In Republican circles, James Baker is in a unique position: he’s a grown-up. In a radicalized party filled with insurgent voices, Baker is an elder statesman with the kind of credibility and stature most political figures strive for but few achieve.
It’s what happens when someone serves as Reagan’s White House chief of staff and Treasury secretary, as well as serving as Secretary of State in the Bush/Quayle administration, where he assembled the international coalition that fought the first Gulf War.
With this recent history in mind, it was an important development when Baker publicly criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent antics, calling out the Israeli leader for “diplomatic missteps and political gamesmanship.” Baker also made clear that he was unimpressed with Netanyahu’s commitment to the peace process and his inflexible opposition to nuclear diplomacy with Iran.
This should have been a wake-up call to Republicans – they can hate the president, but when a foreign ally shows brazen disrespect for the United States, there’s nothing wrong with Americans from both parties speaking out.
Today’s GOP partisans are speaking out, all right, but mostly to condemn James Baker.
When former Secretary of State James A. Baker III accused Israel’s leader this week of undermining the chances of peace in the region, he said nothing more than the kinds of things he had said at times when he was in office a quarter-century ago.But the instant backlash from fellow Republicans that prompted Jeb Bush, the son of Mr. Baker’s best friend, to distance himself underscored just how much their party has changed on the issue of Israel. Where past Republican leaders had their disagreements with Israel, today’s Republicans have made support for the Jewish state an inviolable litmus test for anyone aspiring to national office.
When Bush added Jim Baker to his list of informal policy advisers, it was further proof of the former Florida governor enjoying the backing of the GOP establishment – effectively borrowing gravitas by surrounding himself with his family’s famous aides.
But when Baker took a stand in support of the United States against Netanyahu’s insolence, Bush felt like he had no choice but to distance himself from his father’s Secretary of State, condemning Baker’s comments more than once.
We have, in other words, entered genuinely bizarre new territory. When there’s an international disagreement, today’s Republican Party is not only comfortable taking the opposite of the American side – publicly, shamelessly, and repeatedly – it also expects every Republican to reflexively fall in line, or face the right’s wrath.
Think about what transpired in the abstract, removing Israel and Netanyahu from the equation: a foreign leader showed disrespect towards the United States, and a former American Secretary of State said this isn’t acceptable. For his trouble, James Baker is suddenly persona non grata in his own party, facing condemnations from his old boss’ kid, who’d sought out Baker’s guidance, largely because his old boss’ kid has no practical understanding of international affairs on his own.
It’s also a reminder of how much today’s right would have been infuriated by Reagan if conservatives actually knew about Reagan’s record.
President Ronald Reagan defied Israeli objections to sell Awacs reconnaissance planes to Saudi Arabia and supported a United Nations resolution condemning Israel after it bombed a nuclear plant under construction in Iraq without telling the United States first. His successor suspended $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel after it expanded housing settlements in occupied territories.As secretary of state, Mr. Baker gave a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or Aipac, calling on all sides in the Middle East conflict to face hard truths, including Israel, which he said should stop settlement activity. Mr. Baker even barred Mr. Netanyahu, then a deputy foreign minister, from the State Department building after the Israeli called American policy dishonest.“It is a different Republican Party from those days,” said Dennis B. Ross, who worked as a top adviser to Mr. Baker at the time and later went on to work for Mr. Obama on Middle East issues. “When Baker made his Aipac speech that was seen as so tough at the time in 1989, he drew little criticism from Republicans.”
Let’s also not forget that Reagan supported a U.N. Security Council resolution rebuking Israel for its annexation of the Golan Heights.
But that was a time in which the Republican Party still took foreign policy seriously. A generation later, Jeb Bush is facing blowback from the right because one of his advisers – one of the most respected voices in the GOP – dared to say something accurate.