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Baker, Hamilton Assess Obama’s Foreign Policy Challenges

March 5, 2009 at 6:35 PM EDT
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Former Secretary of State James Baker and former congressman Lee Hamilton, co-chairs of the 2006 Iraq Study Group, testified before Congress Friday on war powers legislation. In an interview with Jim Lehrer, Baker and Hamilton examine Iraq, Afghanistan and Obama's other foreign policy challenges.

JIM LEHRER: And next tonight, Baker and Hamilton, former Secretary of State and Treasury Secretary James Baker, a Republican, and former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton. They co-chaired the public study group that reviewed Iraq policy in 2006. Hamilton also was co-chair of the 9/11 Commission. Both testified in Congress today on war powers legislation, and I talked to them earlier this evening.

Gentlemen, welcome.

JAMES BAKER, former secretary of State: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Hamilton, do you support President Obama’s troop withdrawal plan for Iraq?

LEE HAMILTON, former co-chair, 9/11 Commission: Yes. I think he’s really following the recommendation that Jim Baker and I made several years back, an exit in a responsible way.

I think the exit is going to be tougher than maybe the president thinks, certainly most Americans think, because the fundamental problems have not been resolved in Iraq. But even so, it’s time for the Americans to begin to pull out and let the Iraqis take over. We can’t stay there forever.

JIM LEHRER: But the study group’s plan was for a much earlier withdrawal than finally happened here, correct?

JAMES BAKER: Well, that’s not really true, Jim. What we said was that, with proper training of Iraqi forces, American combat troops could be withdrawn by March 2008, could be.

JIM LEHRER: Could be. All right.

JAMES BAKER: Not should be or would be. And that, by the way, was the Bush administration’s own date, General Casey’s own date.

But to amplify a little bit on what Lee said, the Obama administration is also proceeding with the diplomatic initiative that we called for in the Iraq Study Group. And they’re opening discussions, as you know, with Syria, extensive discussions with Syria.

JIM LEHRER: In looking back on it now, the two of you really studied this Iraq situation from beginning to end. Was it worth it, Mr. Secretary? Was this war worth it, what we’ve gotten out of it?

JAMES BAKER: I think the jury is still a little bit out on that, Jim. I mean, the verdict on that will come in, if we are ultimately successful. And as Lee just said, President Obama has been cautious in the pace of withdrawal of American combat forces. I think we’re now talking about 19 months instead of 16 months.

If, at the end of that time, Iraq is a stable country and a friend of the United States in connection with the war on terror, yes, it will have been worth it. We have to be — we have to wait and see whether that’s the case.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree it was a war we should have fought?

LEE HAMILTON: I think the verdict is still to come. I think Iraq could go in any number of directions. It could become a chaotic place. It could become a dictatorship. It could become a reasonably stable country with a good influence in the region. It will not become a flourishing democracy. But whether or not the war is judged a success or not I think remains to be seen.

Winning the war in Afghanistan

JIM LEHRER: What about Afghanistan? President Obama is going to send 17,000 more American troops in there. Is it a parallel situation at all with Iraq? Is this the right thing to do, the right decision to make now, looking at it now?

JAMES BAKER: Well, you know, the attack on the United States in September 2001 originated in Afghanistan. I think it's the right decision for the United States and for the president of the United States to be very concerned about that country becoming a safe haven for other terrorist attacks on the United States. So I must say, yes, I think so.

Hopefully that we won't have to be gradually escalating the number of troops. There's a serious -- everybody will tell you today that we have some serious problems there. We need to see more participation by our NATO allies in the fighting there.

But was it -- is it the right decision to try and deny Afghanistan, deny a failed state to al-Qaida? Yes, it is.

JIM LEHRER: Is it a war that is winnable? Is it a war in a traditional sense, Mr. Hamilton, that, hey, OK, now we're going to go to war, we're going to escalate the war with 17,000 more troops in Afghanistan, and on such and such a -- in such and such a time, we're going to win this war?

LEE HAMILTON: Well, I hope not.

JIM LEHRER: You hope it's not that?

LEE HAMILTON: No. My deep concern in Afghanistan is mission creep. I do not think we can make Afghanistan a flourishing democracy. Afghanistan has been like it is for a thousand years. It will continue to be like it is for a thousand years.

And we have to have a real, strong dose of realism to understand our limitations there, no matter what resources we put in, and I don't think the American people would support very large resources for a long period of time.

But what Jim said is correct. Our enemy is al-Qaida, and we should go after al-Qaida and the extremists. And we should not take our eye off the target.

JAMES BAKER: I don't think our goal there is a Jeffersonian democracy. The president has been cleared about that, the new president and the secretary of defense, who carried over from the Bush administration. They've both said very clearly denying al-Qaida a failed state in Afghanistan is our objective.

JIM LEHRER: But, Mr. Secretary, this has been going on since 2001.

JAMES BAKER: That's right.

JIM LEHRER: And there we are. We're putting 17,000 more troops in there. What happened?

JAMES BAKER: Well, that's right. Well, what we had in there before wasn't enough, obviously.

JIM LEHRER: But that was...

JAMES BAKER: But the objective is still a very noble and worthy objective, in my opinion. This is where the attacks on the United States originated from.

LEE HAMILTON: We cannot permit al-Qaida to have a sanctuary.


LEE HAMILTON: 2001 came about because they did have a sanctuary in Afghanistan, not interrupted, protected by that country and its government, and they plotted and planned that attack against the United States.

You've got the same thing now. Al-Qaida as a sanctuary, not this time in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan. We cannot permit that, because that does represent a threat to the United States.

System for going to war

JIM LEHRER: Now we're talking about two wars here. Both of you are very much involved. And you've just testified today, in fact, about the war powers legislation, et cetera, and the way the United States now officially goes to war. Does it work? Does our system for going to war work?

JAMES BAKER: Well, I think it has worked, but it's not the best system. And we were charged with the obligation of trying to see if there were any suggestions we could make to improve it. We've come with a different bill, a different statute -- we call it the War Powers Consultation Act of 2009 -- to replace the failed War Powers Resolution of '73.

JIM LEHRER: That just doesn't work, does it?

JAMES BAKER: No, it doesn't work. It was passed over Nixon veto. It's probably unconstitutional. Every American president, Democrat or Republican, has treated it as unconstitutional.

So what we're calling for is a practical approach. We recognize this is not going to solve the constitutional arguments that the branches engage in. Nothing could solve that, except a Supreme Court decision or a constitutional amendment. We don't even try to.

We protect the right of each branch to make its constitutional arguments, but we say, "There's a better way to go, and this is it, more consultation at the beginning."

JIM LEHRER: Now, consultation, one person's consultation is another person's whatever. Secretary Baker, you come primarily from the executive branch.


JIM LEHRER: Congressman Hamilton, now, you spent, what, over 30 years in the House of Representatives. Is there legitimate consultation or should there be more legitimate consultation between the executive branch and the executive? Or is it the way it is now, the president decides to go to war, they go to war, right?

LEE HAMILTON: My view is that, if an American president wants to go to war, the Congress cannot stop him.

Formalizing dialogue with Congress

JIM LEHRER: Should that be the way it is?

LEE HAMILTON: Well, it is the way it is.

JIM LEHRER: It is the way.

LEE HAMILTON: And you're not going to change that, and we don't change it by this statute. What we try to do is to make sure that the president of the United States, when he has this awful decision in front of him, gets the best possible advice, not only from his official team -- secretary of state, secretary of defense, and so forth -- but also from the Congress, which can give independent advice. They're not dependent on him for a job.

And the president needs to touch all the bases before he makes the gravest decision that a government makes: Do you send young men and women into war? We want to make sure there is meaningful consultation. Now, that's a limited effort.

JIM LEHRER: And there isn't now. What you're both saying is, there is not meaningful consultation?

JAMES BAKER: No, there often...

LEE HAMILTON: Sometimes there is; sometimes there's not.

JAMES BAKER: Sometimes there is; sometimes they're not. What we seek to do here is simply to formalize the process, specifically tell in the statute who the -- name who the president should consult with or leadership in the Congress, leadership of the relevant committees, and so forth.

And it requires the president, before initiating a significant armed conflict, defined as one that lasts more than seven days, to go to the Congress and talk to them about it, meaningful discussion, timely exchange of views.

JIM LEHRER: But they don't have to vote? They don't have to vote?

JAMES BAKER: Then the statute requires that they vote...

JIM LEHRER: Oh, they do have to.

JAMES BAKER: ... within 30 -- within 30 days that they vote up or down on it. If they vote it down, of course -- well, if they vote it up, the president goes ahead with his plan. If they vote it down, it will have to be presented to the president as a resolution of disapproval for his signature under the presentiment clause of the Constitution.

If he vetoes it, that's the end of the line. If he vetoes it and they have two-thirds vote to override it, it's not the end of the line.

Assessing Obama's presidency

JIM LEHRER: Finally, I started to say a political, but it's not a political question. You're a Democrat, Congressman Hamilton. You're a Republican, Secretary Baker. How well do you think President Obama is doing? He's six weeks into the job now. What kind of week are you seeing here from this presidency so far?

JAMES BAKER: Well, I think -- well, let me say this. As a Republican and one who's been an adversarial Republican, I think this president came to office with some of the greatest challenges facing him of any president in my experience and in my lifetime, particularly given what's happened to our economy.

So he's got to focus on a whole lot of things. I think he's doing a pretty darn good job of doing that. Do I agree philosophically with some of his conclusions? No, I do not. I am a conservative Republican. He's a Democrat, and perhaps a liberal Democrat.

I do agree with much of the pragmatic approach that he has exhibited toward foreign affairs and toward international relations. I think it's very -- I see there a very healthy dose of realism. And I see a foreign policy that looks not a whole lot unlike the foreign policy of President Bush 41's administration, President George H.W. Bush.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Hamilton?

LEE HAMILTON: Well, legislatively pretty impressive, a stimulus package, extending health care to children, dealing with employment discrimination with regard to women. I think it's domestically a pretty good record.

He has a proposal before the Congress -- proposals, I should say -- that are really transformational in this country. And he's rolled the dice for a major change of direction.

I don't know whether he can pull it off. I don't know whether the Congress can deal with all that at one time. But I do think he has the support of the nation at this point for genuine change in education, and health care, and energy, and other areas.

On foreign policy, I very much agree with Jim. He is a pragmatic fellow when it comes to foreign policy. And he wants to know how to solve a problem. And when you talk to the president, he wants to know, with regard to Iran, with regard to Syria, with regard to the peace process, what do I do now? What's...

JAMES BAKER: How do I get it done?

LEE HAMILTON: How do I get it done?

JIM LEHRER: He listens? Does he listen?

LEE HAMILTON: Beyond that. He listens; he understands what you say. There's a big difference. He does.

JIM LEHRER: Gentlemen, thank you both very much.

LEE HAMILTON: Thank you.