Russian Rice

Posted by Cutler on December 08, 2006
Iran, Iraq, Russia

Someone powerful in Washington is pushing back against the Baker plan and there is a bit of a scramble to figure out who is leading the rejectionist faction. In a previous post, I pointed to Cheney as a key factor. William Kristol told Newsweek he thinks that Bush himself is the last Neocon.

David Sanger of the New York Times tries out a new theory today: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is the quiet leader of the rejectionist faction.

According to Sanger, the issues at the heart of Rice’s rebuke the Iraq Study Group recommendations regarding diplomatic engagement with Iran and Syria.

I’m not sure Sanger has the goods to make this idea stick, although it is certainly interesting to reflect on Rice’s role.

On Syria, Sanger offers up a key Baker quote that currently appears only in the Times:

At a midday meeting with reporters on Thursday, Mr. Baker insisted… [the US] should try to “flip the Syrians”…

If you can flip the Syrians you will cure Israel’s Hezbollah problem,” Mr. Baker said Thursday, noting that Syria is the transit point for arms shipments to Hezbollah. He said Syrian officials told him “that they do have the ability to convince Hamas to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist,” and added, “If we accomplish that, that would give the Ehud Olmert a negotiating partner.”

The idea–also popular with some Israeli politicians–is to pry Syria away from its regional alliance with Iran and return Damascus to the Arab fold.

Sanger doesn’t exactly have Rice taking shots at this idea, but he does report some muttering from Rice aides:

Ms. Rice remained publicly silent, sitting across town in the office that Mr. Baker gave up 14 years ago. She has yet to say anything about the public tutorial being… delivered in a tone that drips with isn’t-this-obvious…

Aides to the 52-year-old Ms. Rice say she is acutely aware that there is little percentage in getting into a public argument with Mr. Baker, the 76-year-old architect of the first Bush administration’s Middle East policy. But Thursday, as President Bush gently pushed back against some of Mr. Baker’s recommendations, Ms. Rice’s aides and allies were offering a private defense, saying that she already has a coherent, effective strategy for the region.

She has advocated “deepening the isolation of Syria,” because she believes much of the rest of the Arab world condemns its efforts to topple Lebanon’s government, they said…

The Rice quote about the isolation of Syria is from October 2005 (“Despite Warnings, U.S. Leans on Syria,” Los Angeles Times, October 31, 2005; no on-line link available).  Plenty has happened since then, not all of which points toward the isolation of Syria.  Nevertheless, the recent assassination of Pierre Gemayal certainly might have revived tensions between Washington and Syria, to the detriment of Baker’s diplomatic track.

On Iran, Sanger’s attempt to discern a split between Rice and Baker seems even weaker.

[I]n seeking to isolate Iran, [Rice aides] said, she hopes to capitalize on the fears of nations like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan that Iran seeks to dominate the region, with the option of wielding a nuclear weapon.

How different is this from Baker’s own approach toward Iran?  Is Baker above capitalizing on Arab fears?  Aren’t these fears a primary motivation for Baker’s diplomatic initiative regarding Iran?

And, how far is Rice from Baker on Iran?  Sanger doesn’t mention that Rice led the way what was billed as a major “opening” toward dialogue with Iran.

Nevertheless, I think Sanger might be on to something.

Baker and Rice are hardly carbon copies.  Perhaps the best way to trace the difference is to recall that the key figure who recruited Rice into the Bush administration was not Baker or even Brent Scowcroft, but George Shultz who worked with Rice at his Stanford University “Hoover Institution.”

Leading figures at the Hoover Institution and Baker’s public policy shop at Rice University differ on many issues, including Israel and Iran.  In terms of Condoleezza Rice, however, perhaps the most important differences between Baker and Shultz concern Russia–Condoleezza’s area of expertise.

Shultz’s Hoover Institution is quite hawkish about Russia.  And, as I noted in a previous post, this may have considerable importance when teasing out differences between Rice and Baker, not to mention Cheney and Baker.

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