("We desperately need new ideas and fresh thinking about Iraq, and indeed the entire Middle East. I look forward to the recommendations of the Baker commission and urge them to interpret their mandate widely and boldly.") And part of the idea is to legitimize some currently impalatable solution. But the Baker commission may be near unique in that there is no obvious solution waiting to be imposed. People actually hope that it will come up with something that no one has previously thought of.
Good luck. The chance that this group of aging white men, plus Vernon Jordan and Sandra Day O'Connor, will come up with something original is not enormous. It's a nutty, and not very attractive, idea to turn an urgent issue of war and peace over to a commission. Commissions have usually been trotted out for long-run social problems: immigration, debt, health care. Going to war is something that ought to be decided by the people we elect. Congress in recent decades has virtually abandoned its duty under the Constitution to make the decisions about when American soldiers are sent to kill and die.
Presidents have foolishly claimed that authority. And now, inevitably, we have a president who is stuck with a war that he insisted on and a citizenry that has no interest in it.
If we had wanted our country to be run by James Baker, we had our chance. He was interested in running for president in 1996 but discovered that his interest in a James Baker presidency was not widely shared. Although he has held a variety of government posts, from deputy secretary of commerce under Ford to secretary of state under Bush the Elder, and has all the trappings of enormous consequence and wisdom, such as a Presidential Medal of Freedom and his own Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, Baker is essentially a political operative. His place in history is Florida 2000, where he secured the presidency for George W. Bush. Reporters were awed by his brilliance and ruthlessness. History may be less admiring of his willingness to make inconsistent arguments and to lie with a straight face.
Being a Washington Wise Man does not require much wisdom. Baker has a "conviction," said a colleague in the Washington Post on Sunday, "that Iraq is the central foreign policy issue confronting the United States." Wow. Now there's an insight. Actually, it is a nice small insight into the Baker mentality that he apparently can imagine a war that is killing young Americans by the hundreds every month but is not our central foreign-policy issue. According to this colleague, Baker also believes that "the only way to address that issue successfully is to first build a bipartisan consensus." Now that is a conviction you can sink your teeth into. People like Baker always favor a bipartisan consensus.