WASHINGTON—When James Baker became President George H.W. Bush's secretary of state in 1989, one of the first things he did was cut a bipartisan deal to end years of poisonous wrangling over U.S. policy in Central America—an issue as divisive then as Iraq is today.
Seventeen years later, Baker faces a similar—but tougher—challenge as he and retired congressman Lee Hamilton co-chair a committee that's increasingly seen as the last, best hope for finding a respectable exit from Iraq.
Baker, now 76, is proceeding much as he did when he negotiated over Nicaragua and El Salvador in the `80s, according to individuals close to him and the panel, known as the Iraq Study Group.
Baker saw the disputes over Central America policy as "first and foremost a domestic political issue," he wrote in his 1995 memoir, "The Politics of Diplomacy." If the politics couldn't be defused, "any hopes for a diplomatic solution, much less achieving a bipartisan foreign policy, were doomed."
Today, the Iraq Study Group's five Republicans and five Democrats are widely portrayed as seeking new solutions to halt Iraq's slide into civil war and extricate the 141,000 U.S. troops there.
But there may not be any good solutions, and Baker's real goal is to forge a bipartisan consensus at all costs, the people close to him and the group say.
"It is not about new ideas. It is about ... ideas that can be supported across the political spectrum," said one person intimately involved with the group's work.
He and others spoke on condition of anonymity because Baker and Hamilton have demanded an end to media leaks about the group's deliberations. (Working in secrecy for as long as possible is another longtime Baker trait.)
Yet the hopes of finding a unified approach to the Iraq war appear to have faded since the midterm elections on Nov. 7.
Leading Democratic lawmakers, including incoming Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., have said they'll push for a withdrawal of U.S. troops beginning in the next four to six months.
President Bush and his top generals oppose timetables.
The White House initiated its own review of Iraq policy. It's unclear whether it's meant to support the Baker-Hamilton effort or pre-empt it.
Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., the incoming chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said he welcomed the commission's work, but he cautioned, "I think there is a real danger—the expectation is too high. . . . Anybody who expects a silver bullet will be profoundly disappointed."
Still, Lantos said, "There's a possibility at least of a bipartisan approach" toward Iraq.
Bernard Aronson, a former assistant secretary of state who helped Baker negotiate the Central America accord, said that in many ways, "the politics of the challenges are quite similar."
The accord with Congress essentially ended U.S. policy of trying to overthrow Nicaragua's Sandinista government by force, replacing it with a focus on democratic elections, which were won by a pro-American candidate.
But, Aronson said, Iraq "is a much tougher situation because the options are much narrower."
In 1989, he noted, the United States benefited from a changing Soviet Union that was willing to cut off arms supplies to the Sandinistas. Today, the other major player in Iraq is Iran, which by all accounts is becoming more intractable, not less.
Exactly what course in Iraq the Baker-Hamilton commission will recommend has become the No. 1 guessing game in Washington, as well as in Middle East capitals.
It appears unlikely that the panel will recommend a summary withdrawal of U.S. troops, given the White House's flat opposition and predictions from the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies that a rapid exit would fracture Iraq and possibly draw its neighbors into the war.
Nor does a "stay the course" prescription seem to be in the cards.
That leaves some version of the "old college try," a last-ditch effort to stabilize the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and build up Iraqi security forces.
Opponents argue it won't work, even with more American troops, because Maliki has been unwilling to rein in militias of Shiite factions, which form the base of his support. Iraqi security services, particularly the police, are widely reported to be involved in sectarian violence themselves.
One proposal put to the commissioners warns that it would take 50,000 more U.S. troops, plus 10,000 to 15,000 more U.S. advisers to the Iraqi army, to have any chance of success.
That many troops may not be available from a strained U.S. Army and Marine Corps.
"We can put in 20,000 more Americans tomorrow and achieve a temporary effect. But when you look at the overall American force pool that's available out there, the ability to sustain that commitment is simply not something that we have right now," Gen. John Abizaid, the chief of U.S. Central Command, told the Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.
Baker has suggested that he favors U.S. engagement with Iran and Syria as part of a more energetic regional approach to dealing with Iraq.
One person close to him said the former secretary of state is determined to have the commission, whose work is being coordinated by the U.S. Institute of Peace, issue a single consensus report, without the dissents that sometimes accompany such documents.
Baker, a Republican and one-time political campaign manager who was chief of staff and treasury secretary under President Ronald Reagan, has long been identified with the pragmatic "realist" foreign policy of the first President Bush. That's anathema to conservatives who favor an idealistic foreign policy based on aggressively spreading democracy.
One of those conservatives, former Pentagon official Michael Rubin, writing in the Wall Street Journal, decried the proposals to engage Iran and Syria and what he called "the resurrection of realists" such as Baker and Defense Secretary-designate Robert Gates.
Aronson said the image of Baker as an amoral "pol" is unfair. "Foreign policy is politics on an international stage," he said. "You can't be effective in foreign policy unless you understand politics, broadly speaking."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.