Jeb's "James Baker" problem: Why hawks are turning on the "anti-Israel" Bush

Neocons have determined that Jeb Bush hates Israel, because he talks to James Baker sometimes

Published March 25, 2015 3:37PM (EDT)

  (Jeff Malet,
(Jeff Malet,

Aren't GOP presidential politics just great? You wake up one morning and suddenly Jeb Bush is the "anti-Israel candidate" in the Republican presidential primary field.

How did this happen? Last we checked, Jeb Bush loved the dickens out of Israel. He's been very clear about his deep affection for any and everything that (the right wing of) Israel does. "Governor Bush’s support for Israel and its Prime Minister is clear," Bush's spokesperson, Kristy Campbell said Monday night. This is perfectly in line with his support for the dumb Tom Cotton letter, and his insistence that the nuclear deal being negotiated with Iran is "bad" and should be rejected because Israel. Et cetera et cetera, SO ON, AND SO ON. Jeb Bush has no interest in straying from the prevailing party line on Israel, which is that American foreign policy should be conducted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But why, pray tell, was Kristy Campbell issuing this reassurance of Jeb Bush's deep, unwavering, total love for Benjamin Netanyahu's Israel late on a Monday night? Because James Baker, the former White House chief of staff, Treasury Secretary, and Secretary of State under Presidents Reagan and Bush Sr., had just addressed the annual J Street conference.

J Street is the advocacy group founded as a more liberal counterpart to AIPAC. It is critical of the Israeli right wing and does not see it as helping the prospects for peace in the Middle East. So naturally conservatives see J Street as a radical extremist left-wing terrorist organization in bed with the mullahs of Iran and hellbent on securing the total annihilation of Israel. (The views of American Jews at large, meanwhile, tend to align with J Street's.)

Conservative hawks find James Baker's views on Israel "problematic," as we like to say on the Internet. When he was Secretary of State, the first Bush administration threatened to withhold loan guarantees for the Israeli government until it froze settlement activity, which was complicating peace negotiations with the Palestinians. (Sound familiar?) Bush eventually relented ahead of the 1992 election, but Baker has gone down in hawkish lore as the face of the first Bush administration's testy relationship with Israel. That's because of one comment he allegedly made in private at the time: "Fuck the Jews, they didn't vote for us anyway."

George W. Bush's recklessly militaristic foreign policy did much to repair the family's relationship with conservative Jewish hawks, who had viewed the Bushes skeptically going back to the pre-WWII years when W.'s grandfather Prescott Bush, like many members of the American and British upper classes, got swept up in the whole Nazi thing. They seemed plenty willing to support Jeb Bush even a month ago, and he may yet draw plenty of support from their ranks.

But first he's going to have to throw James Baker under the bus.

Baker was one of the nearly two-dozen foreign policy hands that Jeb Bush's proto-campaign brought on as advisors in February. This makes a lot of sense, since Baker is an extremely close ally of Bushes, whether as Secretary of State and chief of staff to Bush Sr. or Florida-recount fixer for W. He is the most seasoned Republican administration official of his generation. Of course he is going to be chit-chatting with Jeb Bush from time to time. More likely than not, he'll chit-chat from time to time with whoever the next president is, regardless of whether that's Jeb Bush, another Republican, or a Democrat.

If you, like me, follow the thinking of conservative hawks through the sudden attitudinal shifts of Jennifer Rubin's hilarious Washington Post blog, you would have recognized Jeb's James Baker problem weeks ago. Rubin, who works in only two colors -- total shilling or total disdain -- immediately went from Jeb shill to Jeb hater after the Baker announcement. Her write-up of Bush's February 4 speech was self-parodically adulatory, complimenting the former Florida governor on everything from his looks to his style to his message. "Looking svelte in a dark suit," she wrote, "he used a teleprompter, a vast improvement over recent speeches in which he used a script at the podium (necessitating he look down and lose eye contact). It was in a sense vintage Jeb Bush, not the Bush the media critics on the far right have caricatured."

But as soon as Bush hired Baker, and J Street announced that Baker would be speaking at its conference, Rubin curiously and abruptly began voicing concerns about Jeb's viability. Does Jeb Bush show enough "fire" in his foreign policy? A Bush spokesperson, in an update to that post, answered every question Rubin had about Bush's connection to Baker. Rubin determined that these responses were a sufficient "start" but remained unsettled. More recently she has employed her shameless shilling efforts in service of Sen. Marco Rubio.

Baker gave his J Street address last night. Initial media reports suggest that Baker "blasted" Netanyahu. Let's see what he said!

Baker told the gala dinner for the left-leaning Israeli advocacy group J Street that he supported efforts to get a deal with Tehran — but he called for President Barack Obama to bring any agreement before Congress, even though he may not legally be required to do so.

Baker, who was the chief diplomat for President George H.W. Bush and is now advising Jeb Bush on his presidential campaign, cited mounting frustrations with Netanyahu over the past six years — but particularly with comments he made in the closing days of last week’s election disavowing his support for a two-state solution and support for settlements strategically placed to attempt to change the borders between Israel and the West Bank.

“Frankly, I have been disappointed with the lack of progress regarding a lasting peace — and I have been for some time,” Baker said. And “in the aftermath of Netanyahu’s recent election victory, the chance of a two-state solution seems even slimmer, given his reversal on the issue.”

Baker said while Netanyahu has said he’s for peace, “his actions have not matched his rhetoric.”

Some Republicans in Congress have claimed Obama has eroded American support of Israel.

That’s wrong, too, Baker said.

“No one around the entire world should ever doubt America’s commitment to Israel, Not now, or at any point in the future,” he said.

BLAST! KABOOM! Baker is pretty much where the Obama administration is regarding a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear program -- although he does think it should go before Congress -- and Netanyahu's intransigence on securing a two-state solution. To conservative hawks, this means that James Baker hates Israel and wants it to be destroyed. And since James Baker hates Israel and wants it to be destroyed, then Jeb Bush also hates Israel and wants it to be destroyed. Until Jeb Bush "shows more fire" in his foreign policy speeches -- meaning until he fires, denounces, murders, dismembers, and burns the body parts of James Baker -- he will be the "anti-Israel candidate" in the GOP presidential field, taking the heat off of sluggishly clapping Rand Paul for a while.

I'd guess that James Baker's time as an official adviser to Jeb Bush is running short. He'll get dumped from the list of advisers but still keep talking to Jeb Bush in an unofficial capacity, because he is James Baker. Meanwhile, people like President W. Bush's deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, the neocon's neocon and purported "architect" of the greatest foreign policy disaster since Vietnam, will remain an official adviser to Jeb Bush forever, and hawks will have no problem with this.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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