MOUNT VERNON, Va. -- The ostensible task for former Secretary of State James Baker here the other night was to tout the candidacy of Republican senatorial nominee Oliver North at a fat-cat reception at the palatial home of a Virginia developer. But his performance demonstrated why he continues to be mentioned as a possible 1996 presidential candidate.
Baker's appearance for North was in itself an eyebrow-raiser, inasmuch as Baker's old boss, former President Ronald Reagan, tried to derail North's nomination with a letter saying that North was lying about what he knew about the Iran-contra affair and about "private meetings" North claimed he had with Reagan that "just didn't happen."
Baker conspicuously expressed his support for North in terms of the Republican Party's opportunity to regain control of the Senate by picking up seven seats on Nov. 8, including that of Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb.
Recalling that he held high administration posts when Republicans controlled the Senate from 1981 to 1986 and later when they didn't, Baker said: "It makes night-and-day difference. It makes all the difference in the world, and every vote and every seat is important."
Almost offhandedly, Baker said that he also supported North because "we are fellow Marines, and fellow Marines have a bond of sorts, a pretty strong bond." With that, Baker launched into an impressive discourse on foreign policy that was much more an advertisement for Jim Baker as a presidential prospect than a pitch for Oliver North.
Baker dissected the foreign policy of President Clinton with a verbal scalpel. He was not going to criticize his successor as secretary of state, Warren M. Christopher, he said, because, "Frankly, I think the failures of this administration's foreign policy go to a higher pay grade," meaning Bill Clinton.
Christopher, he said, does not have the "support and resources" needed from Clinton, noting that he himself had served "a president who knew foreign affairs and knew foreign policy." Under George Bush, he said, "I never had to look around and I never had to watch my backside."
When Clinton beat Bush, he said, "foreign policy was the forgotten issue." Clinton believed he was elected to concentrate on domestic problems, Baker said, "and that the foreign policy issues ought to be delegated or deferred or ducked. And now I think he's found out differently."
Clinton's low ratings, he said, reflect severe reservations about his leadership and a sense that he is "lacking in a very, very important part of the job." Baker compared foreign policy to plumbing: "If things are going fine, nobody pays much attention. But you let something go wrong and all hell breaks loose." That, he said, "is what happened in Somalia, that's what's happened to some extent in Bosnia, in Haiti and flip-flops on China."
Baker said that to be a "credible critic" he had to give the administration credit for its work in the Middle East and in encouraging economic reform in Russia, and for the passage of NAFTA, "with a lot of Republican votes." But, he said, "after 20 months, it seems to me you stop whining and take responsibility for your own problems" rather than saying that they were inherited. Every president since Truman has found foreign policy problems just as tough left on his desk, he said.
The administration, Baker said, has "fallen into the trap of letting their rhetoric outstrip their resolve." To threaten force and then not back it up is to "erode 40 years of credibility that this country has built up abroad, under both Democratic and Republican administrations."
Further, Baker said, a president cannot "fragment" the conduct of foreign policy and "can't look at every foreign policy problem through a domestic prism." He has to have strong domestic support, he said, "but he has to build it." He compared Bush's construction of support from a Democratic Congress for driving Saddam Hussein from Kuwait with Clinton's refusal to get Congress' approval to go into Haiti.
All this, he said, "is not high foreign policy theory. It is Foreign Policy 101, and we expect our president to know it and to apply it." All this also was, although he didn't say it, James Baker displaying his best case for the GOP presidential nomination in 1996. He says he is thinking about it and has campaigned in 20 states for Republican candidates, but, he insists, only with the same goal that brought him to Virginia -- winning control of the Senate.