Who has been the dominating figure of this past Iraq-obsessed week in Washington? Not George Bush, so visibly aged and somehow shrivelled as he mouthed his platitudes about "victory" - even as he was forced to assure us that he did indeed understand what was going on in that shattered land.
Certainly not our own great leader, as he shared the stage with Bush on Thursday's press conference, still insisting that the war had been a noble mission, part of a "great struggle between freedom and democracy, and terrorism and sectarianism". Would, Tony, that it were so simple.
A worthier candidate would be Bob Gates, as he informed a senator at his Pentagon confirmation hearings in that cool, clipped way of his that: "No sir, we are not winning." A blinding statement of the obvious, you will rightly say. But the US always takes for granted it will win. In Iraq, of course, that has been an illusion - an illusion, however, that the nonsense emanating from the White House over the past year has done nothing to dispel.
No, the person who has towered over proceedings is James Addison Baker, that grand master of realism and throwback to a happier era of American foreign policy. The report of the Iraq Study Group of which Baker was co-chairman has not only transformed the nature of the debate. It has been realism's revenge over the neoconservative fantasy that democracy could be created through the barrel of a gun in one of the most complex regions on earth. Baker was Secretary of State when I first arrived in Washington in early 1991, on the eve of the first Iraq war whose preparation and execution stand in retrospect as a masterclass in statecraft. "Not many people ever ask me any more about the decision to leave Saddam Hussein in power in 1991," he is now wont to murmur in that silky Texan drawl. For Baker, foreign policy has never been a noble mission to change the world. Rather, it is the art of managing the world. That was also the approach of Bush's father, with whom Baker worked for two decades. Now - and surely with the tacit blessing of the elder Bush - he is trying to impart that lesson to the son.
As Baker and his co-chair, the former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton, presented their report on Wednesday, a saner world seemed briefly to have returned. Whether he was wearing the usual cowboy boots, I could not be sure. But it was deeply reassuring to see the trademark luminous pale green tie, that he must have replaced a dozen times over the intervening 15 years. The grown-ups were back - if not in charge, then at least at centre stage.
Jim Baker is far from perfect. He is manipulative and a skilful self-promoter. His brand of realism brought the tragedy that followed soon after the ejection of Saddam from Kuwait when, encouraged by the administration, the Shias in the south and the Kurds in the north rose up against the dictator. Bush the elder and Baker, however, lifted not a finger to prevent them from being slaughtered by the diminished but still potent army they had allowed Saddam to retain. Realism also blinded them to the savagery that was bound to follow the outbreak of war in Yugoslavia. …