All Eyes on James Baker's Iraq Panel

Former Secretary of State James Baker has had success as a lawyer, diplomat and political operator. He has had to employ all those skills as he maneuvers the Iraq Study Group toward its recommendations for dealing with the bloody conflict.

The U.S. Institute for Peace, which is providing assistance to the panel, says the report will be made public on Dec. 6.

Although Democrat Lee Hamilton, a highly regarded former congressman, is co-chairman, news accounts often refer to Baker as the leader. Partly, that is recognition of Baker's closeness to the Commander in Chief, George Bush, who would have to decide whether to accept the panel's advice. But it is also testament to Baker's record.

The group is bipartisan, made up of five Republicans and an equal number of Democrats. Getting such a group to agree on anything is a challenge. But Ken Duberstein, a former White House chief of staff, and not a member of the Iraq panel, says, "I think Jim Baker is a master, not only as a negotiator, but as a consensus builder."

A moderately conservative Republican, Baker is not an ideologue. That makes compromise easier for him.

Duberstein, who worked at the Reagan White House with him, told ABC News' "Nightline," "Jim Baker believes in consultation. He believes in the art of the possible. This is very steeply uphill, but for Jim Baker, a group like this will put something on the table that is doable."

Baker's political skills were first evident when he took over President Gerald Ford's fight to gain the GOP nomination in 1976. Ronald Reagan mounted a strong challenge, but Baker proved adept at winning delegates.

Baker also gained credibility among the always skeptical Washington press corps when he provided an honest count of delegates, instead of exaggerating his candidate's strength as Reagan's aides did. Although Ford lost the general election to Jimmy Carter, it was a much closer fight than anticipated, and Baker emerged with a burnished reputation as a political strategist and tactician.

When Reagan became president in 1981, he brought Baker into the White House even though he supported Reagan's chief opponent in the Republican primaries, George H.W. Bush. When Bush became president in 1989, he tapped Baker for secretary of state. His experience as a successful Houston lawyer soon became evident in that post.

In the early months of Bush-the-elder's presidency, the U.S. and its NATO allies, especially West Germany, were at odds over nuclear policy and relations with Moscow.

Just when it seemed that deadlock was assured, Baker came up with compromise language that satisfied all sides. Now, it would come as no surprise if Baker's skills as a wordsmith were needed as the Iraq Study Group tries to hammer out its recommendations.

Baker also played a vital role in the months before the 1991 Gulf War. He helped build the multilateral coalition that took on Iraq, and he worked diligently but in vain, trying to persuade Saddam to avoid war by withdrawing his troops from occupied Kuwait.

He had hoped to remain as secretary of state in a second Bush presidency. But when Bill Clinton mounted a strong challenge in the 1992 election, President Bush persuaded Baker to leave the State Department and manage his campaign.

The result was perhaps Baker's biggest failure. He never provided strong leadership or a winning strategy in the fall campaign, and Clinton won handily. It was widely assumed that Baker had never wanted to return to politics, and much preferred the diplomatic arena to grubbing for votes.

But in the days after the November 2000 election, he made a comeback of sorts by heading up George W. Bush's efforts to win Florida's disputed electoral votes. He has provided private counsel to Bush since then, and the president readily accepted the formation of the Baker-Hamilton panel to advise him on Iraq.

Does that mean Bush will accept that advice? ABC's George Stephanopoulos reminded Baker last month that the administration rejected some of his advice before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Baker said, "Well, I'm not sure that they will listen to our advice now except that we are a bipartisan group that was formed at the urging of Congress. The administration approved of the formation of the group and has been assisting us."

Baker also noted the importance of compromise within the panel: "We've got a lot of good Republicans and Democrats on this commission, and we are determined to come up with a consensus report. If we come up with a report that has dissenting views...nobody will pay any attention to it."

This was classic Jim Baker. The pragmatist. The practitioner of the art of compromise.