We'll be reporting much more on this in the coming days. But I just wanted to start off this afternoon by saying that I think James Baker's appointment as President Bush's envoy for settling Iraq's foreign debt issues is a much bigger deal than it seems. Much bigger.
My point isn't that there's anything hidden or conspiratorial about it per se. It's just that cutting the deals surrounding the debt issue is central to much of what happens in Iraq next year. And much of what happens in Iraq period.
Settling this debt issue isn't just a bigger version of refinancing your house. It will involve Baker in critical negotiations with the front-line states in the region as well as Iraq's debtors abroad. Those negotiations in turn will have a lot of influence over how helpful or unhelpful these other states choose to be next year -- with potential troops and a lot of other things. (It is also, as a friend of mine notes, a tacit admission that the Madrid donors' conference was a bit of a flop.) Finally, the terms of the deals -- how they're backed up, especially -- will get right into the matter of how the Iraqi economy itself gets structured: who owns what, how it's structured, what other countries get claims on what assets.
(Baker will be assisted in all of this by the fact that he knows everyone in the region -- and represents a number of them. He will also be able to say -- with no little credibility -- that he had nothing to do with all the unpleasantness of last year. "You don't want to deal with me? How'd you like dealing with Doug?")
We already know in late July there was some effort from some parties in the White House to get Baker into Iraq and possibly edge Bremer out. It didn't come off. But I think this move must be, in some sense, seen in the context of that earlier story.
I don't think Bremer is going anywhere. But I'm also not sure that he has to.
The situation in Iraq has become much more militarized in the last six weeks or so. In practice, that's diminished Bremer's role already. Baker's appointment may diminish his role in another part of running the country -- again, the all important nexus between the economic organization of the country itself and its relations with other states and international financial institutions.
Let's remember what Baker's specialty is. Yes, he was White House Chief of Staff, Treasury Secretary, Secretary of State and various other things. But his real specialty is coming in to save the day when men named George Bush look like they're about to lose their presidencies. He's the family fixer. He did that in 1992 when he gave up State to run Bush's campaign. And he did it eight years later in 2000 when he went to Florida to run the recount battle. The phone just rang again ...
Add to the mix the fact that the neocons react to James Baker's name about the way a gas station attendant does if you try to light a cigarette while you're filling your tank.