Book excerpt: ‘Master Negotiator: The Role of James A. Baker, III at the End of the Cold War’

A comprehensive examination of U.S. diplomacy at the end of the Cold War through the lens of Secretary of State James A. Baker III. With good intel, careful preparation and thoughtful analysis of likely consequences, he negotiated outcomes considered improbable by most. He enabled the unification of Germany, the eviction of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, peacemaking in Central America, the launch of NAFTA negotiations, the commencement of direct Israeli and Palestinian peace talks, the conclusion of the nuclear START agreement and the safe guarding of nuclear weapons and material in the former Soviet Union. The closeness of his friendship with President George H.W. Bush and his determination to work with allies and foes brought him the respect of national leaders and contributed to the zenith of U.S. power. Told with humor and personal stories, this diplomatic history will inform those who read foreign policy and will provoke younger generations to inquire into the final days of a 45-year super power conflict.

The Marathon to Reach UN Resolution 678

By mid-October, it had become evident that sanctions alone would not oblige Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait. The threat of war was needed. Baker was convinced that the administration, working through the UN Security Council, could achieve a Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force. Cheney and Scowcroft were skeptical. Prime Minister Thatcher was adamantly opposed. If you fail to get the resolution, she argued, you will find yourself alone against Iraq with perilous long term consequences for the US and its western allies.1 Baker stood firm. He believed that a concerted effort to persuade ALL members of the Security Council could result in a favorable vote. He persuaded Bush and offered to meet with every president or foreign minister from the fifteen nations on the Security Council, as well as those nations providing troops. He would ask them to support a UN resolution, authorizing the use of force for the first time since Korea in 1950. The issue was too important to leave to UN ambassadors; it should be addressed at the highest level. With the additional leverage of the US month-long presidency of the Security Council in the month of November 1990, Baker would do his very best to achieve the desired outcome. As he later admitted, he used “an intricate process of cajoling, extracting, threatening and occasionally buying votes.”2

Beginning on November 3, he visited twelve countries on three continents in a matter of eighteen days. The marathon began in Jeddah where in addition to meeting with King Fahd, Baker took the helicopter out to the military base near Dhahran where 4,200 American troops were stationed. Their high morale impressed Baker who talked about their defense of American values. He emphasized that aggression against a small nation should not pay, unlike Hitler’s actions in the 1930s. He spoke of a new world order of peace and freedom. Finally, he thanked them and their families for their service.3 For Baker, the meeting was emotional and reminded him of his two year service in the Marines. Also, his son William Winston, though not as yet called up, was in the Army Special Forces.

When Baker reached Moscow on November 7, Shevardnadze could no longer support the use-of-force. The apparatchiks in the Kremlin had gained strength and directed their attacks against the foreign minister who, they claimed, was giving into the Americans both in Europe and in the Middle East. Shevardnadze no longer had freedom to maneuver and he now asked Baker for more time. Gorbachev called Baker to his dacha outside Moscow where he proposed two resolutions: the first would authorize the use-of-force after a six-week period and the second would order the commencement of hostilities. Baker hated the idea. It sent a weak message to Saddam and he doubted that they could get the second resolution. He left Moscow believing that Shevardnadze was more sympathetic with the US position, but that Gorbachev remained opposed.4 The Soviet leader sought to resolve the crisis through negotiation and invited Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi vice president and chief spokesperson for Saddam Hussein, to Moscow on November 21. Only when those talks failed to show any Iraqi sign of moderation despite the harsh talk with the Soviet leader did Gorbachev agree to support the Security Council resolution.

Perhaps the most challenging meeting was with the Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, who was on his way to meet Saddam in Baghdad. Baker met him at Cairo airport on November 6. Qian expressed firm commitment to uphold all Security Council resolutions, but he resisted the prospect of a use-of-force resolution. China believed that the sanctions were beginning to work and therefore talk of force was premature. “War would alter the balance of power in the Gulf and must be averted at all costs,” he argued.5 Baker countered with the importance of a united front to convince Saddam that the international community was serious. Regretfully, he told Qjan he did not expect Saddam to leave Kuwait peacefully. The two men negotiated for a while before Baker departed, leaving Qian to understand that a Chinese veto would seriously harm Sino-US relations. Several days later on November 24, as he landed in Bogota, Colombia to gain that country’s Security Council vote, Baker spoke by phone with Shevardnadze. His Soviet counterpart had just met with Chinese leaders whom he believed would support the proposal – now identified as Security Council Resolution 678 – although the Chinese pronouncement was cautious. “They are ready, along with others to cooperate on additional measures in order to reinforce the prior resolutions.”6 In the end, the Chinese abstained from voting on Resolution 678. That was sufficient for Baker. He had avoided a Chinese veto.

Resolution 678 permitted the use of force under the terminology “use all necessary means.” Kimmitt had drafted the language with the intent of both creating latitude on what specific force to use, as well as using a euphemism for military force. It did not oblige military action, but it established a credible threat. The international community now held the authority to use force unless Saddam withdrew completely, immediately and unconditionally from Kuwait by January 15, 1991.7 They debated the deadline, with the Soviets seeking January 30 and the US preferring January 15.

Seeking Congressional Support for the Use of Force:

The persistent effort to win multilateral support at the UN not only was intended to isolate Iraq, but also persuade the US Congress to act as resolutely as the international community. On December 5 and 6, Baker testified before the committees on foreign relations in the Senate and House, respectively. On both occasions Baker stressed

...we are making every attempt to resolve it [Gulf crisis] peacefully without appeasing the aggressor... [but] no one can tell you that sanctions alone will ever be able to impose a high enough cost on Saddam to get him to withdraw... [Therefore] we need continued support for our military preparations to make credible an offensive option to liberate Kuwait.8

Baker laid out the consequences of a failure to continue preparations to use force. The Congress should understand that the United States had vital national interests at stake. A dangerous dictator, armed to the teeth with the sixth largest army and fifth largest tank army in the world, controlled Kuwait. He could dominate the oil-rich Gulf States who would stand up to him only reluctantly, for fear that they too would suffer the Kuwaiti fate. In short time, Saddam would add nuclear weapons to his arsenal of biological and chemical weapons. Consequently, he would threaten Israel and the economies of Europe and Asia would suffer from excessive increases in the price of oil. The United States was the only nation that could do the job: “We must stand with the world so that the United Nations does not go the way of the League of Nations.”9

The debate was fierce: nearly half of those in Congress opposed going to war, or at least opposed resorting to military action in January. Baker recognized that the country was “overwhelmingly opposed” to “the idea of going to war in the Persian Gulf.”10

One Last Diplomatic Effort

That December, Defense Secretary Cheney and National Security Advisor Scowcroft were pursuing military preparations, but the president and Baker were determined to make one last try at diplomacy. They had not yet gained congressional approval for military action to repel Iraq and both knew that they must demonstrate to Congress that they had made every effort to achieve Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait through negotiation. Both recognized the necessity of bringing the American people along if their president was going to send men and women off to fight. Vietnam had demonstrated what happens to the war effort when a president lacks the support of American citizens. Both Bush and Baker had to survive the judgements of history and prove they had not gone to war precipitously. There were not Texan cowboys. Instead, Baker would show that “we’ve left no stone unturned in a search for a peaceful resolution of this, albeit an unconditional withdrawal.”11

Thus, early in the New Year and only days before the January 15 deadline, Baker flew to Geneva to meet with Iraqi Vice President Tariq Aziz. They met on January 9. Allies were alarmed at the prospect that the US might waver at this last minute thus leaving them exposed to Iraqi retaliation, but Baker was determined to remain firm and not dilute any of the twelve Security Council resolutions on Iraq, not least Resolution 678. Nevertheless, back in Washington, National Security staff bit their nails.12 They feared that the skilled lawyer and determined negotiator might obtain a political outcome thus negating the need for military force.

Baker presented Aziz with President Bush’s letter for Saddam Hussein. Aziz asked for a copy which he read quietly for ten minutes or so before responding, “I cannot accept this letter, it’s not written in the language that is appropriate for communications between heads of state.”13

Baker replied, “all right I’m sorry that you choose not to take the letter, but … it seems to me, Minister, that you’re taking a rather large burden on your shoulders because you’re the only person on your side of the table.”

At that moment, Dennis Ross noticed Tariq Aziz’s hands tremble. He was under close watch from Saddam Hussein’s brother-in-law on his right and Saddam’s personal interpreter on his left, whom Baker assumed were there to ensure that Aziz did not stray from his instructions.

Baker then warned that Iraqi forces had to leave Kuwait unconditionally and if not overwhelmingly superior force would be used against them: “[You] should not make the mistake of assuming that [you] will control the terms of the battle, as perhaps [you] might have in [your] war with Iran. . . . This would be a totally different situation, that our technological superiority was overwhelming.”14

Aziz did not buy this argument: “You haven’t fought in the desert before. Your Arab allies will turn and run, they will not fight their brothers. You will be surprised at the strength and the determination and the force and the courage of the Iraqi military.”15 It was clear that there was no compromise and at the end of six and a half hours, Baker stated that he had nothing more to say. He had stayed close to his talking points and reached the end. Nevertheless, he was willing to extend the talks and listen to his Iraqi interlocutor. At no point did Tariq Aziz present an opening – he offered nothing to suggest a compromise.16 With nothing more to discuss, the two men shook hands, as did their advisors. The talks ended and Baker called Bush to relate that US Iraqi relations had reached an impasse. Back at the White House, that deadlock gave rise to relief mixed with the sobriety; war was now inevitable.

On January 12, 1991, the Senate voted fifty-two to forty-eight to authorize the president to go to war. Those senators who had opposed most aggressively the use of force said that in the aftermath of the Tariq Aziz-Baker meeting in Geneva, opposition to the US use of force eroded.17 Bush had sought and obtained congressional support for the war. There was a solemn recognition that US credibility was on the line. Military plans were ready and the allies, including the Soviet Union remained with the United States.

To reassure allies of the president’s intent to repel the Iraqis from Kuwait, but not to occupy Iraq or rid the country of Saddam Hussein, Baker visited US troops and the emir of Kuwait. He then went onto reassure the Saudi, Egyptian, Syrian, and Turkish leaders that the war was a limited one. He had failed to avoid military conflict, but had succeeded in consolidating the international coalition, upholding UN Security Council resolutions and establishing a new partnership with the Soviet Union.

Early on January 17 stealth bombers, cruise missiles and infrared night bombers attacked Iraq airfields, communication networks, weapon plants and bridges over the Euphrates. The purpose was to assert air control before the ground offensive began. On February 24, 540,000 troops from the US, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France, and Great Britain encircled and defeated the Iraqi army and liberated Kuwait. Four days later a ceasefire went into effect, and on February 27 President Bush declared the war over.18

Master Negotiator: The Role of James A. Baker, III at the End of the Cold War” is available for purchase.

Diana Villiers Negroponte is a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and adjunct professor at George Washington University. She is the author of books on the end of the Cold War in El Salvador, multiple reports for the Brookings Institution, among others on “The Merida initiative and Central America: The Challenges of Containing Public Insecurity and Criminal Violence,” and an edited volume on Mexican political economy. British by birth and married to a US Foreign Service Officer, she has lived on four continents , practiced international trade law and remains dedicated to international development and the rule of law. Together with their five children and three grandchildren, Diana and John Negroponte live in Washington, D.C.

Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman,


  1. Margaret Thatcher, “The Downing Street Years”
  2. Baker, “The Politics of Diplomacy,” 305.
  3. Baker’s handwritten notes, MSC #197, Box 109, Folder 7. James A. Baker III Papers.
  4. Baker, “The Politics of Diplomacy,” 313.
  5. Ibid, 309
  6. Baker’s handwritten notes, MSC #197, Box 109, Folder 7. James A. Baker III Papers.
  7. Under Secretary for Political Affairs Bob Kimmitt developed the phrase “all necessary means” and the State Department lawyers considered that it allowed for different interpretations, including further negotiations and sufficient international legal authority to wage war.
  8. Hearing on American Strategy in the Persian Gulf, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, cited in the Federal News Service, December 5, 1990, statement of James A. Baker III.
  9. Ibid.
  10. James A. Baker III interview for Frontline.
  11. James A. Baker III interview for Frontline.
  12. Richard N. Haass, “War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009), 109.
  13. James A. Baker III interview for Frontline.
  14. Ibid. The transcript states “they,” “they’re,” and “their” instead of ”you,” “you’re” and “your.”
  15. Ibid.
  16. Dennis B. Ross, interview with Bill Quandt and James McCall, George H.W. Bush Oral History, Miller Center, University of Virginia, August 2, 2001, Washington, D.C.
  17. James A. Baker III interview for Frontline.
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