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How to fight a war

Former US secretary of state James Baker backs realists such as Bob Zoellick, head of Mitt Romney’s national security transition team, to steer the country to safety amid clamour for military interventions

  • By Josh Rogin, Washington Post
  • Published: 13:21 August 13, 2012
  • Gulf News

US presidential candidate Mitt Romney
  • Image Credit: AP
  • Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has chosen Bob Zoellick to head his national security transition team

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 the United States’ 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 recently with Foreign Policy’s 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 towards the end of the Cold War, and that he did not 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.

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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 criticised. “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 did not like, such as whether US funds could be used to build settlements.

When Baker was secretary of state, the US 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 US interest in working with both sides towards 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 towards 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 practised by Zoellick, Baker, and the elder Bush, of a pragmatic foreign policy that understands the limits of US power and eschews costly and lengthy interventions in countries that are not crucial to American interests, is even more relevant today, he argued. For example, Baker does not agree with prominent neoconservatives that the US should do more in Syria.

“Well, my view is that sooner or later, [Bashar Al] 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 US cannot 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.

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