JAMES BAKER ON FOREIGN POLICY
OCTOBER 11, 1995
David Gergen, editor-at-large of "U.S. News & World Report," talks to James Baker, former Secretary of State for the Bush administration, about his memoirs,The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War and Peace 1989-1992. Gergen and Baker worked together in the executive branch, during the Ford and Reagan administrations.
DAVID GERGEN: You've chosen to write a book actually about the last 43 months really of your tenure in government, about your time as Secretary of State. You said you found that personally the most satisfying of all of your assignments. Why?
JAMES BAKER, Former Secretary of State: Well, I wrote the book about my time as Secretary of State because the world changed during that 43 months. The world, as I had known it for my entire adult life, changed. There were so many historic things that happened with the collapse of Communism, the fall of the Wall, the implosion of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany, NATO, a Mideast peace, the Persian Gulf War, a war in Panama. I could never have written a book I don't think that would have been of any reasonable length about the 12 years in government through the campaigns and the White House and the Treasury and so forth.
DAVID GERGEN: The linchpin seemed to be the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Berlin Wall. That seemed to open up everything else.
JAMES BAKER: The collapse of Communism, the end of the East-West confrontation, and it did open up so many different possibilities, and, and it created a whole lot of events and facts on the ground. I mean, as I say, the world changed. We were so used for 40 years to looking at U.S. foreign policy in the context of our confrontation with the Soviet Union, in the East-West context, in the context of containment as the paradigm for formulation and implementation of our foreign policy.
DAVID GERGEN: One of the major achievements that came out of that was the move from confrontation to cooperation with the Soviets and the Russians.
JAMES BAKER: Right.
DAVID GERGEN: And I was struck by how often you talked about Foreign Minister Shevardnadze, the Soviet foreign minister, and the personal relationships. Was Shevardnadze a more important player in bringing the Soviets around than is generally understood on the outside?
JAMES BAKER: I think he was a more important player than is generally understood on the outside, although Michael Beschloss and Strobe Talbott, who's now the Deputy Secretary of State, wrote a book that made the point that Shevardnadze was frequently seen to be pushing Gorbachev to take risks and take chances for peace and chances for change. You'll see in my book where Shevardnadze agreed to that initial joint statement with me the day after Iraq invaded Kuwait when we stood together and condemned the Soviet client states' invasion of Kuwait. He agreed to an arms embargo without ever clearing it with Gorbachev simply because he thought it was right.
DAVID GERGEN: As you look out to the future with Yeltsin, do you think he has a better prospect of succeeding where Gorbachev eventually collapsed?
JAMES BAKER: Well, I don't know what you mean by succeeding. If you mean, is there a chance for reform to succeed in the Russian Federation, yes, I think there is, and frankly, I think that economic change taking place there is better than you might believe if you just read the newspapers. They still have a rather difficult political situation with a proliferation of parties. I think it was important for us to stay with Gorbachev as long as we did against criticism that we shouldn't have, because we knew he was a reformer, and we knew he was changing the Soviet Union in the direction that we wanted to see it change, and the fact of the matter is the Cold War ended peacefully; it didn't have to end peacefully. By the same token, I think it's wrong to criticize President Clinton for hanging with Yeltsin, because we know Yeltsin is a reformer, and after all, he is the first freely-elected president that the Russian Federation has ever had.
DAVID GERGEN: All right. It's obvious that the collapse of Communism opened the door to the reunification of Germany, something which you played a major role in, opened the door to a new role and a new relationship with the Russians. What's less obvious is that it opened the door also to what happened in the Gulf. Now you write you think that Saddam Hussein went into Kuwait in part because he saw that as his moment of opportunity.
JAMES BAKER: I think he did. I think he saw the end of the East-West confrontation as leaving one superpower in the world, the United States. I think that his desire for regional hegemony, he felt, would be thwarted if he waited, and that that's why he moved when he did, and I write that.
DAVID GERGEN: And he also appeared--apparently was going to go into Saudi Arabia.
JAMES BAKER: We found out after the war--and I make a note of this in the book--we found out after the war that he'd sent a private message to Raf Sanjani, the Iranian leader, in effect, tipping him off that he was going to move and saying, I'm looking forward to living in peace with you along our 840-kilometer sea coast. Well, if you measure 840 kilometers on the Persian Gulf, you see it includes all of Saudi Arabia's Persian Gulf sea cost.
DAVID GERGEN: You had a meeting with the foreign minister of Iraq just before the war started. It was sort of a final moment, and it really sealed American support and also sealed the fate of the Iraqis that we were going to go in, in which you actually threatened him with a possible use of tactical nuclear weapons. It was a little ambiguous, but the message was clear.
JAMES BAKER: It was a calculated ambiguity on purpose, and what I actually said was, "If you use weapons of mass destruction against our forces, the American people will demand vengeance, and we have the means to exact it. That is not a threat, Minister, it is a promise." And I think they took it to heart. At least, that's what they now tell the UN inspectors here in the last three or four weeks.
DAVID GERGEN: And we found, in fact, that they had a bigger biological capacity than we first thought.
JAMES BAKER: They have a very, very dangerous and much larger biological weapons capability than we--than we thought at the time, and their chemical weapons capability we knew at the time was fairly extensive.
DAVID GERGEN: That threat, the one you used with Aziz, which apparently worked, it was interesting that the notion to present that threat came from Colin Powell, who was often represented on the American side as being overly cautious, and that he really wanted--he was with you on being aggressive toward Saddam, and then he wanted to use this threat. Did you find him overly cautious during your time as Secretary?
JAMES BAKER: Well, no, I did not, and I make the point in the book that particularly in terms of the Persian Gulf War I think it's been suggested that he wanted to give sanctions, economic sanctions, a year to work. I never heard that from him. I never saw that in his behavior or actions, and, in fact, he came and had a private meeting with me in October, during which time we laid out what the, what the options were. And I found him to be quite prepared to increase our force capability, but he wanted to make sure that if we were going to use force, that we did it with overwhelming force.
DAVID GERGEN: Yeah. But later on, he did oppose the use of force. You wanted to use force or air power in Bosnia to break the siege--
JAMES BAKER: To lift the siege of Sarajevo, yes.
DAVID GERGEN: To lift the siege of Sarajevo.
JAMES BAKER: In June of 1992, and at that time, both Colin and Dick Cheney were opposed to that. They were afraid that would put us on a slippery slope to war. My view was that we could use American air power safely to deliver humanitarian assistance or to break the siege of Sarajevo. I think the Serbs probably got wind of the fact that we were about to do that, because the President did sign off on it, and the facts on the ground changed.
DAVID GERGEN: Right.
JAMES BAKER: And so we never had to use--
DAVID GERGEN: But President Clinton has used that air power and it has worked.
JAMES BAKER: He has used it, and it has worked, and I applaud that.
DAVID GERGEN: I wanted to come back to one other point. You make a very strong argument in the book that it was--it would have been wrong to go after Saddam in Baghdad, but you also make an argument that had you gone after Saddam, you would not have been able to get the Middle East peace process rolling.
JAMES BAKER: That's correct. I think that if we had marched to Baghdad, we would have fractured the coalition, the Arab members would have left, the countries in the region are fearful of the Lebanization of Iraq; they don't want to see that. We didn't want to see it at the time, but primarily, we didn't want to lose a whole lot more American lives that probably would have been lost if we had occupied Iraq, and had to fight a guerrilla warfare--had to fight a guerrilla war there. Furthermore, the United Nations resolutions under which we were operating told us to kick Iraq out of Kuwait, and that's what we did, and we did it rather convincingly, so we had satisfied our war aims and our political aims. There really is no argument to be made for going to Iraq--for going to Baghdad.
DAVID GERGEN: Except that Saddam is still in power.
JAMES BAKER: Well, he's still in power, that's correct, and we all anticipated at the time that he would not be able to remain in power.
DAVID GERGEN: Right.
JAMES BAKER: Now he's in power, but he's in a cage as a consequence of the--of the UN resolutions that have been enacted and that remain in force.