Longtime White House official James Baker, whose service in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations saw a string of foreign-policy successes that stand in marked contrast to the uninterrupted failures of U.S. statecraft since the start of the 21st century, made clear Sunday that Russia, and by extension its clients such as Iran, will have to be part of the “longer term” solution to the Sunni Islamist rising characterized by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL). But he cautioned that Iranian participation “at this point” would alienate potential Sunni Muslim allies.
“Who are our ‘partners on the ground’ that the president referred to in his speech?” Baker asked rhetorically on NBC’s Meet the Press. “I don’t know where they come from.”
Host Chuck Todd pointed out that Baker brought Baathist Syria, then ruled by Hafez al-Assad, into the coalition against Baathist Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. Baker acknowledged that Syria, in exchange for a free hand in occupying Lebanon over the next 15 years, provided troops and “some of those troops fought.”
Baker cautioned against bringing Iran immediately into a coalition against the Islamic State “for this purpose,” however, for fear of creating the perception that the United States is “jumping in on the side of the Shia.” But he added that a coalition “in the long term” would need to include Russia, which acts as a patron to both Iran and Bashar al-Assad’s Syria.
“Every country in the region, and in the world for that matter, would like to see us take out ISIS,” Baker said. “But after that’s over, there’s going to be more coming if we don’t do this. We need to pull all the nations in the region together. We need to add the EU, Russia, China, and of course ourselves. And have a discussion and a conference and a negotiation over how we empower the moderate forces in the region, how we limit the extremists in the region, and how we do all this without inflaming the Shia-Sunni conflict.”
Baker did not address the fact that of all potential short-term partners against the Islamic State, only Syria, Iran, and Shiite Hezbollah have shown fighting spirit and ability.