Web Exclusives: PawPlus

April 18, 2007:

An interview with James A. Baker ’52

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 report?

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 nuclear-armed Iran.

Should the United States keep the option of a military strike against Iran’s nuclear plants on the table, in case talks fail?

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 now?

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, in admissions. END