More than 14 years after officially leaving government
service, James A. Baker, III ’52 remains in the forefront
of national and international issues. The former secretary of state,
treasury secretary, and White House chief of staff most recently
co-chaired the Iraq Study Group, also known as the Baker-Hamilton
commission, which was charged by Congress with assessing the war
in Iraq and making policy recommendations for moving forward. In
February, Baker was appointed to co-chair the National War Powers
Commission, a private, bipartisan panel that will examine how the
Constitution allocates the powers to begin, conduct, and end wars.
Baker spoke about world affairs and life at Princeton with PAW’s
Mark F. Bernstein ’83. [An abridged version of this interview
was published in the April 18, 2007, edition of PAW.]
How do you feel about public reaction to the Iraq Study Group
I think the public reception has been remarkably supportive. If
you go and take a poll, you’ll find that 70 to 80 percent
of the American people agree with the conclusions in the report.
It was on The New York Times best-seller list for many
weeks. I just spent an hour with the president, and he has said
that the administration is moving toward adopting all our recommendations.
We saw that when the United States agreed to sit down with Iran
and Syria for joint talks. So I’m not disturbed at all by
the way the administration has begun to embrace it.
You were quoted last December as saying that policy makers
should not treat the report’s recommendations like a “fruit
salad,” picking out the ones they want and leaving the rest.
Do you still feel this way?
Yes. It is a comprehensive strategic approach and totally bipartisan
to the new way forward in Iraq. But that doesn’t mean you
can’t concentrate on one part of it before moving on to another;
it just means that you ought to make sure that you ought to do everything
that is in there. When we visited Iraq, we were told by all the
military people, as Baghdad goes, so goes the country. One of our
initial recommendations was that we have a surge of 100,000 troops
to pacify Baghdad. But then we found out that we don’t have
100,000 troops combat-ready troops. So we took that out of the potential
report and left in the provision saying that we could support a
surge if the commander on the ground requests it.
The report calls for the U.N. Security Council to deal with
the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. Can Iran be negotiated
out of developing nuclear weapons?
I believe that the issue is best handled in the U.N. Security
Council, where other nations would be equally concerned about a
Should the United States keep the option of a military strike
against Iran’s nuclear plants on the table, in case talks
You should never take the military option off the table in anything.
Oftentimes diplomacy is best exercised with a mailed fist. You should
never exclude any of the elements of U.S. power, but you should
utilize all of them when you are dealing with other countries.
Is a nuclear Iran something the United States could live with,
if it had to?
It depends on what you mean by a nuclear Iran. If you’re
talking about peaceful nuclear purposes, certainly we could. If
you’re talking about an Iran armed with nuclear weapons, that
would be extraordinarily dangerous.
The Iraq Study Group report called for efforts to preserve
Iraq’s territorial integrity. Yet some have suggested dividing
Iraq among the Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis. What is your response?
We looked really carefully at that. And there is a sentence in
the report saying that if that is a direction in which facts on
the ground move the situation, we ought to get out in front and
manage it. But partition is not the optimal solution. You’d
find it extraordinarily difficult to draw lines between Sunni and
Shia areas. The major cities are completely mixed between them.
And we worry that it could conceivably lead to a fragmentation of
Iraq that could promote a regional war – possibly involving
Turkey, Iran, Egypt, the Saudis, and the Jordanians – which
is the scariest thing that could happen.
The report also called for talks between the United States,
Syria, Israel, and those Palestinian representatives who recognize
Israel’s right to exist. Hamas, which currently controls the
Palestinian parliament, does not recognize Israel’s right
to exist. Does this preclude those talks?
You need to have a negotiating partner. That’s why I am
so high on engaging with Syria. I think that Syria’s alliance
with Iran is one of convenience. I think they would much prefer
to get back to good relations with the United States. I think we
could move them away from Iran. The offices of Hamas are in downtown
Damascus. They are supported substantially by the Syrians. The Syrians
tell me that they could get Hamas to recognize Israel’s right
to exist. If you did that, you’d take one heck of a big step
forward in providing Israel with a Palestinian negotiating partner.
We’re not suggesting that you talk just to be talking. Talking
is not a strategy. We lay out in some detail all the things Syria
would have to do. They would have to stop screwing around in Lebanon.
They’d have to cooperate in the investigations into the assassinations
of Lebanese political leaders. They’d have to do what they
could to get Hamas to recognize Israel’s right to exist. They
would have to stop being the transit point for all weapons going
to Hezbollah. So there are a lot of reasons why that would make
sense. And if you could get all those agreements, it would be well
received by many elements in Israel.
You were secretary of state during the breakup of the Soviet
Union. Are you disappointed in the course Russia has taken over
the last several years?
I think it’s understandable that Russia would have its own
foreign policy. We ought to understand and accept that. That’s
not to say that Russia does not want to have a good relationship
with the United States, because she does, in my opinion .It’s
very important for us, too. But it’s not like it was when
I was secretary of state, when Communism collapsed and the Soviet
Union imploded and everybody in the world wanted to get close to
the United States, including Russia. They were almost willing to
simply adopt our foreign policy. So it’s understandable that
that’s no longer the case and that they want to reassert themselves
in world affairs. On the other hand, their backsliding on democracy
should be of concern.
Recently you and Woodrow Wilson School Dean Anne-Marie Slaughter
’80 have been asked to serve on a commission at the University
of Virginia that will to look at the war-making powers of Congress
and the president and specifically to look at the efficacy of the
War Powers Act. Is there a particular need for such a reassessment
There have been any number of conflicts since World War II in
which the American military has been engaged and put in imminent
danger of hostilities, yet Congress has not declared war. But those
of us who have worked in the executive branch all believe that War
Powers Act is unconstitutional. There will be those on the commission
who served in the legislative branch, and they may well take a different
view. The courts have historically been reluctant to get into this
difference of opinion between the executive and legislative branches,
so I think this commission could be useful. I don’t think
we’re going to find legal authority that answers all these
questions, but there are conflicting constitutional interpretations
between the president’s power as commander in chief and the
Congress’s power to declare war. When something like that
happens, you get differences of opinion.
As an undergraduate, you were president of the Ivy Club. Some
in the University administration have been critical of the selective
eating clubs. What is your response?
I still come back to the proposition that, whether we like it
or not, life involves a lot of selectivity. In that great big bad
world out there, you’d better understand that there’s
a lot of selectivity in the course of living your life, and understand
it and know how to deal with it. So I think it’s a mistake
to be negative with respect to the fact that there are four or five
selective eating clubs. The eating clubs have done a lot for Princeton
over the years, in my view. I think letting people have the right
to freely associate with people they want to associate with is not
something that ought to be foreclosed to them in college. The administration,
for some reason I’ve never been able to understand, doesn’t
like this idea of selectivity. And yet the University operates on
the basis of selectivity – in faculty promotion, in tenure,