In the late 1960s, anguished former US president Lyndon Johnson sought advice from a respected elder statesman on the Vietnam quagmire. In part because of the counsel of former secretary of state Dean Acheson, a onetime hawk turned skeptic on the war, Johnson shifted course in 1968, halting the bombing of North Vietnam and announcing he would not run for re-election.
The analogy is far from perfect, but Republicans and Democrats are seeing parallels between the quiet designation last month of former secretary of state James Baker III to head up a congressionally mandated effort to generate new ideas on Iraq and the role of Acheson, who had served under president Harry Truman.
Baker, a longtime confidant of the first president George Bush who has maintained a close but complicated relationship with the current president, plans to travel to Baghdad and the region to meet with heads of state on a fact-finding mission.
"If you had a health problem, you'd want somebody to give you a second opinion," said Republican Frank Wolf, an influential Virginia Republican who helped recruit Baker for the job.
"What the United States needs on Iraq is some fresh ideas from people able to speak out, and no one is more qualified to do that than Jim Baker," he added.
An official involved in enlisting Baker, who was granted anonymity because Baker has asked those associated with the effort not to speak to the news media, said it would be a mistake to think that he could find a silver bullet to help the administration.
"How Baker comes at this will be crucial," this official said. "He's a very shrewd fellow who doesn't want to be window dressing. He could come up with nothing, or it could be a very big deal."
At a time of growing US disenchantment with the war, the choice of Baker to head what is called the Iraq Study Group is seen as the most telling sign yet of the administration's willingness to admit that it needs help in weighing its options and generating public support for them.
People close to Baker say that he was extremely concerned about being seen as second-guessing President George W. Bush's foreign policy aides and made sure of Bush's approval in person before he took on the job.
Baker declined to be inter-viewed, but at a news conference this month, he said it was not his intention to engage in "hand-wringing about the past" but to focus on the path ahead "on a bipartisan basis in the hope that we can come up with some advice and insights that might be useful to the policymakers in Washington."
He is co-chairman of the group along with Lee Hamilton, a Democrat and former congressman who served as vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission.
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