James Baker

James Baker stays the course.

October 2006By Comments

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 good, hard-nosed negotiator. There ought to be nothing wrong with diplomacy.

ES: Have you conveyed this message to your friends in Washington?

JB: I don’t get into what I have conveyed and haven’t conveyed. That’s the way it ought to be if you want to have any impact.

ES: Let me ask you about your new book, Work Hard, Study … and Keep Out of Politics! It is amazing to think that James Baker could write a book whose title contains those words, “keep out of politics.” You seem pathologically incapable of heeding your own advice.

JB: For most of my adult life I did just that: I stayed the hell out of politics. It was not something that really good lawyers involved themselves in.

ES: A lot of people today don’t go into politics because the profession, as it were, has been sullied. You still feel good about it?

JB: One of the main points in the book is that for far too long I just stood on the sidelines and left all that up to others. We have a wonderful country. We’re all blessed to be citizens of it, and we have a responsibility, in my view, to participate in our political system. We do so by way of politics and its corollary, public service.

ES: And when you got into it, you got into it with both feet.

JB: I’ve had a lot of people come to me and say, “Hey, how many people have led five presidential campaigns for three different presidents? You’ve written about being Secretary of State. Now you have to write about this.” And I say, “I don’t want to write a political book because I don’t like kiss-and-tells.” I think it’s really hard to write a political book that’s not a kiss-and-tell. I hope I’ve done that, because people who write kiss-and-tells lose. I’ve bent over backwards to make sure it isn’t one.

ES: Characterize for us, if you would, how the administrations of those three presidents—Ford, Reagan, and Bush the elder—differed.

JB: I’ve always refused to do comparisons. I used to get the question all the time. I still do. “What’s the difference between 41 and 43?” “What’s the difference between Ford and Reagan?” “What’s the difference between Reagan and Bush?” Look, I don’t do comparisons, particularly of presidents I’ve served, because you can’t say something nice about one without implicitly criticizing the other.

ES: You mentioned that you get asked about 41 and 43 all the time. Did you read the Vanity Fair story about their relationship?

JB: I knew that [the magazine was] doing one. They called me, but I didn’t talk to them. I ought to get it, shouldn’t I?

ES: It’s worth reading because it addresses the question of the tension, real or imagined, between the people around 41 and 43. Insight, the conservative newsmagazine, had previously reported that a rift had developed between the 41 camp and the 43 camp. There was a comment attributed to [41’s national security adviser] Brent Scowcroft that he no longer knew this Dick Cheney.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. He said that.

ES: Do you put stock in any of this, or are the media just bored?

JB: I don’t put a lot of stock in that. I think the differences on policy are actually quite healthy. We had plenty of that in the Reagan administration and Bush I.

ES: Does it surprise you that the press and others want to look at 41’s administration and 43’s administration and find similarities and differences? It’s natural, isn’t it, to compare the two?

JB: I’ve always found that the press is sometimes a lot more interested in differences and divisiveness than in comity and agreement. One sells and the other doesn’t.

ES: You think there are similarities?

JB: Sure I do. And make no mistake about it: The two men are extraordinarily close. There’s a lot of love.

ES: How close were you with 43 before he became 43?

JB: When the Bushes moved back from Midland and we became friends, we used to play a Thanksgiving football game. But I was not particularly close to 43.

ES: Do you remember the time he worked on his dad’s behalf, in the ’88 campaign and in the White House?

JB: I remember him at the campaign. He was sort of a right-hand guy for [41’s political strategist] Lee Atwater. He did not attend my morning staff meeting. I don’t remember him at the White House. Of course, I was over at the State Department. I wouldn’t have seen him if he was at the White House.

ES: Do you remember looking at him at any point and thinking, “This guy could be president”?

JB: No, I don’t remember. We all thought it was going to be Jeb.

ES: I imagine you didn’t have much contact with him while he was governor, because you’ve pretty much stayed out of Texas politics.

JB: I’ve really done zero. I was so involved on the national scene, and I never had much interest in state politics. The Republican Party of Texas had asked me to be a state finance chair at a time when there weren’t any Republicans and at a time when [John] Tower and [Richard] Nixon were running for reelection. Boy, raising money then was difficult.

ES: You ran unsuccessfully for attorney general of Texas in 1978, but your profile is much higher today. Do you consider running for something else statewide?

JB: I don’t get asked. I really don’t. I think people know that if I were going to do anything, I probably would have done it at the federal level. I did, in fact, consider running for president, because I had the numbers; I had name ID way up in the high 80’s and good job approval/disapproval [ratings]. And did I know the job? You bet I knew the job. I’d worked at the right hand of three presidents. But I was flat worn out. I’d been there thirteen years. I’d done those campaigns and stints at Treasury, the White House, and State. I didn’t have the fire in the belly.

ES: Was there ever any move on 43’s part to involve you in his administration in a more formal way?

JB: We don’t talk about those things.

ES: Well, let’s talk about what happened in 2000, since that’s a little more public. I loved the Florida chapter in your book, because it was the first time I could remember getting your point of view on what happened there. I was interested in one quote in particular: “George W. Bush and Dick Cheney had more votes. They had more votes on Election Day, more votes when the dispute ended thirty-six days later, and more votes every day in between.” You know, of course, that there are people out there who believe that that’s not true. You are absolutely certain, without a shadow of a doubt, that there were more votes in Florida for Bush-Cheney than Gore-Lieberman?

JB: Without a shadow of a doubt, and it’s confirmed by all of the post-Florida media surveys. All of the subsequent recounts done by the media proved it. And these were not partisan organizations; in fact, if they were partisan, they were partisan the other way. They counted all of those hanging chads and used various formulas, and under all of them, Bush-Cheney won. I’m sure there are some who see it the other way, but the point is, we were not contesting the election. We were preserving the results that had been announced by the election authorities in Florida.

ES: So there can be no doubt.

JB: There can be no doubt. People have come to me saying, “What’s wrong with your country? You can’t even run an election.” And I say, “Look, if this were happening in your country, you’d probably have tanks in the streets.” The message of Florida, the lesson of Florida, is that our system works. The rule of law prevails.

ES: Anything about the conduct of your side during the now famous 36-day period of uncertainty that you regret?

JB: I wish we’d been better prepared. The other side was much better prepared than we were. Yes, there were protests. Yes, it was not just a legal exercise; it was a political exercise. But I think both sides conducted themselves with dignity and credibility.

ES: A moment ago you alluded to the media’s partisanship. Do you really believe that old chestnut?

JB: If you go back and look at the post-election seminars following, let’s say, the past ten elections or so, you will see that most of the media self-identify with the other party. That’s just a fact.

ES: You’ve enjoyed better relations with that so-called partisan press than anyone in government outside, and in some cases inside, the Oval Office. How did you do it?

JB: The reason I’ve been successful goes back to a rule I’ve followed throughout my public service and political career. If I can’t say something, I’ll say I can’t say it, but I don’t lie. I got good marks from the press for that reason. I also understand that with the press, less is more. The Gore people made a big mistake in Florida, in my opinion, by going out with too many different, disparate voices. Every time a camera was stuck in the face of one of their lawyers, there was an interview. And the message was garbled.

ES: Let’s talk about Houston. How much time do you spend there?

JB: I spend most of my time in Houston. We moved there for good in 1995, after [Baker’s daughter] Mary Bonner graduated from National Cathedral School. I go up to Washington periodically, but not a lot. My office is in Houston, at Baker Botts, and my home is in Houston.

ES: How much legal work are you doing now?

JB: A fair amount. I’m still an active senior partner, but I don’t practice the way I used to. I’m more involved in business development.

ES: Tell me about your involvement with the Baker public policy institute, at Rice University.

JB: It’s been an extraordinarily successful undertaking, much more successful than we really had any reason to anticipate at the time, because there is a real hunger in the fourth-largest city in the nation for a substantive public policy debate. And we offer that. We have been fortunate to raise more than twice what our original fund-raising goal was, and we now support about fifteen fellows who we bring in for a two-year period to work on various public policy issues and topics and to work collaboratively with the social sciences faculty at Rice.

ES: Are you involved with anything else at Rice, or are your interests limited to the institute?

JB: I really just do the institute, although for nine years, until I was 72, I was on the board of trustees.

ES: How do you feel about the idea of their getting rid of football, which has been discussed? Come on, don’t be a diplomat!

JB: I used to go to games with my grandfather, who was the chairman of the Rice board for fifty years, and with my dad. Every Saturday we’d watch Rice lose and lose and lose. Who knows? Maybe they ought to be concentrating on baseball.

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