Work Hard, Study ... and Keep Out of Politics!" That's what James Baker's grandfather used to say, and it's the title of the veteran public servant's new memoir. Having led two Cabinet departments and served as White House chief of staff, Baker obviously obeyed only two of his grandfather's three instructions. At 76, he co-chairs the Iraq Study Group and spoke with TIME's Michael Duffy about Iraq, bipartisanship, election reform and his African-American relatives.
What's the mission of the Iraq Study Group? The mission is to take a fresh-eyes look at the situation in Iraq to see if we can come up with a consensus, a bipartisan approach and advice to the Congress and the Administration. We've talked to a lot of people. We've met with a representative of the Syrian government. We intend to meet with the Iranian government, the Iraqi government and all the people in our government--the President, the Secretaries of Defense and State and the National Security Adviser.
You spent four days in Iraq. Did you leave Baghdad? [It was] all in Baghdad--except one of our members, Chuck Robb, the former Virginia Senator, went to Anbar. We got a pretty darn good feel just by spending time in Baghdad. Pretty soon, we're going to have to start thinking about what our report is going to say. Then we're going to present it to the President and the Congress on the same day, and we'll turn it loose publicly right after we give it to them.
In your book you say the Pentagon made some "costly mistakes," including disbanding the Iraqi army and "perhaps never committing enough troops to successfully pacify the country." Why did that happen? I can't answer that. I don't know why it happened. I don't have any experience in that line of work.
You also write that if Iraq erupts into a "full-blown civil war" or develops a government "hostile to America," the result would be "extraordinarily undesirable" for the U.S. Can either be ruled out? The jury is still out on both of those two.
In Washington you were known as a dealmaker. Why has the spirit of compromise disappeared? We had to reach across the aisle. We never had the luxury of a Republican Congress. It may be that's why you see less of that type of legislating today or that type of governing--because we own all three branches of government today.
When you were Secretary of State under the first President Bush, fights between moderates and hard-liners within the Administration were nonexistent. How come? We trusted each other. We'd served together in prior Administrations in other iterations. And I never had a problem with any person trying to get between me and my President. What the hell, I'd run all his campaigns.
You and former President Jimmy Carter co-chaired a commission to recommend changes to avoid the kind of recount crisis that occurred in 2000. Could 2000 happen again? Yes. It wasn't far from happening in Ohio in 2004--119,000 votes is not the same as 537 votes, but in 2004 one state made the difference.
What did the panel recommend? The most significant recommendation was photo IDs. President Carter and I both felt voting clerks would be much more reluctant to deny you the right to vote if voters were required to have photo ID.