April 18, 2007: A moment with...
James A. Baker ’52
More than 14 years after officially leaving government service, James A. Baker III ’52 remains in the forefront of international issues. The former secretary of state, treasury secretary, and White House chief of staff most recently co-chaired the Iraq Study Group, which was charged by Congress with making policy recommendations for the U.S. strategy in Iraq. 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.
How do you feel about the reaction to the Iraq Study Group report?
I think the public reception has been remarkably supportive. If you 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 many of 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 and totally bipartisan approach to the 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 do everything that is in there.
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 nuclear-armed Iran.
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. And we worry that it conceivably could 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. But Hamas, which currently controls the Palestinian parliament, does not recognize Israel’s right to exist. 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. ... 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.
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?
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. ... 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, in admissions.
MORE ON THE WEB: An extended interview with James A. Baker ’52, click here.