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Jim Baker: Realists have been successful stewards of foreign policy

The neoconservative wing of the Republican foreign policy establishment is up in arms about Mitt Romney’s selection of realist Bob Zoellick to head his national security transition team, but the realists have been the Republicans who steered the ship of U.S. foreign policy the best, according to Zoellick’s mentor, former Secretary of State James Baker. ...

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

The neoconservative wing of the Republican foreign policy establishment is up in arms about Mitt Romney’s selection of realist Bob Zoellick to head his national security transition team, but the realists have been the Republicans who steered the ship of U.S. foreign policy the best, according to Zoellick’s mentor, former Secretary of State James Baker.

"I know where I am; I think I know where Henry Kissinger and George Shultz are. I think we were all pretty darn successful secretaries of state," Baker said in a long interview Thursday with The Cable. "I also know something else: I know the American people are tired of paying the cost, in blood and treasure, of these wars that we get into that sometimes do not represent a direct national security threat to the United States."

Baker argued that the George H.W. Bush-led 1990-1991 Gulf War, which was prosecuted by an international coalition Baker himself played a key role in creating, was a more successful model than the wars that followed in Iraq and Afghanistan, wars that happen to have been urged and led by neoconservative officials in the George W. Bush administration.

"That was a textbook example of the way to go to war," Baker said of the Gulf War. "Look at the way [George H.W. Bush] ran that war. I mean, we not only did it, we said ‘Here’s what we’re going to do,’ we got the rest of the world behind us, including Arab states, and we got somebody else to pay for it. Now tell me a better way, politically, diplomatically, and militarily, to fight a war."

Baker rejected, in detail, the four main criticisms neoconservatives both inside and outside the Romney campaign have made regarding Zoellick: that Zoellick is soft on China, insufficiently supportive of Israel, was weak on pressuring the Soviet Union toward the end of the Cold War, and that he didn’t support the Gulf War.

Baker said the last charge was simply false. "He was never opposed to the Gulf War. In fact, he was one of my right-hand aides when we built that unprecedented international coalition to kick Iraq out of Kuwait," Baker said.

Regarding the end of the Cold War, Baker said Zoellick played a key role in the reunification of Germany and of Germany’s subsequent admission into NATO.

"[Zoellick] wasn’t the lead, but he was absolutely critical and instrumental in our getting German unification accomplished, and we did it over the objections of the Soviet Union," Baker said.

On China, Baker defended the George H.W. Bush administration’s reaction to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, which has been widely criticized.

"The fact of the matter is that, when Tiananmen Square broke, we ended up sanctioning China in many, many ways," he said. "We didn’t fire up the 101st Airborne, but we did put political and diplomatic and economic sanctions on China. But we kept the relationship going. Now, Bob Zoellick was a part of all that — he wasn’t the lead on it or anything, but he sure is not, as far as I can tell, soft on China."

Regarding Israel, Baker said that the first Bush administration admittedly had a rocky relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, though it had a better relationship with his successor Yitzhak Rabin. But good progress was made during that period, he said, even though the Bush administration often took stances on issues that the Israeli leaders didn’t like, such as whether U.S. funds could be used to build settlements.

When Baker was secretary of state, the United States convinced Arab nations to sit face to face with the Israelis, got the United Nations to repeal the resolution that equated Zionism with racism, and facilitated the emigration of Jewish émigrés from the Soviet Union, all by focusing on the U.S. interest in working with both sides toward peace, which has been a bipartisan and longstanding policy of many administrations over the years, he said.

Baker pointed to a recent New York Times column by Tom Friedman arguing that the most successful American leaders on the Middle East process were Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, and himself.

In any case, Baker said, Zoellick "wasn’t involved extensively" in making policy toward Israel.

"He was not the lead guy. The lead guy there was Dennis Ross, and nobody ever accused Dennis Ross of being hard on Israel," Baker said.

Zoellick’s outstanding qualifications for a leadership position in the Romney campaign or a future administration are his experience and competence, Baker said.

"The fact of the matter is that if the Romney campaign and the Romney administration employ somebody like Bob Zoellick, they’re going to get somebody who’s been there, who’s done that, who understands how to make things work, and who understands how to get things done. And that’s what we need, above all, in our leadership," he said.

The realist view practiced by Zoellick, Baker, and the elder Bush, of a pragmatic foreign policy that understands the limits of U.S. power and eschews costly and lengthy interventions in countries that aren’t crucial to American interests, is even more relevant today, he argued.

For example, Baker doesn’t agree with prominent neoconservatives that the United States should do more in Syria.

"Well, my view is that sooner or later, Assad is going to go. I don’t think he can survive, and I think we ought to do everything we can — politically, diplomatically, and economically — to make that happen. I believe we are doing that. I think we ought to be very careful about the slippery slope of military intervention of any sort," he said. "The Syrian threat’s not a threat to us."

Baker said that the United States can’t allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon, but argued that the military option should only be used as a last resort and that there is still time for diplomacy before military action would have to be considered.

"We ought to do everything we can, tighten these sanctions as tight as we can get them — they’re showing some indication of beginning to work. We ought to see if we can’t get them to work better, keep doing that. We’re not at a critical point yet," he said.

"Our biggest threat today isn’t Syria, or even Iran, or Russia or China. Our biggest threat today is our own economy, and we cannot continue to be strong diplomatically, politically, and militarily and be weak economically," he added.

Baker also responded to Romney’s claim in stump speeches that Baker had once claimed that Ronald Reagan told him to hold no national security meetings in his first 100 days of his presidency. In fact, Reagan had national security briefings every day and intermittent National Security Council meetings, Baker said.

"I think it was misunderstood a little bit. What I said was that we focused, with laser-like efficiency, on the economy, because we knew … you see, we came in under similar circumstances that Obama came in, but he didn’t focus on the economy the way we did," Baker said.

"By the beginning of the third year of Ronald Reagan’s term, we were coming out really good, creating jobs, big economic growth, because we put in place pro-growth economic policy," he said. "Well, a part of the reason we were able to do that is that in fact we in the administration focused with laser-like effectiveness on our economic program. We weren’t going to let anything get in the way of that, including conflict in Central America, which some people were suggesting we ought to deal with, and that sort of thing."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin