Former Secretary of State James Baker attempted to shield Bob Zoellick, the new head of Mitt Romney's national security transition team, Thursday night following blistering criticisms from neocons that Zoellick is insufficiently pro-Israel and opposed the Gulf War. Baker's interview with Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin opens up a schism that rarely sees the light of day: The internal party battle between Republican neocons and Republican realists.
Though she's not specifically mentioned in the interview, Zoellick initially came under fire from The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin who dragged out a litany of internal Romney campaign complaints about him on Wednesday—some of the complaints more coherent than others. The main gist: Romney blew it by selecting a weak-kneed foreign policy dove to head his transition team. It essentially tied every decision Baker made under Reagan and George H.W. Bush to Zoellick, who was Baker's right hand man at the time. Meanwhile Baker's legacy is also coming under fire from The Daily Caller's Rafael Medoff who hauled out a disputed quote from the early '90s in which Baker allegedly said "Fuck the Jews, they don't vote for us." (That quote first surfaced in 1992 in a book by former New York Mayor Ed Koch but vehemently denied by Baker.) In last night's interview, Baker's defense of Zoellick went something like this:
- On opposing the Gulf War. Rubin's piece, in no uncertain terms, says Zoellick was "opposed to the Gulf War." Not true, says Baker. "He was never opposed to the Gulf War. In fact, he was one of my right-hand aides when we built that unprecedented international coalition to kick Iraq out of Kuwait."
- On going soft on the Soviet Union. Rubin's piece says Zoellick was "weak on pressuring the Soviet Union at the close of the Cold War." Not true, says Baker. "[Zoellick] wasn't the lead, but he was absolutely critical and instrumental in our getting German unification accomplished, and we did it over the objections of the Soviet Union."
- On being "anti-Israel." While disputing allegations he was overly hard on Israel, he said blaming his decisions on Zoellick didn't make much sense given Zoellick's role. "He was not the lead guy. The lead guy there was Dennis Ross, and nobody ever accused Dennis Ross of being hard on Israel."
- On wars in the Middle East: "The American people are tired of paying the cost, in blood and treasure, of these wars that we get into that sometimes do not represent a direct national security threat to the United States."
Whether Baker still holds enough sway within the Republican establishment to save Zoellick from an early dismissal is yet to be seen, but one thing's clear: With Romney aides leaking complaints about him to the press, he's not likely to feel welcome on the transition team. Meanwhile, Rubin may want to address her unreconcilable depiction of Zoellick's Gulf War stance with the one Baker describes.