Junior Fellows Meet James Baker, Advisor to Presidents

He’s in his eighties now and no longer serving as an official advisor to the presidents, but James Baker still knows his way around the halls of power. He’s also still willing to share his experiences in those halls, a fact that worked to the benefit of the Junior Fellows last week, when they had a chance to meet him at a Houston World Affairs Council event and learn from his experiences and insights into the world.

James_Baker_Sign

His insights come from years in Washington, DC, where he served Presidents Ford, Reagan, Bush (the elder), Clinton, and Bush (the younger). Most notably, he served as Ronald Reagan’s Chief of Staff and George H. W. Bush’s Secretary of State, the latter capacity providing him with a starring role the shaping of the New World Order, assembling the coalition that defeated Saddam Hussein in the first Persian Gulf War, and ending the Cold War.

Gorbachev, Bush, Baker

Gorbachev, Bush, Baker

Baker’s speech reflected this broad background, with observations pertaining to every spot on the globe. When asked whether the United States should intervene in Syria, Baker was emphatic: “Consider me uncommitted. We don’t know which opposition group to back and intervention will simply antagonize Russia, whose support we need in Iran.” Baker was equally insistent that the US not allow Iran to have nuclear weapons, noting that such a development would prompt every Middle Eastern country to undertake a similar program, ending any hope of controlling nuclear proliferation. Regarding China, Baker urged cooperation, noting that there is “no better way to find an enemy than to go looking for one” and pointing out that the US will need China’s cooperation on a host of world problems.

James Baker Speaking

James Baker Speaking

Ever-present in Baker’s discussion was his well-known “realism,” the doctrine that US interests should be the guiding interest in the country’s foreign policy. “The US does not have,” observed Baker, “the resources or the support to be the world’s police. We must be guided by our values and principles, but we must first look to our interests in formulating policy.” It was a tutorial in international diplomacy for a group of students interested in politics. “It was a candid and non-partisan speech,” noted Jessica Rodriguez, an officer in the Junior Fellows who is interning for Houston Mayor Anise Parker. “It was great to see the world through the eyes of someone who knows it so well.”

Although best known for his work in the international arena, Baker also knows the political side of things. He managed the political campaigns of Ford, the elder Bush, and Reagan, including Reagan’s record-setting 1984 campaign, which garnered more electoral votes than any other president in history. Ever the realist, however, Baker acknowledged that the Republican Party’s fortunes had declined since the Reagan-Bush years. Under Ike, Reagan, and Bush, Baker observed, the GOP was the party of “effective and efficient government, not the party of ‘no government.’” To re-discover the path to victory and effective leadership, Baker continued, the party will need to eschew the “bitterness and resentment” that seem to characterize the views of party leaders today and, instead, present a “positive and optimistic” plan for the country.

Reagan, Cronkite, Gergen, Meese, Bush, Baker

Reagan, Cronkite, Gergen, Meese, Bush, Baker

For a group of students hoping to make a positive difference in the country, the words were a validation, which Baker followed with an exhortation aimed directly at the students: “You are the future of the country. Get involved. It’s your birthright.”

For these students, however, it’s also a choice, one they hope will lead them to some of the same halls of power that Baker roamed for so many years.

Junior Fellows with James Baker

Junior Fellows with James Baker

 

Junior Fellows Enjoy Virtual Tour of World With Ambassador Christopher Hill

The Junior Fellows were the beneficiaries of a virtual tour of the world last week, and they only had to travel seventy miles south of their campus. Their destination was a World Affairs Council event in Houston featuring Christopher Hill, the current Dean of the Josef Kurbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and the former United States Ambassador to Iraq, Korea, Poland, and Macedonia. For a couple of hours over lunch, he also worked as an Ambassador for serving abroad, extolling the virtues of service, understanding, and working together.

Jake Rivera, Ambassador Hill, and Jessica Rodriguez

Jake Rivera, Ambassador Hill, and Jessica Rodriguez

One of Hill’s major themes was the importance of working in concert with others to achieve desired results.  As a long-time ambassador, a special US envoy for the Bosnian peace talks in 1995, and as a member of the six-party talks formed to convince North Korea to end its nuclear weapon program, Hill knows about multi-lateral negotiations.  “We’re not,” Hill said, “Gary Cooper in High Noon.  We can’t do this alone.”

In dealing with North Korea, which he called a “little cuddly country that only a mother could love,” Hill stressed three things: (1) maintaining a strong alliance with South Korea, (2) continuing military exercises in South Korea, and (3) improving our missile defense system.  While these three “keys” would help North Korea understand that the US commitment to the region is firm, he warned against escalating the situation, noting that North Korea’s unpredictable behavior made them “one of the great questions of our day.”

Central to resolving the North Korean situation—and, more generally, to a productive future in the Asian region—are relations between the US and China. While many envision an ineluctable conflict between the world’s remaining superpower and China, a burgeoning superpower, Hill is optimistic about relations.  “There is no relationship that is more important,” the former ambassador noted, “than our relationship with China.”  Although he acknowledges that a country as large as China has its own complexities and internal divisions, he argued that ongoing cooperation between the US and China is in the interests of both countries and, in the long-term, likely.

Hill also expressed some (cautious) optimism about the Middle East, noting improvements in Iraq’s economy, particularly in oil production.  Having spent two years as Ambassador in Iraq, Hill emphasized that the country’s future direction could not be imposed externally.  “Finger wagging in the Middle East gets you about as far as it does with your fourteen year-old daughter.  Not very far.”  The key, he noted, is for the Sunnis, who constitute a majority in most Middle-Eastern countries, to accept that the Shias are the demographic majority in Iraq.  The government structure in Iraq, according to Hill, now “reflects reality” but the reality and the government structure will have to be recognized by a large majority of Iraqis for success to take root.

Ambassador Hill may not be known the world over in the same way that Hillary Clinton is, but he knows the world like few others, a product of being the son of a diplomat, experiencing a stint in the Peace Corps in Cameroon, and serving for more than three decades in the State Department. He drew on this experience in his closing remarks, which he directed to the students, stressing service, understanding, and bringing people together.  “There is no greater honor,” he noted, “than representing your country abroad,” a service, he continued, that allows people to better understand their own country, “by understanding other countries.”

Working Together!

Working Together!

 

Putting History Into Perspective: Steven Fenberg and Jesse Jones

Will Phillips–

“He was forgotten,” noted Steven Fenberg, author and documentarist, when I asked him to characterize most people’s knowledge of Jesse Jones (1874-1956).  It was an unlikely fate for the man once described as “The Fourth Branch of Government” whose entrepreneurial skills with philanthropic endeavors to help build Houston into the nation’s fourth largest city.  Fenberg wrote about Jones’s achievements in Unprecedented Power: Jesse Jones, Capitalism, and the Common Good, and he spoke to the Junior Fellows about them in the World Affairs Council’s “Conversations About History.”

Unprecedented Power, by Steven Fenberg

Unprecedented Power, by Steven Fenberg

Fenberg described his early interest in Jones, prompted in part when the Houston Endowment asked him to create a chronological history of Jones.  Fenberg was given complete access to the Jones’ papers, which gave him unique insight into Jones’s world and power.  Jones was the Director of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) under both Hoover and Roosevelt, and he used this position to solidify the US economic system by providing loans and bailing out banks.  Remarkably, it is possible that the outcome of World War II could have been different if it weren’t for Jones and his support of industries that were crucial to the war effort.  It was this type of influence that made Jones an advisor to presidents from Wilson to Truman.

Fenberg fielded numerous questions, with his responses hinting at the old adage of history repeating itself.  Fenberg pointed out how the Financial Crisis of 2008 was handled in a similar fashion, via T.A.R.P (Troubled Asset Relief Program) funding, to the RFC funding during the Great Depression.

Junior Fellows with Author Steven Fenberg

Junior Fellows with Author Steven Fenberg

The Junior Fellows greatly enjoyed the opportunity to sit down and talk with Steven Fenberg and would like to thank him for not only his time in coming to visit with us, but would also like to thank the World Affairs Council for facilitating this discussion with this great author!

Jesse Jones and the City He Built

Jesse Jones and the City He Built

Junior Fellows Give New Meaning to Kitchen Cabinet, Eating with Alberto Gonzalez and Michael Chertoff

The Junior Fellows have had much to be thankful for in the last month. They completed their fourth annual County U program, undertook a seven-state educational field trip across the south, and participated in their typical array of service activities. Perhaps most rewarding, however, was the opportunity to share meals and conversations with former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez.

For students who are torn among desires to pursue public service, criminal justice, national security, law, and politics, it would be difficult to find two more appropriate speakers. “It’s great to be exposed to these types of viewpoints from such high-profile figures,” noted Junior Fellows President Annel Gonzalez. “I feel like we’re all getting a head start in learning about opportunities from people who have the experience to share. It’s amazing.”

The Fellows’ meeting with Chertoff was arranged by the World Affairs Council (WAC) of Houston, which featured the former Homeland Security Secretary at a large luncheon in Houston. Chertoff engaged the crowd with his experiences in President Bush’s Cabinet, as well as his stints as federal prosecutor, federal appeals court judge, and as an attorney for one of the nation’s largest private law firms, Covington and Burlington.

In particular, he emphasized major challenges to the United States’ place in the world: (1) China, (2) Mexico, and (3) Cyber Security. Chertoff elaborated on these points in a small-group session with the Junior Fellows and other students.

Chertoff_Speaking_Web

Former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff

“The small-group session was the best,” said first-semester SHSU freshman Ariel Traub. “In particular, I was able to ask him why he considered China a ‘rival’ but not an ‘enemy.  While he contrasted China’s threat level with North Korea’s, he noted that China was expanding its military capabilities and seemed not to respect intellectual copyrights in efforts to “increase” their “span of control.”

Ariel Traub & Secretary Chertoff

Ariel Traub & Secretary Chertoff

But Chertoff wasn’t the only former Cabinet member the students shared a meal with in the month of November.  Just a few days before Thanksgiving, the Junior Fellows had the unusual opportunity of having breakfast with former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, this fall’s Presidential Speaker.

For a group of students who hope to pursue law careers, the opportunity proved insightful and rewarding. Gonzalez spoke of his journey as a poor son of immigrants, and his gratitude to the United States, his parents, and former President George W. Bush for the opportunities he has enjoyed.

As the nation’s first Hispanic Attorney General, Gonzalez’s comments were particularly significant to an organization that is majority Hispanic and greatly interested in law. He discouraged the students, however, from defining themselves exclusively by their ethnicity, noting that emphasizing education, hard work, and initiative were valuable to all Americans and important for all careers.

When the students pressed Gonzalez on policy issues, the former Attorney General instead pushed the students to answer their own questions. Once the students staked out a position, he turned the tables, asking them to provide the best case against their original argument, all the while pointing out that lawyers need to see both sides of an issue.

Perhaps most intriguing was Gonzalez’s discussion of the events following 9-11, when he was whisked away to an “undisclosed location” with Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Junior Fellows Lunch With Gonzalez

Junior Fellows Lunch With Gonzalez

“Having the former Attorney General give us a first-hand account of the high-level meetings following 9-11 was something you don’t typically get in class,” observed Junior Fellows Vice President Will Phillips. “We were very thankful for this opportunity.”

Speaking of opportunities, Gonzalez was particularly emphatic that the students make the most of them. “All Americans,” he said, “want the opportunity to succeed.” Most don’t want things given to them, “they just want opportunities.”

But ethnicity, an interest in law, and a desire for opportunities weren’t the only things that Gonzalez had in common with the Junior Fellows. As it turns out, he and Junior Fellows Officer Melva Gomez graduated from the same high school, MacArthur High School.

Junior Fellows, President Gibson, and Alberto Gonzalez

Junior Fellows, President Gibson, and Alberto Gonzalez

“It’s really inspirational to meet someone with a similar background who has succeeded,” observed Gomez, “particularly in the field I wish to pursue. Speaking on behalf of the whole organization, I’d like to thank President Gibson, Maggie Collum, and Cameron Clay for this amazing opportunity.”

For most college students, sharing a meal and a conversation with a former cabinet official is a once-in-a-college-career experience. For the Junior Fellows, however, the opportunities to meet with Chertoff and Gonzalez came in back-to-back weeks and followed their lunch earlier this year with Condoleezza Rice.

Condi Rice

Condi Rice

“We realize that these are unusual opportunities,” remarked Annel Gonzalez. “But our philosophy is to make the most of them when they arise. We seek these opportunities out, and we are very thankful to be at SHSU where opportunities are offered and initiative is rewarded.”

Note: The Junior Fellows would like to thank the World Affairs Council and the SHSU’s President’s Office for these opportunities.

Hugo Chavez & Venezuela’s Future

Hellieth Pedroza–One of our more timely events was last Thursday’s presentation by Javier Corrales, Professor of Political Science at Amherst University, who discussed the elections in Venezuela for the World Affairs Council.

Javier Corrales Discusses The Venezuelan Elections

As a Venezuelan myself, I was as enthusiastic about the presentation as I was anxious about the actual election results. In case you aren’t familiar with Venezuelan politics, Socialist Hugo Chavez has been president for 12 years, and he is running for another term while also fighting cancer.  His opponent, Henrique Capriles, is younger and has captured the imagination of many Venezuelans, but defeating Chavez will be difficult.

Corrales stopped short of predicting the outcome, but he did lay out various reasons why the outcome might go one way or the other.

Working against Chavez is (1) a generally lackluster economy over his last term.  (2) His cancer, which not only saps his strength, but also highlights Venezuela’s lack of a succession mechanism–making many Venezuelans leery of voting for a man who may not live and leaving the country in the hands of a–literally–unknown person. (3) General charges of corruption against the country. (4) Mismanagement of the oil revenues in the country. (5) Crime.  On the latter point, the homicide rate in Venezuela is 70 per 100,000.  To put that into perspective, the homicide rate in the US is 4 per 100,000.

In Chavez’s favor, however, is that (1) the economy has improved somewhat recently, (2) his popularity–which he bolsters with discretionary spending–is well over 50 percent, (3) and the support of many of Venezuela’s poor, which make up a large portion of the populace.

Corrales seemed to think that the second outcome was the most likely, but he did point out that, either way, this would be the most difficult of Chavez’s life.  As a supporter of Capriles, I left the presentation a little disappointed because I thought he would say that the challenger had a better chance of winning, although I enjoyed the opportunity to speak with Corrales.

Javier Corrales with the Junior Fellows

My spirits, however, were soon elevated when we went Sabor Venezolano, a Venezuelan restaurant in Houston.

Sabor Venezolano–The Best Venezuelan Food You’ve Ever Had, From A Mobile Unit in a Gas Station Parking Lot

I showed to all the members that attended this event what food they should get, and my favorite dishes–arepas, chicharron, and cachapas.

Delicious Venezuelan Food

I was so glad many members decided to join me in this event and were so curious about my culture. The Javier Corrales’ Event was a fantastic opportunity for me to show the Junior Fellows where I am from, and I am so thankful for the interest they showed in my background.

Postscript: It appears that Chavez won the election, by a margin of 54-45, or about 1.3 million votes.  Eighty-one percent of Venezuelans voted.

Michael O’Hanlon: Obama’s Foreign Policy

(By Jessica Rodriguez)–Last week the Junior Fellows attended a presentation by Michael O’Hanlon who offered an in-depth assessment of President Obama’s foreign policy disappointments and triumphs.

O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, specializes in U.S. defense strategy, use of military force, homeland security and American foreign policy, provided provocative commentary on the topic, and proved to be a friendly and approachable presenter.

The Junior Fellows were able to attend through their membership with the World Affairs Council.

Jessica Rodriguez with WAC’s Ronan O’Malley

Accordingly, the Fellows and their (student) guests also received complimentary books by O’Hanlan, “Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy.”  O’Hanlan signed the books following the event.

Michael O’Hanlon Signing His Book

O’Hanlan stressed four major points in concluding his discussion of Obama’s foreign policy: (1) President Obama has moved away from his campaign rhetoric of 2008 and has become a (successful) pragmatist; (2) on a case-by-case basis, Obama’s handling of discrete foreign policy events has been as successful as any President other than George H. W. Bush, (3) any assessment of Obama’s foreign policy is preliminary until the Israel-Iran conflict is resolved, and (4) the best foreign policy maneuver may simply be restoring the American economy to a point that allows the US to regain its capacity to exercise power.

O’Hanlan did a great job of giving a balanced view of Obama’s foreign policy, and he covered the topic comprehensively for an informative evening.

Michael O’Hanlon Speaking

After the event, we enjoyed a wonderful dinner at California Pizza Kitchen.  The Junior Fellows don’t usually eat at chains, but this was different for a lot of us, and we all tried new things: hummus with tomatoes, chile relleno, and various pizzas.

California Pizza Kitchen

My pizza was a habanero carnitas pizza—a cheese pizza topped with delicious roasted-pork, onions, and a spicy habanero sauce.

It was an educational and fun evening!

The Week Ahead: August 27-31

Today, the Junior Fellows were on KSAM Radio’s “Around Town” with Larry Crippen, and the organizational Retreat is tonight.

Tuesday, the organization will assist new students, helping them find their classes the day before they actually have to be in class. 

And, of course, Wednesday the Fellows will be starting class themselves.  At least two, Annel Gonzalez and Santiago Casas, will also be starting internships.  Internships, of course, involve interviews and you can find some good advice about interviews here

Wednesday, the organization is taking a trip to see Michael O’Hanlan at the World Affairs Council in Houston.  O’Hanlan is Senior Policy Advisor at the Brookings Institute, and he has taught at Princeton and Johns Hopkins.  He will discuss President Obama’s foreign policy successes and failures and how these might affect the 2012 Presidential election.