When asked to review the major foreign policy challenges facing the next U.S. president, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III took a long, deep breath that seemed to acknowledge better than any words could express the scope and severity of the challenges that await the 44th president of the United States.
After pausing for a moment, Baker ran down the litany of issues that will rest in the inbox of the next president: Iraq, terrorism, trade liberalization, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, immigration, climate change, rebuilding the U.S. military, strengthening traditional alliances, India, China, Russia, Pakistan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, among other things.
Baker told The Washington Diplomat that the Iraq war in particular will demand the immediate and focused attention of the new president. Although the partisan debate on Iraq remains fierce in Congress, Baker sees more common ground than is often appreciated, and he says that most policymakers realize that the United States cannot pull out of Iraq immediately or hastily.
“You will not be able to take the Iraq issue out of domestic politics. But even the two leading Democratic candidates for president, Sen. [Hillary] Clinton and Sen. [Barack] Obama, understand and acknowledge the need for maintaining a presence in Iraq and the importance of not just precipitously getting up and pulling out,” he said.
Baker argues that the situation in Iraq could stabilize in a way that, though far from perfect, may be acceptable to U.S. policymakers. “I think the best-case scenario is that we could end up with a central government in Iraq that has quite a bit of power devolved to the regions, with its territorial integrity preserved. It won’t be a Jeffersonian democracy as we think of it, but it would be an ally in the war on terror. It is certainly possible. It’s not impossible.”
And in a city where there’s no shortage of advice or predictions about the war, Baker’s words on Iraq aren’t taken lightly. A foreign policy veteran who has served in senior government positions under three U.S. presidents, Baker was co-chairman of the highly lauded Iraq Study Group in 2006. Along with former U.S. Congressman Lee H. Hamilton, Baker led the bipartisan blue-ribbon panel charged with making recommendations to President Bush and Congress about a new direction in Iraq.
After months of deliberations, the Iraq Study Group issued its widely anticipated report on Dec. 6, 2006. The panel of five Democrats and five Republicans offered 79 specific recommendations, beginning with the assessment that the situation in Iraq was “grave and deteriorating.”
The Iraq Study Group, also known as the Baker-Hamilton Commission, recommended that the U.S. government begin a diplomatic offensive to enlist support from Iraq’s neighbors, specifically Syria and Iran, to help stabilize Iraq. It also advised setting a goal of withdrawing most U.S. combat troops by 2008 and linking American support to specific milestones in Iraq’s governance.
Although President Bush spoke graciously of the report when it came out, many conservatives balked at what they saw as a scathing criticism of war policy and a recipe for defeat. At the time, Baker said the report should be accepted or rejected as a single package—which it wasn’t, instead receiving a tepid response from the White House. But in a case of better late than never, Baker—who served as secretary of state under George Bush Sr.—now praises the Bush administration for implementing certain elements of the report.
“The administration was not in a position to embrace the Baker-Hamilton report wholeheartedly. But if you look at what they are doing, it has a lot of the same elements. People forget this, but we had a surge recommendation in our report. We said the U.S. should start talking to Syria and Iran. They’ve done that. We said that the U.S. should get a diplomatic offensive going in the Middle East, particularly in regard to the Israelis and the Palestinians, and they’ve done that, especially with the Annapolis conference and the effort in the aftermath of Annapolis. Much of what we suggested they are doing,” Baker insisted.
A strong proponent of diplomacy, Baker has long advocated an American effort to engage Iran, often arguing that the United States has nothing to lose and much to gain by dealing directly with Iran.
“My view is that you don’t need to talk with your friends, you talk to your enemies if you are interested in resolving your problems. You make peace with your enemies. You are not practicing appeasement if you talk to your enemies on an unconditional basis as long as you know what you are doing and you do it in the right way,” Baker said.
“Look at what happened in the Cold War. The Soviet Union was our major competitor globally and we talked to them for 40 years until we were able to secure a peaceful end. Look at what we did in World War II. We not only talked to Stalin’s Soviet Union but we made common cause with one of the most murderous regimes in history because of our joint objective in defeating Germany. I don’t think you are giving anything away just because you talk to an enemy, provided you don’t do it in a weak way.”
Now 78, Baker has had one of the most varied and impressive careers in recent U.S. political history. Affable and engaging, he is known as a strong, often fierce, Republican partisan who is also able to craft bipartisan agreements with Democrats. Baker first became well known when he worked on President Gerald Ford’s spirited, but unsuccessful, 1976 presidential campaign. He was also the manager for longtime friend George H.W. Bush in his unsuccessful Senate campaign in 1970 and his losing presidential campaign in 1980, after which Baker served as President Ronald Rea-gan’s chief of staff and then treasury secretary.
The third time apparently was the charm for Baker when he managed George Bush’s winning bid for president in 1988, after which Baker was appointed secretary of state. He served as the country’s top diplomat until the waning months of Bush’s presidency when he stepped aside and became Bush’s chief of staff and de facto campaign manager in 1992.
During his tenure as secretary of state, Baker helped to orchestrate the peaceful end to the Cold War, the unification of Germany, and the creation of the international coalition that drove the Iraqi army from Kuwait in 1991. He also spearheaded an aggressive Middle East peace process after the first Gulf War that led to the historic Madrid conference.
Baker described the current situation in the Middle East as very difficult, with no clear, or easy, path ahead for Israelis or Palestinians.
“You have weak governments on both sides, in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. There is a strong desire on the part of the Israeli body politic to reach a secure—underline the word secure—agreement with the Palestinians and its other Arab neighbors,” Baker explained. “But we have other problems. You have the Palestinians divided, and it’s pretty hard for me to see how you can get a peace deal that is comprehensive and lasting when half of the Palestinian polity is not at the table.”
Baker denounced the U.S. government’s insistence several years ago that the Palestinians hold immediate elections, which he blames for damaging the peace process. “We insisted the Palestinians have an election. They didn’t want it, the Israelis didn’t want it, and then the Palestinians went ahead and elected Hamas and we said, ‘Oops, we’re not going to talk to them.’“
Baker does, however, credit the Bush administration for taking a more active role in the Middle East in the last year and a half. “They are a lot more hands on regarding the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in the aftermath of the Iraq Study Group than they were before. And I think it’s a healthy thing,” he said. “I don’t think we are going to solve a lot of the problems in the region until we deal aggressively with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
In addition to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Baker believes the next administration will face a considerable challenge regarding Pakistan, a country he described as being “at the crossroads of terrorism and proliferation.” Indeed, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially in the nuclear realm, will be another major problem for the next administration. “Unfortunately things have moved in the wrong direction when you look at Pakistan and India and North Korea and the problem we have with Iran’s desire to get nuclear weapons,” Baker said.
On that front, Baker recently endorsed a proposal supporting a world completely free of nuclear weapons. The initiative began with an essay in the Wall Street Journal about a year ago in which some of the heaviest hitters in the U.S. foreign policy establishment called for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.
In the landmark article “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn said the United States should endorse a long-term vision of eliminating nuclear weapons as well as a number of specific short-term steps to advance that goal.
They argued that reasserting the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and pursuing practical measures to achieve that goal would be a bold initiative consistent with America’s best traditions.
“We need to try to move toward a nuclear-free world. It’s very hard to get there, but it’s ultimately where we need to go. The non-proliferation regime has some very big cracks in it,” Baker said, noting that both he and former Secretary of State Colin Powell decided to endorse the goal.
The next administration should also take the lead in trade liberalization, Baker said, lamenting that support for free trade has clearly languished in this country and that it’s often made into a scapegoat for economic dislocation.
“The consensus for free trade has evaporated in this country and there is nothing that contributes to economic growth in the United States more than the pursuit of liberalized trade and investment. There used to be a consensus, but that has vanished. Nothing would help our country more than seeing a Free Trade of the Americas come to fruition and expand NAFTA to include all the Americas.”
Another area where the United States could reclaim some international standing is on the issue of climate change, where the country has been conspicuously absent since the development of the Kyoto Protocol. But Baker was never a proponent of that accord, calling it deeply flawed. He served in the first Bush administration, which ultimately refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, but Baker says the United States needs to be heavily involved in crafting a successor accord.
“The U.S. has historically been a leader and we need to take the lead to get a fair treaty to replace Kyoto. We were in power, Bush I, when Kyoto was negotiated. We wouldn’t sign it because it is a terribly biased treaty that doesn’t include China and India. But we need to lead other nations to do something about climate change. That is very important.”
Since retiring from public office, Baker has undertaken special envoy missions for current President Bush on the issue of Iraqi debt relief and for former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the conflict in Western Sahara. He is currently a senior partner in the law firm of Baker Botts in Houston and is the honorary chairman of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.
Baker has written two books, “The Politics of Diplomacy,” a detailed account of his years as secretary of state, and an interesting, anecdote-packed memoir about his political and business career titled “Work Hard, Study…and Keep Out of Politics.”
Baker also continues to speak out on diplomacy matters. In February 2007, he delivered the Kissinger Lecture on Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Library of Congress, in which he outlined a U.S. foreign policy of “pragmatic idealism.”
Describing this policy as being grounded in values and able to make painful tradeoffs, Baker said pragmatic idealism requires the United States to be flexible, use its power carefully, be willing to make adjustments, and secure the bipartisan support of the American public.
Looking back on his long career, Baker said the most difficult job he had was as White House chief of staff under President Reagan. “As the chief of staff, you catch the javelins that are meant for the president. You are at the centrifuge of American government. It is a tough job, a very demanding job,” he recalled. “I used to tell people that I had the job longer than all except two people and they ended in jail. But Andy Card [Bush II’s chief of staff] stayed in longer than I did.”
But Baker loved his time as secretary of state, especially because he enjoyed the full backing of his boss. “I had the perfect job. I was my president’s political advisor. I had run his campaign. I was his friend for 35 years. He was my daughter’s godfather. We were extremely close. To be a successful secretary of state, it’s important for everyone to know that when you speak, you speak for the president and they better not intrude on your turf too much or the president will knock them down. And that’s what happened. I was in a position to be effective. No one could come between me and my president.”
A shrewd and tough political strategist, Baker is closely following the 2008 U.S. presidential elections. He has endorsed the presumptive Republican candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), but offers a bit of advice that all of the candidates might do well to ponder.
“It may sound a little strange, but I’ve found that change is the only constant in American politics. People want change. People vote more against things, especially when things are bad, than for things. To be a successful candidate, you need to show you are an agent of change.”
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.