Since March, Baker, backed by a team of experienced national-security hands, has been busily at work trying to devise a fresh set of policies to help the president chart a new course in–or, perhaps, to get the hell out of–Iraq. But as with all things involving James Baker, there’s a deeper political agenda at work as well. “Baker is primarily motivated by his desire to avoid a war at home–that things will fall apart not on the battlefield but at home. So he wants a ceasefire in American politics,” a member of one of the commission’s working groups told me. Specifically, he said, if the Democrats win back one or both houses of Congress in November, they would unleash a series of investigative hearings on Iraq, the war on terrorism, and civil liberties that could fatally weaken the administration and remove the last props of political support for the war, setting the stage for a potential Republican electoral disaster in 2008. “I guess there are people in the [Republican] party, on the Hill and in the White House, who see a political train wreck coming, and they’ve called in Baker to try to reroute the train.”

The fact that Baker is involved has sent the Washington rumor mill buzzing with the theory that the commission is really a Trojan Horse for the views of Baker’s friend and former boss, George H.W. Bush. It has been widely speculated that the former president never agreed with his son’s decision to invade Iraq, and the son appears to have repaid that perceived dissent by largely refusing to reach out to his father for advice on national security, despite the elder Bush’s knowledge and experience. In any case, for reasons that may be Oedipal or that may have to do with neoconservatives’ disdain for realists associated with Bush 41, or both, Bush 43 has so far kept the 41 circle at arm’s length–including Baker; his confrere Brent Scowcroft; and even, during his ill-fated tenure as secretary of state, Colin Powell. But with the situation in Iraq sliding towards irretrievable chaos, a moment of receptivity may have arrived.

It’s hard to know what the commission is really up to because its inner workings are nearly as secretive as those of the White House. Baker has imposed an ironclad gag order on all of its participants. The 60 people involved in the effort have been instructed, in the strongest of terms, not to comment to reporters on the task force’s work. Every one of the participants I spoke to flatly refused to comment for the record, and several did not want to talk even off the record. Some were palpably nervous. “We’re not allowed to talk about it,” said one person involved. “We get about every month a warning: ‘Do not discuss in any context the substance of what is happening in this group.’ You know how bad it is? Initially they wanted us to end all of our contacts with the media, make no statements, write no op-eds–in other words, become monks. Then they realized, how can you take the entire community of Iraq experts in the United States and have them all stop talking?”

Baker’s commission–officially called the Iraq Study Group–was created in March by Congress at the instigation of Rep. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican. After his third trip to Iraq last year, Wolf started contacting members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, urging the creation of a high-powered, private task force to take a fresh look at the mess in Iraq. “If you had a very serious illness…and you weren’t completely comfortable that everything was going the way you hoped, you’d certainly want to get a second opinion,” Wolf told me. At least 30 members of Congress supported the idea, including Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.). According to participants in the task force, a key silent partner with Wolf in putting it together was his Virginia Republican colleague, Sen. John Warner, the chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services committee.

Wolf’s motivation in creating the Iraq Study Group seems to be genuine concern that the war isn’t going well and that public support for it is evaporating. During his visit to Iraq, where he spent hours with U.S. military officers in the field, Wolf says that his eyes were opened. “Some of the things that were told to me, I had never seen before: the destabilization of the region,” Wolf told me. “Some of the scenarios that were given to me [included] the overthrow of the Saudi government, [along with both] the Jordanian government and the Egyptian government…. So I just felt, let’s take another look. And no one should be afraid of doing it.”

But some people were afraid, above all in the administration. “Reaction was mixed,” Wolf told me. “Initially, there was not a lot of support for the idea.” Backed by congressional heavyweights, including Warner, Wolf met privately with Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, and others in the administration. His message? “If you’re so confident it’s going well, why are you so afraid for someone else to take a look at it?” Wolf, as the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds the State Department, had clear leverage with Rice. Not surprisingly, according to an aide to Wolf, the vice president was the most resistant to the idea. But, reluctantly or not, perhaps unwilling to challenge an idea with strong support from House and Senate Republicans, Bush and Cheney signed off on the idea. “Gradually,” Wolf told me, “they came to see the merit of it.” In June, President Bush himself met briefly with the task force. “Iraq is a complex situation,” Bush told them. “And the fact that you are all willing to lend your expertise to help chart the way forward means a lot.”

The president may have had another political motive for giving his blessing to the endeavor. If–and it’s a very big if–Baker can forge a consensus plan on what to do about Iraq among the bigwigs on his commission, many of them leading foreign-policy figures in the Democratic Party, then the 2008 Democratic presidential nominee–whoever he (or she) is–will have a hard time dismissing the plan. And if the GOP nominee also embraces the plan, then the Iraq war would largely be off the table as a defining issue of the 2008 race–a potentially huge advantage for Republicans.

Besides Baker, the bipartisan task force is co-chaired by former congressman Lee H. Hamilton, the Indiana Democrat and foreign-policy wise man. Working with a quartet of think tanks–the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Center for the Study of the Presidency, and the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy–Baker and Hamilton recruited a star-studded task force, evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. The Republicans include Robert M. Gates, the former CIA director; Sandra Day O’Connor, the retired Justice; Alan Simpson, the former Wyoming senator; and Edwin Meese III, attorney general under President Reagan. The Democrats are William Perry, President Clinton’s secretary of defense; Charles Robb, the former Virginia senator; Leon Panetta, Clinton’s chief of staff; and Vernon Jordan, the lawyer and Friend of Bill.

Since April, operating almost entirely under the radar, the task force has spawned four working groups, recruiting scores of U.S. experts on Iraq and the Middle East to look at military and security issues, Iraqi politics, reconstruction, and the regional and strategic environment surrounding the war. Among the participants in these working groups are former ambassadors and State Department officials, intelligence officers from the CIA and other parts of the U.S. intelligence community, and think-tank denizens from the RAND Corporation, the Nixon Center, the Henry L. Stimson Center, the Brookings Institution, the American Enterprise Institute, the Middle East Institute, the Council on Foreign Relations, and others, along with a panel of retired military officers: three army generals, an air-force general, and an admiral.

But according to all accounts, the Iraq Study Group is Baker’s show, with the assembled cast of characters there to give Baker the bipartisan, protective coloration he needs. “Jim Baker is the gatekeeper,” one task-force participant told me, insisting on anonymity. “He’s by far the most dynamic, and everyone else is intimidated by him.” And Baker is keeping his cards very close to his chest. “He’s very secretive, he keeps his distance, and he compartmentalizes everything, which is not a bad way to organize a political conspiracy,” says another member of one of the working groups.

Several of those involved in the task force point out that Baker is perfect for the job. “First of all, he’s close to Bush 41,” one of them told me. “Second, Bush 43 owes his presidency to Jim Baker because of the skullduggery in Florida in 2000. And Baker is the consummate consigliere. He’s utterly ruthless and very effective at what he does. When they [the Bushes] get into an emergency, they call Baker.”

The emergency, in this case, is the collapse of public support for the war in Iraq, the president’s catastrophic fall in the polls, the growing calls on the left for a pullout of U.S. forces, and the concern at the Joint Chiefs of Staff about the Pentagon’s inability to sustain the presence of 127,000 U.S. troops in Iraq indefinitely. “The American people will not allow the United States to stay much longer,” a participant in one of the working groups told me. “They’re going to demand a phased withdrawal.”

Partly because of his penchant for secrecy, no one knows Baker’s views on the war, and since 2003 Baker has said little. It is widely believed, however, that Baker is part of the realist-minded, internationalist wing of the Republican Party, whose semi-official spokesman is Scowcroft, Bush 41’s national-security adviser. At the time that the task force began its work, in April, The New York Times reported that the idea had the support of President Bush’s father. “Baker has had some serious doubts about the war and about the nature of our commitment,” Edward S. Walker Jr., the former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, who is president of the Middle East Institute, told me. “He seems to be reflective of the part of the Republican Party tied to Scowcroft. And it’s natural to think that the whole group around George H.W. Bush is involved in this with Baker.”

The relentlessly centrist nature of the Iraq Study Group has some, especially among the neoconservative cheerleaders for the war, worried. “You’ll notice, of course, that there are no neocons on the task force,” said a member of one of the working groups. Here and there, scattered among the members of the working groups, are a handful of hard-line neocons, among them Clifford May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA Middle East hand who is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. But they are vastly outnumbered by the moderates and centrists. In assembling the task force, Wolf, Baker and Hamilton were careful to avoid the neocons. “If you’d put [Douglas] Feith on it, people would say, ‘These are the guys who got us in there in the first place,’” said a Wolf aide. Thomas Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and a neoconservative, is concerned that Baker will steer the group toward an Iraq exit. “Baker’s a lawyer,” he told me. “He’ll probably come up with some sort of position about getting an international consensus on Iraq.”

Few disagree with the idea that if the president’s mind can be changed on Iraq, Baker is the one to do it. Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he co-authored “Strategic Redeployment: A Progressive Plan for Iraq,” a paper that calls for the near-total withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of 2007. Korb’s plan might attract centrist Democrats and some Republicans who see it as a more diplomatically worded version of Rep. John Murtha’s out-now position, and although Korb doesn’t know if Baker will gravitate toward something like his redeployment plan, he says that at least Baker is the right person. “If anyone can do it, Baker can,” he told me. “I think that Baker has the wherewithal to talk to the president.” And tell him what? “The present course is unsustainable.”

Unsustainable, yes. But does that mean getting out? Wolf, for one, insists that the war in Iraq is winnable, and that the costs to the United States of failure in Iraq would be enormous. In a Washington Post op-ed last September, Wolf referred to the “potentially cataclysmic consequences of walking away from Iraq before the job is done.” And in his remarks at the news conference at the task force’s creation, Wolf added: “Failure in Iraq would have devastating regional consequences, a direct impact on American national security, and perpetuation of the perception among reformers in the region that America is a fair-weather friend, not to be depended on.”

But the choice facing the task force–and, of course, the administration as well–is nonetheless bleak: Is there really a true middle ground between “staying the course” and “getting out”? By staying the course, the president means: battle the insurgency, build up Iraq’s army and police, and strengthen the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki until Iraq is stable and secure. Perhaps Baker’s task force will fiddle with that, supporting the basic notion of staying the course but adjusting this or that part of the strategy. But it’s hard to see what those adjustments might be, since so far no one (including many experts in and outside the task force) has figured out a way of solving the Rubik’s Cube that is Iraq. No team of experts, even those on the Iraq Study Group, is likely to come up with a silver bullet that can defeat the Sunni insurgents, get the religious Shiites to disarm the militia forces, block the Kurds from trying to seize Kirkuk and Iraq’s northern oil fields, rebuild Iraq’s shattered infrastructure, and prevent civil war. In the end, the choices are: Either we stay and fight, whatever the cost in lives and in money–or we set a date for withdrawal, start an orderly redeployment, and do what we can to encourage Iraq, its neighbors, the Arab League, and the United Nations to step in.

To some, it’s unlikely that Baker will adopt anything resembling a plan that embodies a wholesale rejection of the Bush administration’s policy, though it isn’t impossible. Still, there is an outside chance, say observers of the task force, that Baker will come up with a report that uses diplomatic weasel-words, giving lip service to the idea of an American “victory” in Iraq but endorsing redeployment. “If Baker comes out with a report that basically says, if you read between the lines, we need to get out, that buys into the fundamental presumption of the redeployment crowd–the redeployment crowd is basically saying that staying there is worse than getting out–if he comes up in that consensus, that would be remarkable,” says Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution. “It would be earth-shattering.”

In any case, the Iraq Study Group won’t issue its report until some time early in 2007. In a recent speech, according to a member of the task force, Baker said that to do something before the November 2006 elections would inevitably politicize the report, something that Baker desperately wants to avoid.

But with each passing day, the country is closer to the train wreck that Baker and others are said to fear. In the end, avoiding it might ride on the ability of Jim Baker to persuade the president that it’s time to declare victory and exit.

“The object of our policy has to be to get our little white asses out of there as soon as possible,” another working-group participant told me. To do that, he said, Baker must confront the president “like the way a family confronts an alcoholic. You bring everyone in, and you say, ‘Look, my friend, it’s time to change.’”

Robert Dreyfuss covers national security for Rolling Stone and is the author of Devil’s Game: How the U.S. Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam.

Robert Dreyfuss covers national security for Rolling Stone and is the author of Devil’s Game: How the U.S. Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam.