Former Secretary of State James Baker in Houston Wednesday, March 11, 2015.
Michael Stravato
March 19, 2015 6:49 AM EDT

What did you think of the GOP Senators’ letter to Iran?

I’m a creature of the Executive Branch. Our Constitution vests the President of the United States with the primary power, authority and responsibility to conduct our foreign policy. And you can’t conduct foreign policy with 535 Secretaries of State.

You and President George H.W. Bush oversaw the fall of the Soviet Union. Is there anything to stop Vladimir Putin from going back to some version of that system?

Our response has been severely tepid. I don’t think you can stand up and say that if they keep doing this, there are going to be grave consequences, and then they keep doing it and we don’t do anything.

You helped engineer the last big Middle East peace deal with talks that started in Madrid nearly 25 years ago. Have the Palestinians and Benjamin Netanyahu successfully precluded the possibility of a two-state solution?

I don’t think so. There is still hope for a two-state solution, because I don’t think there is any other way that Israel can maintain both its democratic character and its Jewish character. At the end of the day, the Israeli body politic is going to want to do that.

Is ISIS a serious threat or a distraction, in your view?

It’s a serious problem. I agreed with the President’s statement that he wants to degrade and destroy ISIS. But I don’t think we have a strategy in place to do that. I don’t think you can win this war through the air. We’re going to have to find a way to get some boots on the ground, and those boots should not be American boots. We’ve had quite enough of young Americans bleeding and dying in the Middle East for a while.

Are we headed in the right direction with China for the relationship we want to have with the Chinese 20 years down the road?

I think we are. I hope we are. I don’t think we’re destined to be an enemy of China and vice versa. And if we handle the tensions and the relationship properly, we don’t have to get there. We ought to cooperate where we can on those issues where our interests converge, and manage our differences.

You’ve held three Cabinet-level posts for three Presidents. Which was the hardest?

Chief of staff of the White House is the hardest. It’s the worst job in government, because your job is to take the javelins that are intended for the old man, and you run out of political chips in a big hurry.

Have Americans lost their muscle memory for compromise?

The middle in our politics is sort of disappearing. The middle is where you govern from. And if you’re going to govern in a bipartisan fashion, you’re not going to get 100% of what you want. You might get 80%, but you have to give up a little, and you have to compromise. We’ve gotten away from that.

How come?

No. 1, redistricting has gotten totally out of hand. Another bad thing is that Congressmen don’t socialize with colleagues from the other side the way they used to. And the third thing has to do with your business. Journalists used to be dispassionate observers of the process. Today they are players, and that’s not good, because it tends to more divisiveness and discord.

What was the best advice you’ve ever gotten?

Don’t ever wing it. Make sure that if you do something, you’re going to do it right. And that means be prepared.

Everyone is in this movie [which airs March 24]: Presidents, Vice Presidents, Secretaries of State. How long is it going to take you to pay all these people back?

There are a lot of thank-you notes that have to be written, and quite frankly I’m willing to write them.

This appears in the March 30, 2015 issue of TIME.

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