Rupert Cornwell: Realism finally returns to Washington

For Baker, foreign policy has never been a noble mission to change the world

Who has been the dominating figure of this past Iraq-obsessed week in Washington? Not George Bush, so visibly aged and somehow shrivelled as he mouthed his platitudes about "victory" - even as he was forced to assure us that he did indeed understand what was going on in that shattered land.

Certainly not our own great leader, as he shared the stage with Bush on Thursday's press conference, still insisting that the war had been a noble mission, part of a "great struggle between freedom and democracy, and terrorism and sectarianism". Would, Tony, that it were so simple.

A worthier candidate would be Bob Gates, as he informed a senator at his Pentagon confirmation hearings in that cool, clipped way of his that: "No sir, we are not winning." A blinding statement of the obvious, you will rightly say. But the US always takes for granted it will win. In Iraq, of course, that has been an illusion - an illusion, however, that the nonsense emanating from the White House over the past year has done nothing to dispel.

No, the person who has towered over proceedings is James Addison Baker, that grand master of realism and throw-back to a happier era of American foreign policy. The report of the Iraq Study Group of which Baker was co-chairman has not only transformed the nature of the debate. It has been realism's revenge over the neo-conservative fantasy that democracy could be created through the barrel of a gun in one of the most complex regions on earth.

Baker was Secretary of State when I first arrived in Washington in early 1991, on the eve of the first Iraq war whose preparation and execution stand in retrospect as a masterclass in statecraft. "Not many people ever ask me any more about the decision to leave Saddam Hussein in power in 1991," he is now wont to murmur in that silky Texan drawl. For Baker, foreign policy has never been a noble mission to change the world. Rather, it is the art of managing the world. That was also the approach of Bush's father, with whom Baker worked for two decades. Now - and surely with the tacit blessing of the elder Bush - he is trying to impart that lesson to the son.

As Baker and his co-chair, the former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton, presented their report on Wednesday, a saner world seemed briefly to have returned. Whether he was wearing the usual cowboy boots, I could not be sure. But it was deeply reassuring to see the trademark luminous pale green tie, that he must have replaced a dozen times over the intervening 15 years. The grown-ups were back - if not in charge, then at least at centre stage.

Jim Baker is far from perfect. He is manipulative and a skilful self-promoter. His brand of realism brought the tragedy that followed soon after the ejection of Saddam from Kuwait when, encouraged by the administration, the Shias in the south and the Kurds in the north rose up against the dictator. Bush the elder and Baker, however, lifted not a finger to prevent them from being slaughtered by the diminished but still potent army they had allowed Saddam to retain. Realism also blinded them to the savagery that was bound to follow the outbreak of war in Yugoslavia. ("We don't have a dog in that fight," Baker famously commented.)

Baker's preferred self-image is of the courtier far cleverer than the king, a pretension that once led Bush to slap him down. "How come," the former inquired in a testy moment, "that if you're so smart, I'm President and not you?" Touché. But with the son this week, Baker was in full Jeeves mode, smoothly serving up advice to get the young master out of his terrible Iraq pickle. Baker did Bush Jnr one favour by delaying publication of the damning report until the midterm elections were over - though much good that kindness did, as the Republicans lost both House and Senate anyway. But that was it. The published report pulls not a single punch.

On its own the report won't get Bush out of his pickle. You could argue that the Baker/Hamilton report inhabits the lost world of 1991, when the US used the momentum of the first Gulf war triumph to convene the Madrid conference on the Middle East. The misbegotten 2003 invasion not merely unleashed a new crisis in the Middle East but complicated every other existing crisis in the region. However thorough, the 79 recommendations of the ISG had no chance of working. And that was before Bush Jnr - with Tony Blair expressionless beside him - responded on Thursday, in essence, thanks but no thanks.

But this will not be the end of the matter. Back in 1991, Baker helped to put together an astonishingly broad international coalition against Saddam, including the likes of Egypt and Syria. Now he has achieved the rare feat of securing an impressive cross-party agreement at home over America's most divisive war since Vietnam.

Bush, desperately weakened by the midterm defeat, will ignore it at his peril. Quite probably the ISG report comes too late to halt Iraq's accelerating slide into chaos. Almost certainly, however, it offers the President his last chance of a political deal to extricate the US with a modicum of honour and bipartisan support.

Alas, the tangled generational rivalries of the Bush family may prevent it. Jim Baker, basically, is daddy's man. Indeed, the very title of his current memoir, Work Hard, Study ... and Keep Out of Politics, could be taken as career advice to the son, sadly unheeded. The ISG report, couched in clear and simple prose, is an even plainer rebuke.

Most reports by commissions by Washington's great and good are quickly forgotten - if they are read at all. Not this one, though. The recommendations by the ISG may be impracticable. But the "assessment" section of the report, a 40-page snapshot of the real state of affairs in Iraq in late 2006, will be an essential part of the journalist's survival kit, an idiot's guide to the crisis in every newsroom in the land. As such it will shape attitudes here for months to come. This truly is the realists' revenge. Back in 2000, Jim Baker saved Bush. In this his darkest hour, the wastrel son has been thrown another lifeline, however slender, by Baker. If he throws it away, he may drown.