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HBO History Makers Series: A Conversation with James A. Baker, III [Transcript; Federal News Service, Inc.]

Speaker: James A. Baker, Senior Partner, Baker Botts, LLP, and former U.S. Secretary of State and the Treasury
Presider: Evan W. Thomas, Washington Bureau Chief, Newsweek
June 15, 2006
Council on Foreign Relations New York, NY



EVAN THOMAS:  Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations evening with James A. Baker.  I’d like to thank, to start out, Richard Plepler and Home Box Office for making this evening possible.  We’re going to be talking mostly about the past, but hopefully with some lessons for the present.

Please take a moment to turn off your cell phones or BlackBerrys.  And I’d like to remind the members that this meeting is on the record.

James A. Baker was chief of staff to President Reagan.  He was secretary of the Treasury in the second Reagan term. He was secretary of State under George H.W. Bush.  He is a wise man.

Mr. Baker, tell us if you will, you were—you led five presidential campaigns.  What did you learn about foreign policy from politics?  (Laughter.)

JAMES BAKER:  Well, I learned that the job of secretary of State is basically a political job.  It’s a political job on behalf of your country, with other countries.  In politics you do a fair amount of negotiating, and you do a heck of a lot of politicking.  And I think the secretary of State, particularly of the United States of America, is well advised to have some political ability to move from place to place and country to country.  And I think I learned, as I wrote in my memoirs about the four years that I was secretary of State, I thought it stood me in very good stead to have been in politics before I ended up at State.

Now, I got an awful lot of foreign policy experience the eight years before I became secretary of State—as chief of staff at the White House and member of the National Security Council, and particularly as Treasury secretary where there’s a big international component to that.

MR. THOMAS:  You were a very aggressive secretary of the Treasury. You managed to fight off the protectionists with the accord on currency.  Are there any lessons on that, from your experiences as Treasury secretary that are helpful now as we look at our global world?

James Baker with Newsweek Washington Bureau Chief
Evan Thomas.

MR. BAKER:  Well, we have somewhat the same situation facing us.  We’ve got tremendous fiscal imbalances around the world.  We’ve got the current account imbalance—the United States has a huge current account imbalance today, just like we did back in 1985.  And we’ve got protectionist legislation staring us in the face from Congress.  In those days it was a democratic Congress; today it’s a Republican Congress.  We don’t have the same policy tool that I took advantage of, which was the ability to get together with our trading partners and the other major currency countries of the world and adjust the value of the dollar in order to avoid the protectionist legislation that was coming out of Congress.  Most of our trading partners back in those days understood that we were going to pass some very serious protectionist legislation, so they were quite ready to work with us to lower the value of the dollar.  And we started out, happily enough, with the recognition on their part, that the dollar was seriously overvalued.  We don’t have that situation today.  You’re not going to get anybody to come together with the United Statestoday and work with us to lower the value of the dollar.  But the market is going to do it.  It’s going to happen.

There are only two ways to deal with it.  There are only two ways to get a current account imbalance dealt with.  One is through a recession, which hopefully we won’t have, and the other is through an adjustment in the currency.

MR. THOMAS:  As secretary of State you presided over the Cold War peacefully.  Was that inevitable that it was such a peaceful period?

Council President Richard N. Haass and James Baker.

MR. BAKER:  Well, I don’t think it was inevitable at all.  It certainly was not inevitable to those of us who were there at the time.  Again, I wrote in my memoirs about the four years as secretary of State that I think one of the signal achievements of President George Bush, Number 41, that historians will take notice of more and more as we move along, is that the Cold War ended peacefully and did not end with—it ended with a whimper and not with a bang.  And there wasn’t—there was no certainty of that at all.  And if you remember, Evan, when we refused to dance on the remains of the Berlin Wall because, after all, the world as we’d known it all of our adult lives changed in that 40 years.  Everybody accused 41 of not having any emotion.  He wasn’t—I mean, good gracious, this was a big event; why aren’t you out there celebrating it more?  Well, we didn’t celebrate it more, because he knew, wisely, that we didn’t want to stick it in the eye of Gorbachev and the Soviets, because we still had to deal with them.

MR. THOMAS:  Were you tempted to gloat a little?

I used to say that you can’t practice a foreign policy or you can’t formulate and implement foreign policy according to the principles of Mother Teresa.  It’s too bad you can’t.  But, if you could, we would have gone into Rwanda.  If you could, we’d be in Darfur, and we would be preventing that genocide, because we’re the only country in the world that has the ability militarily to do that.  But the American people wouldn’t tolerate it for very long.

MR. BAKER:  We were tempted to gloat.  It was a big deal.  You know, for 40 years we fought that war.  But President Bush told us in no uncertain terms the way we’ve got to deal with this is we’re going to—we are not going to dance on the wall.

MR. THOMAS:  How about German unification? That was obviously a diplomatic achievement.  Talk to us a little bit about that and what it meant.

MR. BAKER:  Well, German unification happened, I think, because of the—I hope I can say this in a non-arrogant way—it happened because of the leadership of theUnited States.  Because when you think about it we had to roll our friends the British, we had to roll our friends and allies the French, and we had to overcome serious resistance from the Soviet Union to take advantage of what was really a rather narrow window of opportunity to get Germany unified in peace and freedom as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

There was some concern at the time that Germany might go neutral—might—I mean East Germany might adopt a neutral stance, or it could even go lean to the East.  And Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterrand were not the least bit enthusiastic about puttingGermanyback together because they thought history would repeat itself. And, fortunately, history has not repeated itself, and it was the right thing to do at the time.  It cost the German people a lot, because Helmut Kohl decided he was going to do it on a one-for-one basis as far as the currencies were concerned.  But it was the right thing to do politically.

MR. THOMAS:  How explicit were they about invoking history, that the German couldn’t be allowed to—

MR. BAKER:  I can’t remember specific instances of conversations, but that’s really what was worrying them.  I remember Shevardnadze now though, the foreign minister of theSoviet Union, telling me about his brother, I think who had been killed by the Nazis, and that he was concerned about what might happen.

MR. THOMAS:  And how grateful to Gorbachev should we be for all this?

MR. BAKER:  I think history is going to treat Gorbachev extraordinarily well.  He’s still somewhat of a pariah in his own country, but the two people that I think history will treat very well on the Soviet side are Gorbachev and Shevardnadze.  Shevardnadze stayed too long when he went back to Georgia.  It was a mistake.  I used to tell him all the time whenever I would talk to him, I’d say, “Eduard, don’t stay too long; life after politics is terrific!”  (Laughter.)  But he stayed too long and he got thrown out.  But those two guys decided that they would not use force to keep the Soviet empire together.  And that’s what had kept it together all those years.  And when they made that calculation, that’s what enabled the Cold War to end peacefully rather than in a bloody war.

MR. THOMAS:  Let’s turn to the first Gulf War.  You’ve written in your memoirs that at the time back then you did not favor ousting Saddam on the theory that there might be a civil war, that it would create nothing but disrespect from our allies if we put that part of the world in turmoil; that political support back in the United States might fail; a long list of reasons.  How do you feel about that now?

MR. BAKER:  There were a lot of reasons why we didn’t go to Baghdad.  But, first of all, remember that we were operating under a United Nations Security Council resolution that authorized us to kick Iraq out of Kuwait.  It didn’t authorize us to do anything else.  And when we had finished kicking Iraq out of Kuwait, and the Iraqi troops were leaving Kuwait City, we were killing literally thousands of them, and the president’s advisers met in the Oval Office, and everybody—every one of his advisers to a man said it’s time to end the operation, time to end the war.  There was really never any thought given to going to Baghdad.  And the only way you could get Saddam would have been to go to Baghdad, as we have now found out.

After I got out of government, Evan, any time I would make a speech anywhere in the country I would be met with the question:  Why didn’t you guys take care of Saddam in 1991 when you had the chance?  And, guess what?  Nowadays I never get that question anymore.  (Laughter.)

MR. THOMAS:  After the war, the Madrid Process, you actually got the Palestinians and the Israelis to sit down together.  What can we learn about that for the Middle Eastern peace process—from that whole Madrid experience?

MR. BAKER:  I don’t know what we can learn.  What made that possible of course was that the Arabs changed 25 years of policy and agreed to sit across the table face to face withIsraeland negotiate—try to negotiate peace.

But perhaps one thing is that that’s a very, very difficult—that’s an extraordinarily difficult issue, as everybody knows.  And you’re not going to deal with it unless you get in there and get hands on and really work at it and manage it and work it in all of its detail.  And that’s difficult to do.  It’s even more difficult today, given what’s happening, of course, with the vote in the Palestinian Authority and the emergence of Hamas.  It just makes it much more difficult.  My own view is that there will never be peace between Arabs—well, between the Israelis and Palestinians—that’s not a negotiated peace.  I don’t think you can—I don’t think we’ll get there through a unilateral mechanism.  I think it’s going to have to be negotiated.  But right now we really have difficulty finding a negotiating partner.

MR. THOMAS:  I’m curious about your expectations going into that process. I mean, you’re a realist, so I’m sure you had your doubts about it.  Did it work out about as you expected, or was it better—

MR. BAKER:  Well, here’s what we thought at the time. We said to ourselves, “Look, we have great credibility now with both sides, as a consequence of having defeated Arab rejectionism in the Gulf.”  The Gulf War was a defeat of Arab rejectionism that gave us even more credibility than we normally had with Israel, which is a lot, because we had defeated the number one threat to Israel’s security.  And we had great credibility with the Arab nations, because for many of them we had saved their bacon.  So we could go to them and say, “Now, look, now is the time to get serious about peace and to really work at it.”

And you tell me why Assad, the brutal dictator of Syria, decided he would come to Madrid.  I can’t tell you.  I remember one of my last sessions with Yitzhak Shamir, who was a hard-line prime minister of Israel but a guy that I respected very much in that he respected me.  And I wrote in my memoirs he’s the one person I could talk to throughout that.  I could talk to him candidly and I would know it would never leak.  We differed significantly on policy issues, but on personal issues we were really quite good friends. 

And when I went over there as President Bush’s representative to the 10th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin—I represented President Bush over there about a year ago—I called Prime Minister Shamir, who now is not in a position to see people.  He’s ill.  But he—he, I think, really didn’t want to come to Madrid.  But for years Israel had said all she wanted was the right to sit down and negotiate face to face with her Arab neighbors, and we presented Israel with that opportunity.  And Shamir said to me in one of his last meetings, he said, “What did you promise him, Mr. Secretary?  What did you give Assad that caused him to do that?”  And I said, “Mr. Prime Minister, we didn’t give him anything.  We didn’t promise him anything.”  I still don’t know to this day why Assad made a strategic calculation for peace. But he did.  And that made Madrid possible. 

And people tell me even today, they say, “Too bad that you couldn’t have a follow-on on Madrid.  And too bad it didn’t mature into anything.”  And I say, “Wait a minute now, think about what happened.  Madrid set the stage for Oslo, and Oslo made possible the peace between Jordan and Israel.  Without Madrid we wouldn’t have had Oslo.  Without Oslo we wouldn’t have had peace between Jordan and Israel.”

MR. THOMAS:  How important is that?  I mean, you’ve done an awful lot of diplomacy in your time—how important is that personal element?  How hard did you try to make it personal?

MR. BAKER:  Personal trust.  Trust is really important.  If you don’t trust the guy you’re negotiating with across the table, you’re far less likely to reach—to have a chance to reach—some sort of agreement.  Now, you don’t establish personal relationships and trust at the expense of your principles or the principles of your country or the things that you’re negotiating for. But it makes a lot of difference if you are negotiating with somebody that you trust, somebody that you know if you tell them something you’re not going to read about it in the newspaper.  Hate to tell you that, Evan.  (Laughter.)

MR. THOMAS:  You have always been called a realist in foreign policy.  Talk to us a little bit about this eternal debate between the realists and the ideologues about—

MR. BAKER:  Okay.  It’s been there a long time.  It is going to continue for a lot longer.

I’m a realist probably—it goes back to your first comment about to what extent did your political experience help you as secretary of State.  I’m a firm believer that you cannot sustain a foreign policy—in this country particularly—that doesn’t have the support of the American people.  When you talk about formulating and implementing foreign policy, you do so from two standpoints. You do so from the standpoint of principles and values.  Our principles and values are very, very important in the conduct and the formulation and in the implementation of our foreign policy.  But so is the national interest.  And if you do not have a significant national interest at stake, it is really hard to maintain support—domestic political support—for the policy.  And so you have to have a certain dose of realism.

But I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game.  I don’t think it has to all be idealism or all be realism.  It ought to be a proper mixture of both.

MR. THOMAS:  Well, on that, obviously pushing democracy is in our interests, but can you just push democracy or do you have to have another component?

MR. BAKER:  No, I think that you have to have—you have to combine it with other things.  I think there’s nothing—you know, if you do it in a realistic way, I think you can accomplish things.  You know, democracy has—and human rights—have been fundamental principles in our foreign policy for a long time.  They were in ours—and we were able to accomplish things even though—look, it’s been democracy that we brought to Central and Eastern Europe when they were freed from the totalitarian yoke.  So—but we promoted democracy in a realistic way.

I think that stability is an important factor that needs to be considered.  And there’s nothing—I don’t think stability should be a dirty word.  I was talking with Richard about that earlier today when I first walked in the building.  And I think that there’s nothing wrong with stability.  Now, you don’t tolerate stability on the part of tyrants, except to the extent that the national interests of the country might require that you do so.  And occasionally it will require that you do so.

We have been friends, close friends, with a lot of countries that have authoritarian governments, and have been for a long time, and it’s been in the national interests of the United Statesto do so.  So you can’t be totally idealistic.  I used to say—it’s a harsh thing to say, but I used to say that you can’t practice a foreign policy or you can’t formulate and implement foreign policy according to the principles of Mother Teresa.  It’s too bad you can’t.  But, if you could, we would have gone into Rwanda.  If you could, we’d be in Darfur, and we would be preventing that genocide, because we’re the only country in the world that has the ability militarily to do that.  But the American people wouldn’t tolerate it for very long.

MR. THOMAS:  You have relatively few foreign policy car wrecks in your 12 years, but one was Iran-contra.  Now, you were not on the bridge so to speak for that, but you were in the government.  What did you learn from Iran-contra?

MR. BAKER:  Well, what you learn from Iran-contra is something that you hear a lot.  There’s a great temptation to do something different.  You hear a lot that the National Security Council should never go operational, and that’s true.  In our system of government the laws of the United Statesvest the Cabinet departments with certain authority and responsibility.  They don’t vest the National Security Council, they create the National Security Council.  But they don’t—the principal authority for the conduct of foreign policy is with the Departments of State and Defense, and for international economic policy, Treasury.  And the minute the White House goes operational, particularly when they do so and the departments don’t know about it, you get in trouble.  And that was the lesson of Iran-contra.

MR. THOMAS:  You once talked about—I think you—I believe you talked to somebody about ever becoming the head of Major League Baseball?  Do you regret not doing that?

MR. BAKER:  Yeah, that would have been—George Will wrote, he said, you know, if you really—after I—I tell you, Edward Bennett Williams came to me, and he said, “You know, you’re not going to take it.” When they were talking to me about this, I was in the White House there at the heart of the political centrifuge, and it was tough—and they came to me and said, “Would you consider being baseball commissioner?”  And I said, “Well, I’ll think about it.”  Bud Selig at the time owned the Milwaukee Brewers and he was looking for the new commissioner.  And I said, “Well, I’d like to at least talk about it.”  So I talked to some of the owners, and Edward Bennett Williams was one of them, and he said, “You’re not going to become baseball commissioner, because President Reagan is going to put you in his Cabinet.”  And that of course is what turned out.  And after that, after I turned it down, George Will wrote a column, and he said, you know, if you ever wanted to run for president, you made a big mistake not being baseball commissioner—(laughter)—because you get a lot more visibility as baseball commissioner than you would as Treasury secretary.  (Laughter.)

MR. THOMAS:  When I was a reporter at Time magazine many years ago, and you were chief of staff in the White House, one thing that struck us at the time was that you were able to control things on the Hill particularly well.  Do you think that’s possible today that a chief of staff could have that level of control of the agenda?

MR. BAKER:  I don’t think it was me controlling things on the Hill.  It was the fact that I was working for the Gipper, who was pretty damn persuasive with those people.  If they didn’t do what he wanted them to do, he’d go over their heads to the American people.  And ... we had a good record, particularly that first term, because we focused with laser-like intensity on what our goals were.

I remember the first National Security Council meeting of the Reagan administration in 1981.  We had a 100-day plan that we prepared, and it said we’re going to get taxes reduced, we’re going to reduce spending.  Our whole focus is going to be economic.  And we were—we stuck to that.  The first National Security Council meeting we had somebody brought up—I guess the secretary of State at the time—brought up the problems in Central America, where that was the holy grail of the left and the holy grail of the political right in this country—both the left and the right—were the wars in Central America.


MR. BAKER:  And put the question on the table about whether we should do something about it.  And all of the political advisers in the White House were shaking their heads and saying, “Absolutely not.”  And of course the president said, “Well, we need to do something about this.”  And we said, “No, we have got to concentrate on, initially at least, on getting all this stuff done.”  And I think that’s the reason we were successful on the Hill, because we were dealing with a Democratic Congress.  Congress was Democratic.

MR. THOMAS:  Yeah.  I mean, that brings up the question of bipartisanship, of which there seems to be a lot less.  It was obviously crucial to you on tax reform.  Do you think that you could operate the same way today in going across the aisle and dealing with—

MR. BAKER:  Very hard.  Very hard.  And I think one of the most regrettable things that I see out there is that our politics has gotten so ugly today.  The country is rather evenly divided.  Politics is sort of a zero-sum game.  You don’t see people doing what we used to do when I first went up there with Ford in 1975, where you could be an adversary of somebody but not necessarily an enemy; where you might fight like hell during the day but have a drink at night.  You don’t have that anymore, and it’s too bad, because I think it diminishes—diminishes our politics and diminishes our system.

MR. THOMAS:  I want to open things up to our members.  This is on the record.  Let me just—a couple of ground rules here. One is that we are talking about the past, and I hope you keep your questions to that, and not get too deeply into current events.  Please call for the microphone and speak directly into it.  Please stand and state your name and affiliation, and keep only to one question, if you would, and keep it concise.  Back there.

QUESTION:  John Brademas, New York University.

MR. BAKER:  Hi, John.  How are you, John?

QUESTION:  Third Congressional District of Indiana.  (Laughter.)

MR. BAKER:  Partisan Democrat, but a good friend.

QUESTION:  Where the Gipper played football.  And I rise as a great admirer of the secretary of State, although from the other side of the aisle, as he notes.

You mention Shevardnadze.  In 1979, I led a delegation of 18 members of Congress and their wives to the then-Soviet Union, and we went first to Tblisi, where we were the first American political leaders to call on Shevardnadze.  And I remember still his having told us, “Do not trust the Chinese.  They will do you in, they will do us in.  Do not trust the Chinese.”  He was vehement.  Would you give us your observations on China and U.S. policy towardChina?

MR. BAKER:  Okay.  I don’t think you have to trust the Chinese to appreciate the importance of having the best bilateral relationship you can have with them because I think that’s one of the most important relationships our country has today, and it’s extraordinarily important that we maintain it in the best way possible.

I think one of the really important accomplishments—and I see Win Lord here, who served us with such great distinction in the post of assistant secretary of State for that part of the world, in the front row.  But I think one of the most significant accomplishments of 41, frankly, was that he was able to keep it all together in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square because he recognized the importance of that relationship.  Now, that’s not, you know, coddling dictators in my view, because we put sanctions onChina, we expressed our displeasure in any number of different ways.  But we were able to keep the relationship from going seriously off track.  It’s all a matter of balance.  You’ve got to figure out how tough to be and how far you can go.  But I don’t think you have to trust to have a good relationship.  I believe in what President Reagan used to say, “Trust but verify.” He used to say that about the Soviets.  He was right about them.  I think that that would be a good approach to take with the Chinese.

MR. THOMAS:  Mr. Secretary, let me ask you a question on this.  Can you have personal relations with the Chinese?  Can you have the same kind of personal—

MR. BAKER:  If you’re a friend—if Henry were here, he would agree with this—if you’re a friend of the Chinese, you’re their friend for life.  If they have confidence and trust in you, they will trust you.

You know, it wasn’t easy to get the Chinese not to veto—the only time the Security Council of the United Nations has ever authorized the use of force against a member state was in 1991 when it authorized us to use force to kick Iraq out of Kuwait.  And the Chinese were really conflicted with that, just as they have been since then.  But they trusted us enough, I guess, to abstain and not vote against us.  So I think you can.

MR. THOMAS:  Melissa?

QUESTION:  Mike, please.  I should know.  I’m curious about our relationship or non-relationship with Iran over the many years.  And tell us, if you will, when you were secretary of State—I’m curious as to whether it’s always been our side that put out feelers and they’ve said “No,” or vice versa?

MR. BAKER:  Okay, that’s a great question.  When I was secretary of State, we had a standing invitation and offer to the Iranian government to meet with them at the level of foreign minister, secretary of State.  They would always—they came to us in any number of ways—through the secretary-general, Javier Perez de Cuellar, of the U.N., and through other people.  They wanted to get together with us.  They wanted to do it, but they always wanted to do it secretly.  We said, “We’re ready to meet with you any time, any place.  You need to know that the first topic on the agenda will be state-sponsored terrorism, but we’re ready to sit down.  That’s one of the things we insist on talking about.”  But they have vilified us to such an extent internally as the great Satan that they can’t—they don’t have the domestic political support necessary to sit down with the United States.  Now things may be changing a bit.  And I have to tell you that I’m—I really like what the current administration has done by saying, “Okay, we’re ready to talk. All you got to do is suspend your enrichment activities—not end them, but suspend them—and we’ll join the Europeans and we’ll talk with you.”  And I think that’s a very, very important step for us to take. But when we were there, and through all those years after they took all of our diplomats hostage and mistreated them in violation of every civilized norm, we were ready to meet with the Iranians.  They just wouldn’t meet with us—except secretly—you know, with a Bible and a key and a cake.  (Laughter.)

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary, my name is Roland Paul.  I’m a lawyer.

Besides your many other high government posts, you continue as a consultant to the present president, President Bush, on Iraq.  And, as you know, many critics of the war in Iraq said you didn’t find any weapons of mass destruction, so the war was not justified.  I’m amazed that the administration has never pointed out, to my knowledge, that even though there were no weapons Saddam could have quickly reconstituted them.  Why have you not made that—

MR. THOMAS:  Let me cut you off here.  We are supposed to talk about the past here and not get into current events so.

QUESTION:  (Off mike.)

MR. THOMAS:  I’m going to let the secretary answer that, if he wants.

MR. BAKER:  If you want me to answer that, I will. 


MR. BAKER:  Everybody in the world thought Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. All the people that opposed this—the Russians, the French.  Regime change, as the policy of the United States, began under the Clinton administration.  It was not adopted as U.S.policy in this administration or in the first term of this administration.  So, I mean, there’s a lot—I hope that—does that answer your question?  Or—

QUESTION:  (Off mike.)

MR. BAKER:  Well, he had them when I was secretary of State.  He had chemical weapons and he had biological.  So it was not unreasonable to believe that he might still have them in 2002 or 2001, or whenever it was.  Now, he probably could have—he probably could have reconstituted those, but not the nuclear perhaps.  Anyway, everybody in the world thought he had them.  So—

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Charles Ferguson, Representational Pictures.  Mr. Secretary, I’d like to bring you back to the first Gulf War and even a bit before then.  In the 1980s, when Saddam was pursuing the Iran-Iraq War, had invadedIran, had a quasi-genocidal policy against the Kurds.  The United States supported him militarily, and even though he killed an estimated half a million people during that time. Then, in 1991, although it might have been difficult and/or messy to go all the way to Baghdad, it wasn’t necessary to do what we in fact did, which was leave Iraq’s heavy armor and special Republican Guard largely intact, do nothing when he repressed Kurdish and Shi’ite rebellions that immediately killed a hundred thousand people, and then put in place a sanctions regime that declined—that reduced GNP by 90 percent and killed another quarter million people in the ensuing decade.  So I guess I’d like to—

MR. BAKER:  What was the latter thing?

QUESTION:  Killed an estimated quarter million people in the ensuing decade.

MR. BAKER:  Well, I would argue with that, but go ahead and finish your question.

QUESTION:  Well, I’m about done.  I guess I would like to have you revisit—

MR. THOMAS:  What’s the question, please?

QUESTION:  Don’t you think that that argues that there maybe was a good case for being stronger and behaving differently in 1991?

MR. BAKER:  We made two mistakes.  If you want to know what the mistakes were in my opinion, in what I think was the textbook case of handling the diplomacy and the politics and the military operation of a war—a big war—we made two big mistakes.

We should have had Saddam come to Safwan and sign the surrender documents, and we should not have let him use his helicopters to reposition his forces or to evacuate people from the Highway of Death.  Those two things were mistakes that we made.  I don’t think it was a mistake, particularly if you look at where we are today, that we decided not to march on Baghdad and occupy that great big Arab country, which none of our military wanted to do.

QUESTION:  This is a small thing, but was there a debate over those helicopters?

MR. BAKER:  No.  That was handled on the battlefield.  That was handled—the surrender. We ought to ask Richard—he may remember that better than I remember it. But, I think the decision about the surrender was handled by DOD, and the same thing with the—the recommendation came from DOD with respect to the helicopters, but that was probably a presidential decision.


QUESTION:  Jon Hartzell, KWR International and former Treasury representative in Bonn and in Tokyo during your tenure, Mr. Secretary, in both jobs.

To go back to the historical context, I think you and George Shultz are the only two people in recent times who have served as both Treasury secretary and secretary of State.  I wonder if you could comment on how your perspective on issues and strategies and tactics might have changed as you moved from one position to the other?

MR. BAKER:  Well, mine didn’t change, because I went—well, I went from being Treasury secretary to running the Bush campaign against Dukakis, and then I went to State.  So I had a little interregnum there away from policy and into politics.  But there’s not much of a line dividing the two, let me tell you.

But Treasury is a great job.  Treasury is over here, and you deal with a lot of esoteric issues like exchange rates and taxes and multilateral policy coordination, and you don’t have anybody trying to get into your sandbox.  (Laughter.)  Okay?

State, over here—everybody in Washington , D.C., wants a piece of the action in foreign policy, so you’re constantly having to fight them off or do whatever you need to do.

Now, the most important ingredient in both jobs is to have a good relationship with your president.  But it is critical, if you’re going to be an effective secretary of State.  You have to have a real closeness, because everybody is shooting at you and trying to get into your knickers.

You know, one of the best things that happened to me was that I was a lifelong friend of 41, and I had been his political counselor and run his campaigns.  Nobody was going to get between me and my president.  But going from chief of staff to Treasury and then Treasury to State, Treasury was a real nice little quiet place to be—(laughter)—where nobody dealt with those esoteric issues except the Treasury secretary.


QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary, Ted Sorensen of Paul Weiss.

MR. BAKER:  I know Ted. How are you?

QUESTION:  Hi, Mr. Secretary.

MR. BAKER:  How are you?

QUESTION:  I’m good.  Mr. Secretary—Evan, this question is mostly about the past.  (Laughter.)  You said, and I think correctly, that foreign policy is not successful when it isn’t supported the American people.  In your remarks tonight you reflected a foreign policy that was multilateral, that believed in international law, that works through international organizations and that presented to the world probably the most effective ambassador to the United Nations that this country ever had supposedly all with the support of the American people.  How has it changed so drastically?

MR. BAKER:  Well, you don’t have to be multilateral, Ted, and you should not always be multilateral, because multilateralism as an end in and of itself is not, in my view, a proper goal for American foreign policy.  It always helps if you can bring others along to help you.  That’s what we did in the first Gulf War, and it was Saddam against the world in effect, and we had a lot of help.  If you can’t get that, you should not—suborn or subvert your—you should not put your foreign policy at the risk of the lowest common denominator.  You can’t say every time, “We’re not going to do anything unless we do it through the Security Council,” because then you’re subject to being vetoed by the lowest common denominator in the Security Council.  You can’t do that. 

And, don’t forget, we did a lot of things unilaterally.  We went into Panama when Noriega was brutalizing our servicemen.  We didn’t tell anybody about it, and nobody liked it.  A lot of people didn’t like it in Europe—“Tut, tut. Tut, tut, tut.”—(laughter)—but it was the right thing to do for America, and we did it.  And we went into Grenada, and we didn’t tell Margaret Thatcher about it, and she didn’t like it a darn bit.  I was on the phone listening to President Reagan call her too consult and tell her we were going to do this, and the airplanes were leaving in two hours, and she was plenty sore.

Sometimes you’re going to do things unilaterally when it’s in the national interests of the United States to do it.  So if you can be multilateral it helps, but you ought not to make it a sine qua non.

MR. THOMAS:  Did Mrs. Thatcher really say, “Don’t go wobbly on us, George”?

MR. BAKER:  Yeah, yeah, she said that.  (Laughter.)  She said when we were talking about going to the United Nations—she didn’t want to go to the United Nations, Ted, on the first Gulf War.  She said, “Oh, we shouldn’t do that.”  She said that’s no—you know, she said, “Oh, George,” she said, “let’s just go do it.”  (Laughter.)  And I said in my memoirs—and she was a wonderful prime minister of Great Britain—she was terrific—but I wrote in my memoirs that she had an uncanny ability to flex America’s muscles.  (Laughter.)


QUESTION:  Riordan Roett, Johns Hopkins SAIS in Washington, Mr. Secretary.  One of the things that we all forget—I don’t, I’m a Latin American specialist—is that President Bush had the best Latin American policy of any president in 25 years.  You had the Brady Plan, you stopped the wars in Central America—

MR. BAKER:  Right.

QUESTION: —with the Enterprise for the Americas initiative—I could go on.  What motivated that extraordinary two years in which you really changed U.S.-Latin American policy?

MR. BAKER:  Well, part of it was the geopolitical situation at the time.  I tell people I’m the luckiest guy alive to have been secretary of State of the United States of America at the time I was, because the world changed fundamentally, the world that all of us with gray hair here anyway, knew in all of our adult lives changed. And everybody wanted to get close to the United States of America—everybody.  We were loved.  There were about four or five countries out there—North Korea and Cuba and one or two others that didn’t like us.  Everybody else liked us.  So it was a great time to move everywhere around the world.  And we did move.  We moved in Central and Eastern Europe, we moved in Latin America.

At that time—as a matter of fact, when we left office in 1992, there was only one dictatorship left in Latin America, Fidel.  So.


QUESTION:  Gary Rosen from Commentary magazine.  You said, Mr. Secretary, that foreign policy has to be a balance between national interests and ideals.

MR. BAKER:  Yeah.

QUESTION: —and that now this debate very much focuses on the Middle East.   And I wonder if during your tenure you’re satisfied with how you struck that balance in your dealings with theMiddle East.  Many people think that the problems we face today spring in large part from our tolerating for too long the very oppressive religiously fundamentalist authoritarian regimes in that part of the world, the part of the world where we’ve had, as you know, strong allies for a long time.

MR. BAKER:  Yeah, sure.  No, I’m very comfortable, and I think that we were very successful—in my view at least, my biased and prejudiced view—of what we were able to achieve in theMiddle East.  You talk about our support for fundamentalist authoritarian regimes, our enemies are radical fundamentalists—not fundamentalists.  Ever since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, Saudi Arabia, with whom we do not share principles and values in many respects, has been a longtime ally of theUnited States.  I served in four administrations—two Reagan, one Ford and one Bush.  And in every one of those we had as a written policy that we would go to war to preserve secure access to the energy reserves of the Persian Gulf.  We did it in ‘91.  That was only one of the reasons.  But it’s a written policy.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  That’s in our national interests.  So, as I said earlier, there are going to be times when you are going to be allied with some regimes with whom you don’t share principles and values.

MR. THOMAS:  Let me just interject back to the personal for a second.  How important was the relationship between Prince Bandar and Bush 41?

MR. BAKER:  It was quite important in the Gulf War, maybe because Bandar had a pretty good case of “clientitis.”  He was almost an American.  He had been here so long, and he understood the importance of maintaining that alliance between Saudi Arabiaand theUnited States.  He understood that Saddam, when he went into Kuwait, was only a few days away from going all the way down the Arabian Peninsula if he wanted to.  And he was instrumental, in my view, helpful—maybe the foreign minister was as well, Prince Saud—in convincing King Fahd to okay the stationing of those first 10,000 American troops in Saudi Arabia.  That was not something that the public in Saudi Arabiawas very warm about.

QUESTION:  Isaac Shapiro of Skadden Arps.  Mr. Secretary, you may not want to answer this question, but I’m sticking to the historical context.

MR. BAKER:  If I don’t want to answer it, I won’t.  Go ahead.  (Laughter.)

QUESTION:  When you were in your various offices, what was your experience with and opinion of Donald Rumsfeld?

MR. BAKER:  I don’t want to answer questions about personalities—anytime, anywhere.  You can ask me about all of them.  I don’t get into that.  That’s—I’m sorry.

MR. THOMAS:  Let me ask a broader question not unrelated.  Various secretaries have had doctrines on use of force—Weinberger, Powell.  I don’t remember ever hearing a “Baker doctrine” on use of force.  Can you talk a little generally about whether you had in your own mind a sort of mental checklist that you had to run down before you were willing to commit forces to intervene militarily?

MR. BAKER:  You haven’t heard of a “Baker doctrine” because I was never secretary of Defense.  I was always secretary of the Treasury, secretary of State, or—

MR. THOMAS:  But you must have thought about the issue?

MR. BAKER:  I thought about it when I was a captain in the United States Marine Corps.  (Laughter.)

I think you have to take each case—look at each case on its own facts, Evan.  You know, there wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm in DOD for doing what we did in the first Gulf War.  And we kept getting plans—this is no secret—we kept getting plans that showed an invasion right up through the heart of the Iraqi defense forces, and we’d send those plans back, and we’d say, “No, give us something else.”

So, I mean, I’m really not an expert in it.  I agreed with Colin’s view at the time—he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  He said that, you know, we’re—he told the service chiefs, “We’re going to give you whatever you say you need.”  President Bush gave them whatever they asked for—500,000 Americans were in the Gulf for the first Gulf War—troops.

MR. THOMAS:  This lady here isn’t—

QUESTION:  (Off mike.)

QUESTION:  Garrick Utley of the Levin Institute.  Mr. Secretary, you’ve been talking about great international events you’ve been involved in, and you mentioned the link between politics and foreign policy.  I’d like to turn to 2000 November and the election in Florida and your engagement in that process.  (First), as you look back on that now, any insights or thoughts you might want to share with us?  And, secondly, the fact is that the result of that was George W. Bush president, which has had a profound impact on American foreign policy and American standing in the world.  So this is really where politic and foreign policy came together in more ways than one.

MR. BAKER:  That’s an interesting analysis.  (Laughter.)  What are my insights on that?  I’ll tell you.

I learned during those 37 days in Florida that Florida is the only state in the union with 33 counties and 4 re-counties.  (Laughter.)  Well, that was a unique period in American history.  I was there 37 days.  I would get calls from people that I had served with, former foreign ministers or former prime ministers saying, “What in the world is happening to your country?  Can’t you even conduct a presidential election?”  And my answer in every case was, “Hey, I’ll tell you what’s happening in our country.  In a situation that is extraordinarily emotional and very volatile, we are working it out pursuant to the rule of law, and we don’t have tanks in the streets.  And I’d hesitate to say that I think if it were happening in your country you might have a problem with that.”  That was my answer to them.  I think that both sides conducted themselves with great dignity and great credibility in the way that effort was handled.

QUESTION:  I’m Moushumi Khan, I’m an attorney. I appreciate that you don’t take questions about people, and I’ll try to keep that in mind for myself in the future. But in light of Father’s Day coming up, I’m wondering if you would be willing to comment on the father and son, Bush Senior, Bush Junior, and how history will judge them, and how they may judge each other.

MR. BAKER:  I used to get those questions about Bush Senior and Reagan.  “You were chief of staff for President Reagan, you were his Treasury secretary, and now you’re secretary of State for President Bush.  How do they—what are their differences, and how do they compare?”  I don’t do comparisons.  The minute you do comparisons, you’re going to say something that’s going to offend one side or the other.  So I just don’t do that. I don’t think that’s productive.  I’m sorry.

MR. THOMAS:  Why don’t you—but rate President Bush 41 as a foreign policy president historically.

MR. BAKER:  Well, that would be self-serving for me to do that, but I would rate him pretty damn well, I mean—(laughter)—he handled—he peacefully concluded the Cold War—it didn’t have to end that way; unification of Germany—we talked about some of these things; the Madrid peace conference; the Gulf War, which I think was fought both militarily and politically and diplomatically in the right way.  So I think—but he had an awful lot of experience in foreign policy.  He had been our ambassador, first ambassador to China—not really ambassador, but the head of our liaison office.  He had been ambassador to the United Nations.  He knew and understood foreign policy, and I think he was a very good foreign policy president.  He suffered with—he suffered politically from being seen to be too removed or reserved as far as domestic policy was concerned.

MR. THOMAS:  Is that a bum rap?

MR. BAKER:  I think it was a bum rap.  Although he was very—he was vitally interested in foreign policy, no doubt about that.  And, you know, when you’re in there—the president of the United Stateshas so many demands on his time, that everybody has to fight for presidential time and attention and resources, and the foreign policy establishment, just like the domestic policy people.

MR. THOMAS:  Let me ask you a question about the press.  You used to spend a lot of time talking to reporters.  Was it worth it?

MR. BAKER:  Yeah, it was worth it.  You talk to them—you have to talk to them when you’re chief of staff.  Again, I wrote a little bit about this.  It’s really—I went around and I visited every former chief of staff before I went into the job, and every one of them almost to a man told me that you should spend a lot of time with the press, but always on background.  You may be the second most powerful person in Washington, but nobody elected you to anything, and they don’t want to see you—to see you on the record particularly.  But you need to background a lot—not leak, background.  There’s a big difference between that. But you need to background the press a lot so they understand where the administration is coming from and what you’re seeking to accomplish and what you’re trying to achieve.  And I spent a lot of time doing that, and I think it’s a function of any chief of staff to do that.

I also made it a rule, Evan, to call—to return calls.  And maybe that’s one reason I had a reasonably decent relationship with the press, because I would never let a telephone call go unreturned.  And I did that with the Congress too—particularly with the Congress.

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary, my name is, as you may recall, James Baker Sitrick.

MR. BAKER:  Yeah.

QUESTION:  You once accused me of stealing your name, sir.

MR. BAKER:  Hello, Jim.  How’s Tammy Faye?  (Laughter.)

QUESTION:  Different guy.  Mr. Secretary, you spoke of George Will’s having said—suggested that the commissioner of baseball would be a better platform for becoming president than secretary of the Treasury.  We haven’t had a secretary of the Treasury become president of the United States for 150 years, the last one being James Buchanan, I think.  What is there about being secretary of State that makes it the political equivalent of being mayor of New York City?

MR. BAKER:  You said secretary of the Treasury—you mean secretary of State?

QUESTION:  Secretary of State.  We haven’t had a secretary of State become president since 1856.

MR. BAKER:  Secretary of State is not a good position from which to run for president, because you have to be—you have to be an internationalist, if you’re an effective secretary of State, in my opinion.  And you have to take some positions that are not necessarily congruent with a lot of positions that the American people tend to gravitate to through populism and that sort of thing.  It’s not a really good place to run for president from.

The only one that I’m aware of who’s tried it recently was Al Haig, and he found it a difficult place to run for president.

MR. THOMAS:  Last question.  Way in the back.

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary, welcome toNew York.

MR. BAKER:  Thank you.

QUESTION:  You brilliantly managed the unification of Germany—you even got former Soviet Union friends to go along.  How did you do it, and thereby also laid strong foundations for NATO?  And how would you deal with the present leadership of Russia?  Thank you.

MR. BAKER:  Well, you have to remember that we had the advantage in the first Bush administration of being there when communism collapsed and managing the end of the Cold War in an effective and peaceful way.  And, as I said earlier in answer to another question, everybody really wanted to get close to the United States.  So, we had a lot of support and we had a lot of strength, and we used it.  And we used it in effect to convince the Europeans that it was in their interests to see this happen.  I’ve already said we didn’t, you know, a lot of people didn’t know whether Germany would lean towards—lean East and go towards Russia or be neutral.  A neutral Germany in the heart ofEuropewould not have been a very good thing.  So we made those arguments to them.

With the Soviets, Gorbachev and Shevardnadze made a fundamental decision not to maintain the empire together through the use of force.  So they let the East Germans go.  And one of the main reasons that we saw a peaceful end of the Cold War and a unification of Germany was because those people who had been captive nations for so long, had they continued to struggle for freedom. You know, one of the things we told the Europeans was, “How can we go out here for 40 years and talk about reunifying Germany and talk about freedom for the captive peoples of Eastern and Central Europeand not give it to them when the time comes?”

MR. THOMAS:  Thank you, Jim.  (Applause.)

MR. BAKER:  Thank you, Evan.  (Applause.)








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