HOUSTON — FOR the United States to lead the world, a strong president must lead the US, says James Baker III.
Speaking last week to a hometown audience of oilmen in Houston, the former secretary of state credited President Clinton's leadership with the ``last-minute triumph'' on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) but charged that the lack of such leadership caused ``debacles'' in Somalia and Haiti.
Mr. Baker is considered a possible GOP challenger to President Clinton in 1996. The Houston-born lawyer served three Republican presidents - Gerald Ford as undersecretary of commerce, Ronald Reagan as chief of staff and treasury secretary, and George Bush as secretary of state.
Baker sidestepped a question about his political ambitions. He urged the GOP to focus instead on 1994, when it could capture a majority of the Senate. The day after those elections will be the time to think about the 1996 presidential election. ``Ask me about my plans then,'' he said.
``Clearly he's not excluding himself from speculation,'' an audience member commented later.
Fred Meyer, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, says Baker would run if he saw an opportunity. However, Baker would have ``a tough hill to climb,'' he says, because he has never been elected to an office and would have to build an organization from scratch. Nor is he in the public eye much.
Baker, who as secretary of state visited 90 countries, outlined his view of America's place in the world. The primary challenge is to consolidate democracy in the former Soviet empire, he said. The main threat comes from ``virulent Russian nationalism'' like that of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who showed surprising strength in the parliamentary election.
The end of the cold war means more miniconflicts inspired by ``regional bullies'' like Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Baker said. ``We're going to see more like him in Iran, Libya, Serbia, and North Korea,'' he predicted. The spread of weapons of mass destruction must be halted to prevent such countries from becoming ``truly global menaces.''
Baker chided the Clinton administration for ``thinking out loud'' through the press in determining its response to North Korea's refusal to allow full nuclear inspections. This sends confusing signals, Baker said, adding, ``We have to be prepared to act where our national interests are at stake.''
Completion of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade negotiations, the largest trade agreement in history, is just a beginning, Baker said. The next step is to extend NAFTA south and to negotiate agreements with Pacific Rim countries.
Baker said Japan and Europe need to shoulder more international responsibility, but ``there is no substitute for American leadership.'' The role should not be that of the world's policeman, but one of setting the agenda, rallying opinion, and building coalitions. And when necessary, ``unilateral action is the oldest and surest test of a great power,'' Baker said.