Evan Smith: President Bush asked you back in April to advise him on Iraq.
James Baker: Well, he didn’t really formally ask me. What happened was that a number of members of Congress had been petitioning the administration to support the idea of fresh eyes on Iraq. The congressional types and some of the think tanks said, “This is something we talked to the Secretaries of State and Defense about, and they think it’s a good thing that we ought to do.” As I always do, I said, “That’s wonderful, but I want him to look me in the eye and tell me he wants me to do this.” We’re doing it with the approval of the administration and with the administration’s stated intention to cooperate with us, which means that we have access to information, documents, people, and travel.
ES: Have you done much advising so far?
JB: No, we’re still in the process of interviewing people. We have various expert working groups—on the strategic environment considerations, the political considerations, the economic considerations, and the military and security considerations.
ES: Obviously there’s some sense of urgency. The longer this goes on, the more of our sons and daughters who die. It seems like this is the sort of thing you’d want to do as fast as possible.
JB: In order for it to be credible, we’re not bringing out any reports until after the election, because we do not want it to seem to be political. We said we expected to issue a report within a year, and the year is up around April 1. We’ll probably come in before that.
ES: You’ve been to this dance before, having advised previous presidents at war. What’s your view of the situation in Iraq?
JB: If we’re able to achieve the goals the administration originally articulated, it will have been worth it. If we’re not, there are serious costs to American interests in terms of the lives of brave young men and women and of our diplomatic standing on military, economic, and political issues. As we sit here today, I think most everybody understands the tremendous cost to America’s reputation and stature of just picking up and pulling out.
ES: A number of columnists, including David Broder, of the Washington Post, and Thomas Friedman, of the New York Times, have written recently something to the effect that even if you accept that withdrawing is a mistake, the prospect of achieving our original goal is so small that continuing to remain for the sake of staying the course amounts to throwing good lives after good lives.
JB: You’ve got to weigh that against the tremendous cost to America’s credibility, and the tremendous adverse impact in the region, if we were to just say, “We’re out of here.” Even though it’s something we need to find a way out of, the worst thing in the world we could do would be to pick up all our marbles and go home, because then we will trigger, without a doubt, a huge civil war. And every one of the regional actors—the Iranians and everybody else—will come in and do their thing.
ES: You don’t believe the military folks who testified recently to Congress that Iraq’s already in a civil war?
JB: That’s not what [Army General] John Abizaid [the commander of U.S. Central Command] said. If you go back and look at his testimony, he said that if we’re not able to get control of our security situation in Baghdad, there is the potential for civil war. Of course, a lot of people in the press said, “Aha! General Abizaid said we’re in a civil war.” That’s not true. That’s not what he said.
ES: You mentioned the effect of a pullout on the reputation of the United States. Our reputation around the world right now is already pretty bad. How much worse could it be?
JB: It could be a hell of a lot worse in terms of emboldening the terrorists. The Iranians, particularly, could be saying, “Aha! We’ve defeated the Great Satan! They’re tucking their tails between their legs and going home!” If you’re talking about extricating yourself, there has to be a strategic plan that would permit a reasonable and responsible type of drawdown, one that wouldn’t invite the kind of chaos that would be invited if we just picked up and left.
ES: Do you look at the world right now—at Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Israel, Afghanistan, North Korea, at all the stuff we’ve come to accept as commonplace in the news—and think, “What happened? How did we get here?”
JB: There are a whole host of factors, but the idea that somehow the United States or the West was responsible for the rise of terrorism and what happened on 9/11 is ludicrous. Let me just remind you that in 1986, at the economic summit in Tokyo, the number one political issue on the agenda was the threat represented by terrorism.
ES: We’ve been talking about this for a long time.
JB: Having said all of that, I would like to see us have a bit more hands-on engagement in trying to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. That’s where we made significant progress before, when we got Syria to change 25 years of policy and recognize Israel by sitting down across the table and negotiating peace. We’re at the point now where we don’t talk to Syria. We don’t talk to Iran. We don’t talk to Hezbollah and Hamas because they’re terrorist organizations. When we did our work with Syria, they were on our list of state sponsors of terror. My point is, you don’t talk to your friends; you talk to your enemies.
ES: So should we be talking to them?
JB: We probably ought to be. To some of them, anyway.
ES: Didn’t we manage to engage Libya?
JB: And look what happened. You know, talking to people is not appeasement if you know what you’re doing and you’re a