Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker: Restored US-Saudi Relations Will Strengthen Security in the Region

Saudi's newly appointed King Salman (L) shakes hands with former US secretary of state James Baker (C) at Erga Palace in Riyadh on January 27, 2015. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

This article was originally published in Majalla on June 1, 2017.

*I am hopeful that progress can be made between Arabs and Israelis but the old questions of the past still remain

*The US and its historic allies must join together to confront Iran

*The nuclear deal gave Iran $150 billion and the freedom to pursue their agenda of disruption and terror

*There is no easy solution in Syria, a more representative, less repressive and more decentralized Syrian state is needed

*Regional players need sit down and negotiate an agreement that will govern what happens after ISIS is defeated

*I sympathize greatly with the Saudi position in Yemen and endorse providing logistical and intelligence support to the Kingdom

*The US-Saudi coalition built to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait was an unprecedented accomplishment

*The new Riyadh counterterrorism center is a very heartening development, we and our Muslim friends need to stand together and take action

*The American press have become players in the political debate and that’s not healthy for our democracy

*The country is almost evenly divided between Red and Blue States, the centre in American politics has disappeared

Houston: Mustafa El Dessouki

James A. Baker, III held senior positions in the Republican presidential administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and established a reputation as “The man who made Washington work.”

After Reagan won the election, he appointed Baker White House chief of staff, and to this day he is considered the “gold standard” for the post. Baker was appointed Secretary of the Treasury in 1985. He went on to adroitly manage George H.W. Bush’s successful campaign for the Presidency in 1988, and went on to serve as Secretary of State. In that capacity, he helped the United States reach an agreement with the Soviet Union on the reunification of Germany in 1990. In 1990–’91 he helped build the international coalition that opposed Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

After leaving government service, Baker served as diplomatic envoy for United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan for the Western Sahara. In 1993, Baker founded Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, which has established itself as one of the premier nonpartisan public policy think tanks in the country.

In his interview with Majalla, Secretary Baker shared his impressions of Trump’s recent visit to Riyadh, highlighting the importance of the revival of the US-Saudi alliance in combating terrorism. He voiced his support as well as his concerns about the President’s commitment to pursuing peace between Arabs and Israelis. He spoke to the need for direct negotiations in driving political progress and lasting peace in the Middle East, and offered a substantive critique of the Iran Nuclear Deal. Drawing on his experience as America’s top diplomat and personal knowledge of Rex Tillerson — who now holds the post — Baker explained why he believes Tillerson will make an “extraordinarily successful Secretary of State.” He reflected on the years he served under George H.W. Bush, and assessed the causes of present-day polarization in the United States.

What are your impressions of President Trump’s recent visit to the Middle East, beginning with Saudi Arabia?

I think it was quite successful. The optics were certainly successful. And I think much of the substance was successful, as well. It reflected a significant shift in emphasis regarding US policy. Our recent policy has, to some extent, said: Our long-term allies in the region and Iran need to find a way to share the area. But this trip made it very clear that the US wants to once again implement a policy toward our friends in the region that has been more historically the policy for quite some time. And that was the policy when I was secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush. We were strong allies in opposing the expansion of terror, and the other problems that stem from Iran. This trip clearly establishes that the US policy and posture is back to what it was before. So, I think the trip was really a strong success. I think that the counterterrorism center is a very important policy action. I think that the objective of this summit was to point the way to a new partnership between the US and its moderate Arab allies in the region, led by Saudi Arabia, and its ally Israel. That partnership will confront extremism and terrorism and will disseminate the values of tolerance and coexistence. It will bolster the security, stability, and cooperation needed in the region.

Your storied career included the achievement of the Madrid talks. Now that the President has visited Saudi and Israel and there is discussion of a potential regional peace settlement — perhaps relating in some way to the Arab peace initiative of 2002 — can you share your outlook on that prospect?

As someone who spent a lot of time trying to advance peace between Arabs and Israelis, I am very hopeful that progress can be made. But I have to tell you, I am skeptical that the timing is right. It is very good that the American president had good meetings with two of the most critical players in this issue: the Saudi and Israeli governments. But the fact still remains that there is really no true bargaining agent on behalf of the Palestinians. And while in his meetings with President Abbas, President Trump and Abbas vowed to work together on a peace deal, there’s still a long, long way to go. The old questions of the past still remain. What about Jerusalem? What about boundaries of a two-state solution? What about right of return? Are the Israelis really committed to a two-state solution? So there’s a long way to go, and I’m just not sure about timing. I don’t know what happens to Hamas. And who’s going to be at the negotiating table for all of the Palestinians.

That said, I think what King Abdullah did with that Arab proposal in 2002 is the kind of thing that needs to happen. We need to have both Israel and all of her Arab neighbors committing to and remaining committed to a two-state solution, based upon the land-for-peace formula of 242 and 338.

You drew some parallels between the nature of policies toward Iran when you were in the administration and the situation today. Now Iranian proxy militias are active in numerous Arab countries. How do you see these new challenges playing into cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the US on Iran?

The mere fact of the change in administrations here has, as I think I indicated, changed that a little bit already. There’s a clear recognition in this administration that Iran plays a problematic role in the Middle East. It’s important that the US and its historic allies there — moderate Arab states and Israel — join together to confront those types of policy actions by Iran. Having said that, I have to tell you that there’s not going to be, in my view, any settlement or lasting peace in Syria or Iraq that doesn’t include Iran. And those militias are what I’m talking about. I think, frankly, that closer US cooperation with Gulf states across the board is a very good thing. But I think, before we say, “Yes, there ought to be an Arab NATO,” we in the United States ought to have a lot more details about the membership, the mission, the resources, and things like that. I do think it’s important that we try to push for a settlement in Syria, with the number one objective being defeating ISIS. But there’s no easy solution to the Syria problem. So what we need is, to begin with, we need a ceasefire. Ultimately, of course, we need to find a way to an agreement that provides for a more representative and less repressive and, frankly, more decentralized Syrian state. And what happens to Assad ought to be a matter for that negotiation. But any agreement we come to is going to require international peacekeepers. And the Gulf Arabs and Turkey should play a large part in any peacekeeping mission. The United States cannot shoulder that burden alone. Of course, there are serious tensions between Turkey and the United States, a NATO ally, as a consequence of our supplying arms to the Kurds. So that’s what I mean when I say that there are no easy solutions to the problem of Syria.

U.S. President George W. Bush meets with Presidential Envoy and former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and National Security Adviser Condaleezza Rice in the Oval Office December 19, 2003 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Eric Draper/White House via Getty Images)

It sounds like you are speaking of something a little bit like a confederated Syria, with different regional guarantors for its component parts.

Let me put it this way: Everybody is against ISIS. So it doesn’t matter whether you’re Syria or Iran or Turkey or the US or Saudi Arabia or the UAE. You’re against ISIS. Everybody would like to destroy ISIS. And so what needs to happen is, all of those countries need to find a way to sit down and negotiate an agreement that will govern what happens after ISIS is defeated. What happens to the space there. Who’s going to go in there. And that’s going to be a really hard negotiation. But I don’t know any other way to get there. When I say we need to do a better job of confronting Iran than we did before, I don’t mean to suggest that the United States can allow itself to go into open-ended military conflicts. Ultimately, those would prove very unpopular and therefore unsustainable here at home. And we would lose the policy. We’re a democracy, and the American people are the final arbiters of our foreign policy. Once the body bags start coming in, you run the risk of losing policy — as we did in Vietnam and as we did in Iraq following the 2003 intervention.

What is your view of the Iran nuclear deal?

My view of the Iran agreement – JCPOA — is that we never should have gotten into that negotiation in the beginning without tying the lifting of sanctions, in some way, to Iran’s behavior regarding terror and its activities in the region. I think it was a mistake to get into it as just a discrete nuclear matter. Now, having said that, I don’t think we ought to consider pulling out of that agreement, because we have lost our European allies by getting into it in the first place, on the issue of sanctions. And it was those sanctions that brought Iran to the table. So, we ought to stay in the agreement in my view, but be very, very strict in monitoring Iran’s compliance, and try to get our European allies to join us in re-imposing sanctions or strengthening them if Iran doesn’t comply.

I don’t think we should have ever gotten into it without at the same time making it clear that if we were going to lift sanctions, it ought to be in some way better tied to Iranian behavior in other areas. If they live up to the agreement, we at least know we have ten years on the nuclear. But before that, we’ve given Iran $150 billion–or more–and the freedom to pursue their agenda of disruption, terror and so forth in the region. So, you’ve got to ask yourself: Was it worth it? It was certainly good to get the 10 years. But that’s why I say, in my view there’s no option today to pull out of that agreement, as long as Iran observes it. Because if the US says, we’re going to pull out and re-impose all our sanctions, that’s great. But unilateral sanctions don’t work. Multilateral sanctions do. And I feel we’ve lost our European allies on the sanctions. But I still don’t think we ought to pull out of the agreement.

The war in Yemen doesn’t get a lot of attention in the public discussion in the US. There have been hopes among Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies for more assistance from Washington in that country. Do you sympathize with the Saudi position there? How do Americans read the war in Yemen differently?

I certainly sympathize with the Saudi position in Yemen, because any country would be concerned, I think, if a hostile group were to seize control of an adjacent state. That is particularly true if the group was supported by a geopolitical adversary, the way the Houthis are with Iran. I certainly endorse providing logistical and intelligence support to the Kingdom. That was the policy under the Obama Administration, and it remains the policy under the Trump administration, as I understand it. Again, here’s another case where a negotiated settlement is the optimal outcome, because the humanitarian situation in Yemen is very dire. I sympathize greatly with the Saudi position. But I also worry that the Saudis don’t discover the same thing we’ve discovered here that getting into a war is a hell of a lot easier than getting out. So I think it’s important to find a way to put together a negotiated settlement of that conflict. And to the extent that we can supply logistics and intelligence support and things like that, I would hope to continue to do so, because that would perhaps help produce a negotiated settlement.

We would like to ask for your views about your fellow Texan, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. How’s he doing? And is it your sense that he has the mandate that he needs to be effective?

I was very supportive of Secretary Tillerson’s appointment. I was asked about it by the Trump people, the vice president, the chief of staff and others. And I strongly recommended Rex because I know him and will tell you I’m biased, because he’s a friend, but I know that he has the negotiating skills and perspective. He’s broad gauged and he has the potential to be an extraordinarily successful Secretary of State. And I also am very, very supportive of his general approach to foreign policy, that emphasizes national interest. Realism. It gets back to what I said before. When the body bags start coming home, you’d better have a significant national interest at stake, or you’re going to lose the policy. It is true that America’s foreign policy will always be guided by its principles and values. But at the end of the day, if you’re going to talk about using your military, you’d better have a strong national interest at stake. I believe that’s constant with Rex Tillerson’s view. Further, if you look at some of the foreign policy decisions of the Trump Administration, many of them have moved away from what candidate Trump said during the election. Such movement, in my view, in almost every case, has been good. So that tells me that he’s getting some excellent advice from what I think is a very, very good foreign policy team. Tillerson, Mattis, and McMaster.

Several times you have pointed out the importance of the electorate in the U.S. with regard to foreign policy in particular. Given the political polarization in the U.S., how does that play into the President’s ability to execute a coherent foreign policy?

What I say when I speak and people ask me what are the toughest issues facing the country today, one of the things I cite is our political dysfunction. We no longer seem to be able to sit down and agree across the aisle, to get things done for the American people. And this is not the Administration’s fault. It’s not necessarily the party out of power’s fault. But you ask me, how does that impact an Administration; it makes it much more difficult. Because you in effect have a bifurcated polity. It’s not a good idea.

I can give you some causes for it if you want, in my view. We have something called redistricting. It’s constitutional. Every ten years we have to draw new congressional boundary lines. And we have a country that is almost evenly divided between Red States and Blue States — that is, Republicans and Democrats. And when you’re in a state that’s controlled by Democrats, every ten years they’ll draw more and more safe Democratic districts, and Republicans do the same thing in states they control. And the net effect of that is that the center in American politics has disappeared. That’s not a healthy thing.

Another problem today is that our elected representatives go out to Washington, they get there Tuesday afternoon and they leave Thursday afternoon so they can go home and raise money and till the ground in their home district and so you don’t have any of the socialization across the parties that we used to have. You don’t socialize with people in the other parties. That too is a constitutional issue. The other constitutional problem is the fact that in our country, the press have become players in our political debate. They’re no longer objective reporters of the facts. And you tune into one TV channel, you’d think you were listening to the house organ of the Republican party. You tune into another, you’d know you were listening to the house organ of the democratic party. That’s not healthy for our democracy. It’s not healthy for governance. But also, it presents a constitutional problem, because freedom of speech is very important to our democracy. Freedom of the press is very important to our democracy. So you can’t tell the press what to write or when to write or how to write. All of these things make governing much more difficult. And then on top of that, you’ve got the Internet, where anybody can throw anything up to see if it sticks, and if it does, then the mainstream media picks up on it. Today we have a lot more announcing and writing, prior to fact checking, than we used to. All of these things contribute, in my view, to our political dysfunction. Compromise has become a dirty word. If you’re a representative in Washington and you’re willing to sit down with the other party to try to work something out for the American people, you’re likely to find yourself with a primary opponent in the next election. So, that and, another problem I point out quite frequently is our ticking fiscal debt bomb. We’ve got a debt to GDP of close to 100 percent. That’s unsustainable. And president Trump is trying to do something about that, by cutting the growth of federal spending. And you would think the way the other party is screaming about it, and the way the press is screaming about it, that he was calling for throwing every widow and orphan in this country out on the street. And this, notwithstanding the fact that the poverty level in the world today is at an all-time low.

Let me return to Yemen. I said I understood why the Saudis are doing what they’re doing. But I have to also tell you — and I’m not passing judgment on the Saudi war effort in Yemen when I say this — but it is really important to recognize the dire humanitarian situation now in that country. And I know that that’s very much on the minds of the Saudi leadership.

From your years as Secretary of State, what are some of the foreign policy achievements of which you are most proud?

I am extremely proud of the President I served, my close friend, George H.W. Bush, because even though he was a one-term president, he was an extraordinarily consequential president, in foreign policy particularly. When you think about what happened in the short 3-1/2 years that I was secretary of state for him, you would have to take note of the fact that the Cold War, with which I had lived all of my adult life, ended with a whimper and not a nuclear bang. And it didn’t have to end that way. It could have ended catastrophically. President Bush very adroitly managed the end of the Cold War. Diplomatically, the reunification of Germany as a member of NATO was a signal diplomatic achievement. When you think about the fact that the Soviets were against it, the British were against it, the French were against it, and only America and the Germans initially were for it. Germany being reunited as a member of NATO is another accomplishment of the Bush Administration. The coalition that we built, together with our Saudi friends and others, to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, was literally an unprecedented accomplishment. It’s the first time and the last time that the UNSC has voted a resolution for the use of force against a UN member state. And I spent many, many days in Riyadh meeting with King Fahd and others. Our president from the very beginning said: “This aggression against Kuwait will not stand.” And it didn’t. And look how closely we worked with the Kingdom during that time. Right at the very beginning we asked King Fahd if he wanted some US forces. We sent 10,000 American troops to the kingdom to keep Iraq from going down the peninsula. We ultimately had 500,000 American troops in the Gulf, and we kicked Hussein out unconditionally, just as the UN resolution said. Then we did the Madrid peace conference in the aftermath of the First Gulf War — again, cooperating very closely with our moderate Arab allies in the Gulf. All of Israel’s Arab neighbors, for the first time ever, sat at the table with her to negotiate peace. Something that had never been done before. And something that led to the Oslo agreement, which in turn led to the peace between Israel and Jordan. So, it was a very consequential conference, even though it did not end up bringing about comprehensive peace between Arabs and Israelis. So that’s what I mean when I say, George H W Bush was an extraordinarily consequential American president, even though he was a one-term president. And I haven’t even mentioned all of the arms control agreements we entered into with the Soviet Union: Start, chemical weapons, and others. It was president bush’s ability to build and coordinate strong alliances that worked together to confront each of those challenges I just mentioned. The bottom line was that America led. American leadership during those days took center stage.

US President George W. Bush, center, holds a copy of the Iraq Study Group report during his meeting with the group in the Cabinet Room of the White House December 6, 2006 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Charles Ommanney/Getty Images)

Turning to the Baker Institute, can you share some of the activities that the institute is focused on these days, particularly any that may be of interest to our readers in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi energy minister was just here [in Houston]. We like to think of Houston as the energy capital of the world, recognizing of course that Saudi Arabia is the energy capital of the world. But Khalid al-Fahd was just here at the Baker Institute. But I’m proud that it’s only been there for less than 25 years — we celebrate our 25th next year — and according to the University of Pennsylvania, we’re now rated as the fourth best college-related think tank in the world. And we are considerably smaller than most of the others. Our energy forum —we have an energy forum which is ranked as the second best of its kind in the world. So, we’re very active in the energy arena. And right now, we’ve just begun a new program that’s going to examine in a bi-partisan way, US presidential elections since I was privileged to lead 5 US presidential elections for three different Republican presidents, we thought this was a pretty good thing to do out there. We found researching it that no other think tank in the US has a program strictly on presidential elections. They have programs on the presidency. A lot of them have programs on the American presidency, but not strictly not he presidential election. And we’re going to kick that off this November.

For our young readers who are university students, what sort of programs are available for foreign students who might want to benefit from some of the expertise at the Baker Institute?

If you’re accepted into Rice University, we have a Masters in global affairs that we just started two years ago. We have 40 or 50 students, I’m just guessing. But that’s the only teaching we do there. We just started that a couple of years ago because of the demands for it. We are basically a policy think tank. We endow fellowships for people from the world of action, who have been out there serving in public service, usually in government, to come in and do a project or a research paper and relate to the academics — interface with the academics. So, the concept of the Baker institute is to bridge the gap between the world of action and the world of ideas. The people in think tanks, and professors at universities, they sit up here in their ivory towers and come up with some good ideas sometimes, but they’re not in a position to implement them. People from the world of action know what it is to implement, and when we endow a fellowship and bring someone on board, they interface with some of the academics. But they all have a particularly scholarly objective or agenda — a research paper or something like that.

What are you reading these days?

It won’t surprise you that I enjoy reading biographies of other people from the world of action. I have recently read John Meacham’s biography of Thomas Jefferson, which I would recommend to anybody who’s interest in learning about the art of exercising power. And then, Meacham also wrote a biography of President George H.W. Bush recently, called Destiny in Power, which is also a very good biography. Another biography I’d really recommend was a biography of John Jay. He was a predecessor of mine as Secretary of State, and also the personal secretary of Abraham Lincoln.

The tragedy in Manchester happened a short few days after the President together with King Salman inaugurated a new institute for counterterrorism in Riyadh. How do you think Saudi Arabia and other players in the region can do more in the realm of fighting terrorism globally?

I think the organization that was announced during the trip to Riyadh [i’tidal center] is really good. There needs to be a recognition on the part of everybody, particularly in the Middle East, that we need to — and America — to combat the extremist ideology that results in these horrific incidents. The new Riyadh center is I think a very heartening development. I was delighted to see that. Because you know, in the final analysis, this struggle is I think primarily a struggle between good and evil within Islam. People are trying to use Islam for really nefarious and terrible purposes. So, I think there is a huge responsibility on the part of Muslims everywhere who don’t share these horrific impulses to work hard to combat this and to end it. And that’s just what this global center that you’ve announced is set up to do. I think that it’s important that we in the West continue to do what we can in limiting financing for these groups, in utilizing whatever intelligence techniques we may have. But these incidents that keep occurring, particularly in Europe, are very distressing, and they show us that there’s no room for complacency. That we are in fact engaged in a war against terror, and we and our Muslim friends who are opposed to this need to stand together and take the actions necessary to combat it. It’s one of the reasons I told you I didn’t think we should get into that Iranian nuclear negotiation in the first place, without having some movement on their part to stop their state support of terror.

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