On Tuesday afternoon, roughly 100 faculty and students crowded into Horchow Hall to hear former government official James A. Baker III speak.
Baker was secretary of state under former President George H. W. Bush and Chief of Staff to both Bush and former President Ronald Reagan. He also served as secretary of the treasury during Reagan’s second term, making him the only person to have held these three titles at different points throughout his career.
After getting some laughs with anecdotes of his days as Bush’s tennis partner and his subsequent rise to prominence in politics, the tone in Horchow Hall on Tuesday became much more sober as Baker transitioned to pressing issues in U.S. foreign policy. Among these, he focused on the terrorist group ISIS, Ukraine and the rise of China.
“Now while I can’t predict the future,” he said. “I really feel comfortable in saying that the United States should remain the world’s preeminent power for the short and medium term at least.”
Regarding ISIS, Baker said he supports President Barack Obama’s goal of building an international coalition against the terrorist threat. It compares to the action that was undertaken by the U.S. against Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, he said.
But Baker also said he is concerned that no concrete action will result from the coalition that has been built.
“No one has agreed to put their boots on the ground,” he said. “So, so far we have not put together a coalition that in my view is going to be successful in defeating a very determined and real enemy.”
Baker expressed the same kind of frustration with the administration’s actions against Putin’s invasion of Crimea. He said that in the future more sanctions might be necessary, and that what the government has done so far has been insufficient to contain Putin.
During a lengthy question-and-answer session, Baker stressed the importance of bipartisan cooperation for effective action in Washington.
“We [achieved cooperation] in every administration I served in. … It can be done! The president has to lead,” he said. “The president is the president, and he has to lead. So you can’t just say, ‘Oh well I have a Republican house I can’t get things done.’”
Audience members interviewed said that while they found some points Baker made compelling, they did not agree with the majority of his positions.
Jackee Schess ’18 said she appreciated Baker’s view on the importance of cooperation in government. However, she also said she thinks Baker presented a one-sided account of most political issues.
“Obviously his politics don’t necessarily align with the student body here,” she added.
Eugene Larsen-Hallock GRD ’16 said he thinks Baker made a good point about the need to build effective international coalitions in the Middle East.
Sam Teicher ’12 FES ’15 said he thinks Baker errs in blaming Obama for inefficiency in Washington.
“I do think that it absolutely is on the President to lead and that requires making negotiations, but I disagree with the secretary that the Republican congress has not been obstructionist in any way,” Teicher said.
During his presidency, Bush launched military operations in Panama and the Persian Gulf.