x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

A power behind the presidents

James Baker has never won elected office himself, but the Texas lawyer has long been a prominent player both in Washington and in international affairs.

James Baker has never won elected office himself, but the Texas lawyer has long been a prominent player both in Washington and in international affairs, including as secretary of state. He has shown a particular interest in the Middle East. Patrick Granfield and Angela Shah write James Baker III's pedigree invites certain comparisons, not all of them favourable. In the Middle East, any Texas Republican will find it hard to dissociate himself from others who have had such grand ambitions for the region, but with mixed results.

Mr Baker's drawl and down-home manner may bear a resemblance to the former US president George W Bush, but he doesn't walk with the same strut. Before Mr Baker was America's top diplomat, serving as secretary of state to the then president George HW Bush, he was well-practised in diplomacy. He tried to bridge the gap between two different cultures of Texas and Washington. He was never an ideological fire-brand or party loyalist. Mr Baker started out as a supporter of the Democratic Party. But his first wife, Mary McHenry, was an active Republican and a contributor to the congressional campaigns of George HW Bush.

It was not until after her death from breast cancer in 1973 that Mr Baker became actively involved in politics. Mr Bush Sr, a longtime friend, asked him to run his campaign for the US Senate in Harris County, Texas. Mr Baker has said that Mr Bush asked for his help to "give me something to do" after his wife had died. Mr Baker ran for public office only once, for Texas attorney general in 1978. He lost.

Mr Baker was in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday to announce the newest office of Baker Botts, his family's law firm based in Texas. For 20 minutes, Mr Baker offered opinions on topics ranging from the foreign policy approach of President Barack Obama during his first year in office, of which Mr Baker approved, to why he was "very bullish" on the UAE economy. Mr Baker even had some advice for the latest sporting gun slinger to come out of his alma mater, Colt McCoy, the quarterback at the University of Texas. McCoy is turning pro; the Washington Redskins are interested. "He's got to cover his backside", Mr Baker warns him about Washington, "make sure he's got a good [offensive] line".

Few Texans have understood how the game is played in Washington as James Baker does. For his part, he's never preferred the role of a Quarterback or enjoyed the lime-light of calling the shots. For his part, Mr Baker has played more the role of left tackle, the position in American football that protects the quarterback's blind side. And although he turns 80 this year, it seems that if he got too close to gridiron today he would want to put on a helmet and pads. Mr Baker still appears to relish the dirty work in the trenches of international business and diplomacy.

"Maybe he's got an overactive thyroid," suggests Lawrence Eagleburger, a former US secretary of state who served under Mr Baker when the latter was the top diplomat during the first Bush presidency. "He likes to do the work." Mr Baker was born into wealth but sloth was not an option. His father - dubbed the Warden by his children - was known to throw a bucket of ice water on his children if they weren't awake by 7am.

Mr Baker studied classics at Princeton University but even as a student, politics and policy captured his attention. He wrote his senior thesis on the British Labour Party from 1945 to 1952. Taking one question after the next, he pauses only to complete a paragraph. The first question is about Iraqi oil, another about UN resolutions and the West Bank. He can also talk about American football with equal reflection. Sure, he's got his talking points, but he can't miss the opportunity to tell a good story.

When pressed about the danger of the US negotiating with Syria, something he has long encouraged but appears increasingly futile, Mr Baker says diplomacy involves patience. And, it seems, some pain. He described his talks with the former Syrian president Hafaz Assad as "bladder diplomacy", with of "a lot of tea and a lot of sweet juice" during nine-hour negotiation sessions. "I'm a believer in meeting with your enemies as well as with your friends. You don't need to negotiate peace with your friends, you negotiate peace with your enemies."

Mr Baker is a serious diplomat but part of his power is his charm. As he says, "diplomacy is best practised with a veiled fist". He never did let a dictator or crisis get him all that worked up, and he saw a few during his 12 years serving two presidents. When the then president Ronald Reagan was shot outside the Washington Hilton in 1981, Mr Baker was the president's chief of staff. On the October day in 1987 when the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped by 22 per cent, he was the secretary of the treasury. When the Berlin Wall came down two years later, Mr Baker was the secretary of state, the last one of the cold war.

And in the summer of 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, he was the official responsible for selling to the UN a resolution on the use of force against Iraq. He also built a team of 34 nations to enforce that resolution.   "When I was putting together the coalition to kick Iraq out of Kuwait, China would not agree to the use of force," he recalls. "And I worked on them and worked on them and worked on them, and finally got them to abstain." Each of the remaining UN security council members voted in favour.

The current secretary of state Hillary Clinton may have to confront similar difficulty with China again, this time to obtain sanctions against Iran to confront its suspected nuclear ambitions. Retired from serving the Oval Office in 1993, Mr Baker is a senior partner at Baker Botts. "We like to say we have as many offices in the Middle East as we do in Texas because we have offices in Riyadh, Dubai and Abu Dhabi," he says.

Certainly Mr Baker came from great privilege; if America has ever had something like an aristocracy, Mr Baker belonged to it. Reared in monied Houston society, he went to boarding school in Pennsylvania and has Ivy League credentials. Despite his accomplishments, there is a gap in Mr Baker's resume for a man of his accomplishments. He has never held elected office, never had to deliver stump speeches in the snow or plead for votes at a motorway dinner. He has managed two victorious presidential campaigns; it's not that he hasn't been to those events, just never as the main attraction.

@Email:pgranfield@thenational.ae ashah@thenational.ae