The Princetonian and the Discourses: James Baker III on ISIS

One more post on ISIS-induced militarism, and I promise to let it go. For now.

James Baker III was the speaker at my college graduation. Unfortunately, I don’t remember anything he said that day. He also presided (with President George H.W. Bush) over the first Gulf War, which I do remember protesting as a college senior. The argument I made at the time was that a first unfinished war would lead, inevitably, to a second war, and ultimately, to perpetual warfare over Iraq. But the costs of a finished war–one that overthrew Saddam Hussein–were far too high. So no war was better than either one or many. (The argument wasn’t original to me; I got it from my friend Tom Palmer, who came to campus at my invitation in the fall of 1990 to make the case against the war.)

Here is Baker, interviewed in the most recent issue of Princeton University’s alumni magazine, Princeton Alumni Weekly. It’s a fairly typical performance of the non-descript/pragmatist/faceless bureaucrat variety. This time, however, I’ve decided to take some time out to pay attention to what he says–and what doesn’t get said.

It’s typical of Princeton Alumni Weekly that having managed to land an interview with yet another Big Name Princeton Statesman, they insist on throwing him softball questions carefully calibrated to avoid any and all fundamental issues that might induce discomfort. “The former secretary of state talks about fighting ISIS,” we’re told, “perhaps with Iran’s help.” Predictably, the question that goes unasked throughout the interview is: why must we Americans fight ISIS at all? Having granted the premise that we must, the remaining questions are only a matter of tweaking the details: how do we win on the cheap, by inducing other people to do our fighting for us? Even on this relatively narrow issue, Baker’s answers are illuminating: they reveal the mental processes of a bureaucrat completely indifferent to moral principles, whose basic concern is how to leave all options open in an essentially Machiavellian quest to promote the so-called “interests of the state.”

The fight against ISIS looks like another example of asymmetrical warfare. What would victory over ISIS look like?

President Obama defined it when he said that our goal is to degrade and destroy ISIS, but we’re going to have a really tough time. These people are smart, they’ve acquired a lot of resources, and they’re committed. They’re brutal, of course, but they’re good fighters. I do not think we are going to be able to degrade and destroy them with airstrikes alone. We’ll at least need to have special ops forces on the ground to guide the airstrikes and to help the Iraqi army, which so far has not proven to be of much use. So it’s going to be a long, hard slog.

Our goal is to degrade and destroy them. We’re going to have a tough time. Airstrikes alone won’t do the trick, and the Iraqis can’t do the trick, so we’ll at least need special ops forces on the ground.

A few observations about Baker’s rhetorical techniques:

(1) The repeated emphasis on we stresses to the reader that “we” are already invested in the fight. We can’t stop now: we got involved yesterday. To back out now would be cowardice.  So full speed ahead.

(2) He makes clear that ground forces are needed, and that the existing non-American forces cannot do the job. Since we Americans are already involved, however, we appear to have no choice (or so he implies) but to put some “boots on the ground.” But don’t worry. These boots-on-the-ground will not involve ordinary soldiers of the sort who might be your next-door neighbor or co-worker. They’re “special ops forces.” The mystique of the phrase makes them sound like ninjas of some exotic variety. And they won’t be fighting. They’ll be “guiding” and “helping.”

(3) Having assuaged any fears about putting “boots on the ground,” Baker insists cleverly on leaving his options wide open. He doesn’t say that we’ll only need to send special ops forces. He says that we’ll “at least” need them. Of course, “at least” is perfectly compatible with needing more than special ops forces. How many more is dictated not by James Baker or Barack Obama but by reality. But since “we” are already involved in the fight against ISIS, “how many more” means as many more as “we” need to do the job. And how many is that? Well, that’s an “unknown unknown,” as one of Baker’s successors put it.

That’s why Baker (and Obama) can afford to let the issue of precisely what is needed go unspoken. We only need to “know” that we “need” to fight; we don’t need to know, and can’t know, what the fight will require of “us.” When reality eventually makes its ultimatum–send yet more troops or be defeated by ISIS–reality can be blamed in its typically unpredictable way for “making” us send more than we ever bargained for, leaving the politicians who got us involved immune to criticism. Since no one ever quite decided to get us involved, no one can be held responsible for the degree of our involvement in the fight, and reality can be counted on to draw us further and further in–as it did in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and…Iraq. When it does, the only entity amenable to blame when things go wrong will be reality itself, and the only plausible remedy will be the renewed application of yet more force. “Fortune,” as Machiavelli puts it, “is a woman, and it is necessary, if you wish to master her, to conquer her by force….” (The Prince, ch. 25). Or by guile. He forgot to add that you can also revile her if you fail.

So get ready for a “long, hard slog,” even though no one has explained why any Americans should have to do any of the slogging. And get ready for it, Mr. and Ms. Average American Citizen, even though the slogging is only going to be done by a few special ops “helpers” and “guides” who aren’t supposed to be getting their hands dirty in this all-Sunni cagefight anyway. Taken literally, none of it makes any sense. But you’re not supposed to take it literally. You’re supposed to assume that James Baker, the former secretary of state, knows what he’s talking about–and that you don’t. If people took the James Bakers of the world literally, after all, they wouldn’t be in power.

The next few questions essentially do Baker’s work for him, establishing that no other set of ground forces can do the requisite job, except for the United States and Iran. Does that mean we Americans should send troops over there?

Would the American public support sending our troops back into Iraq?

No, and I’m not suggesting that we do that. This really should be the Sunni Arabs’ fight, but the truth of the matter is that it is more and more a huge civil war between the Sunnis and the Shia. Sending in large numbers of American troops would be a mistake, and I don’t think the public would accept it. But you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say we’re going to destroy ISIS, but we’re only going to do it from the air.

Note once again the characteristically non-confrontational and irrelevant character of the question asked of Baker. Instead of asking him straightforwardly whether American troops should be sent, the interviewer decides to turn him into an armchair sociologist. By this expedient, the relevant issue becomes the popularity rather than than the justifiability of sending troops (a common and predictable diversion in any Machiavelli-infected culture). The answer to the interviewer’s question is really too obvious to merit a place in the interview: there is no popular support for another “troop surge” in the Middle East, whether in Iraq or anywhere else. (Of course, given the notorious passivity of the American people, it’s not as though there would be much push-back if troops were sent, whether to Iraq or to Syria, or anywhere else. Eyes would still be glued to Kim Kardashian’s butt, one way or the other.) Baker realizes that this question is too soft even for his tastes, so he seizes the opportunity to make clear that he doesn’t intend to advocate anything as unpopular as sending American “boys and girls” (his phrase) to fight over there.

What follows this supposedly clear assertion is a disingenuous set of contortions. The fight over ISIS is really “the Sunni Arabs’ fight,” we’re told. Whew! What a relief! But wait a minute: if it’s a Sunni Arab fight, how is that “we” are so invested in it? We’re not Sunni Arabs. The relief at hearing Baker tell us that it’s not our fight only lasts as long as the realization that while he thinks it would be a mistake to send in “large numbers of troops,” we have no idea what “large numbers” means to him, and whatever it means, it’s compatible with sending in medium-sized numbers of troops. (Though Baker is no longer in power, I’m discussing all this as though he were; he certainly speaks as though he still is, and I don’t think his Obama administration counterpart is all that different from him.)

Baker goes on to point out that we “can’t have it both ways.” (He says “you can’t have it both ways,” as though we were the ones guilty of it, not him.) In other words, we can’t insist that the goal is to “destroy” ISIS but then to choose means insufficient to the end. Very true. But if we haven’t yet figured out how to generate means sufficient to the end of destroying ISIS–and selecting the most obvious and efficacious set of means to the end “would be a mistake”–then why adopt the end at all?  Why wander into a morass without knowing how we’re going to get through or out it? Can it really make sense to adopt the end of defeating someone in war, but not bothering with the question of how it’s to be done–especially when it’s not clear right now that the question even has an answer?

Coming the other way around, suppose that you do adopt the end. Having done so, suppose you reject the optimal means to the end, but hold out for the possibility of endorsing a second-best set of means just slightly different from the optimum. So you won’t send in “large numbers of troops” (whatever that means) you’ll just send a fair number (whatever that means). In that case, aren’t you just playing a game with your audience, in the hopes that they’re either not reading you very carefully or not paying close attention to what you’re saying? It almost sounds Machiavellian.

Baker’s argument involves one last move. He can preserve the consistency of everything he’s said if he introduces a non-American source of anti-ISIS troops whose presence is at least semantically consistent with a non-large American troop presence in Iraq and Syria. The interviewer lobs him just the question to make the point.

It is in Iran’s interest as well to defeat ISIS. Is there an opportunity to find some common ground with the Iranians?

If you accept that winning this war will require troops on the ground, that we don’t have any available, that Turkey is not willing to put troops in, and that the Gulf states don’t have that many troops to send, I’d much rather have Iranian troops in there fighting ISIS than I would American boys and girls. The Iranians helped us in Afghanistan in 2001, so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that they could do it again.

If we did work with the Iranians against ISIS, it would have to be done very quietly, because we would lose our Sunni Arab allies and it would create a firestorm in Congress. But I would be surprised [if] we weren’t working in concert with Iran right now at some level. There’s not one country in the world that doesn’t have an interest in seeing ISIS destroyed, so I think this would be an ideal place to build a truly effective coalition.

Pause on that. It’s a work of art, at least if prevarication is an aesthetic genre.

First of all, if we are not sending troops to fight ISIS, in what sense would Iranian involvement be a case of finding “common ground” with them? In that case, they’d be doing the fighting, and we would not be doing it. That’s not a case of finding “common ground,” but of our free riding on their efforts.

Perhaps I’m overdoing the criticisms here, you say. So let’s suppose, ex hypothesi, that a free rider can seek common ground with the party on whom he’s free riding, at least if they both desire the same outcome. The problem is that in this case, aside from the narrow goal of defeating ISIS, the United States and Iran aren’t seeking the same outcome. Each nation wants to impose its own hegemony over the region, and that hegemony involves radically different interests and goals. (After all, would we cheer if Iran replaced ISIS by Hezbullah? Obviously, the Iranians would.) So it makes no sense to claim that we share common ground with them once one looks past the concern of the immediate moment.

While we’re on this subject: if we had common ground with the Iranians, it wouldn’t be problematic that they happen to be the unintended beneficiary of our having overthrown Saddam Hussein in Iraq. But it’s Baker who tells us elsewhere in the interview that the Iraq war led to a problematic augmentation of Iranian influence in the Gulf. How problematic could it be if we’re both on the same side?

For that matter, if the Iranians can be trusted to be our allies in the fight against ISIS, then why begrudge them the atomic bombs they appear to want to build? We don’t begrudge such things to the Israelis, the Pakistanis, or the Indians, after all. Recall that the fight against ISIS is motivated in part by fears about ISIS’s acquiring the remnants of Iraq’s WMD program. Are the Iranians to be trusted with that, but not with their own weapons program?

Second point: the Iranians “helped us in Afghanistan” in the sense of facilitating our invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. (The Iranians were opposed to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and wanted us to do the work of defeating their natural Sunni enemies.) In that case, they were free riding on us. Does Baker really mean that because we allowed them to free ride on us, they’ll now decide that it’s time for a bit of reciprocation and therefore allow us, in turn, to free ride on them? I wouldn’t bank on it. Obviously, if they decide to fight in a “common” cause with us, they will want a quid pro quo that involves our putting some “skin in the game.” But that is just what Baker is at pains to (half) deny.  I suspect that that’s why, amidst all of the rhetorical and semantic confusion Baker introduces, he makes sure to end the whole passage with the word “coalition.” “Large numbers of American troops” may not be “available,” but ultimately, we must remember that we are part of a “coalition.” So maybe fewer-than-a-large-number of American troops will have to become available, lest we lose our place in the “coalition.” If that’s not what “working” with the Iranians means, I’m almost afraid to find out what it does mean.

Finally, note Baker’s assumption that Iranian involvement all has to be done on “the down low”–very, very quietly. Shhh! It might even be happening right now!  So let’s keep it a secret, shall we? It’ll be between you, me, and James Baker. Granted, this is the age of Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Wikileaks, where secrets have a tendency to get out, and yes, Mr Baker just let the secret of “our” Iranian operations out in the online version of Princeton Alumni Weekly. But hey, we’re gentlemen, aren’t we? What happens in Princeton Alumni Weekly stays in Princeton Alumni Weekly. If we’re very, very discreet, there’s still a chance that the Sunnis and Congress can be kept in the dark about our pro-Iranian tilt, just as they were kept in the dark about our pro-Iraq tilt back in the 1980s, or for that matter, our paradoxical pro-Iran tilt at the same time (cf. the Iran-contra scandal).

Perhaps we ought to give Machiavelli the last word here.

A prudent ruler ought not to keep faith when by doing so it would be against his interest, and when the reasons which made him bind himself no longer exist. If men were all good, this precept would not be a good one; but as they are bad, and would not observe their faith with you, so you are not bound to keep faith with them…[T]hose [princes] who have been best able to imitate the fox have succeeded best. But it is necessary to be able to disguise this character well, and to be a great feigner and dissembler; and men are so simple and so read to obey present necessities, that one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived. (Machiavelli, Prince, ch. 18).

All I can say is: they don’t call James Baker’s alma mater “Princeton” for nothing.

P.S., November 16, 2014: This morning’s New York Times Book Review contains a trio of must-read reviews of books on the aftermath and costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: John Nagl’s Knife Fights; Yochi Dreazen’s The Invisible Front; and Daniel Bolger’s Why We Lost. It makes for vital but depressing reading. If you aren’t depressed enough yet, feel free to read Gary Bass’s review of Adam Tooze’s The Deluge: The Great War, America, and the Remaking of Global Order, 1916-1931, which ends with this cheery thought:

When democratic hopes for a perpetual peace inevitably withered, the fascists and totalitarians seized their fatal chance. As World War I was drawing to a close in 1918, Wilson said he was “thinking now only of putting the United States into a position of strength and justice. I am now playing for 100 years hence.” With only a few years to go until then, we are still reckoning with the awful aftershocks of that era’s failures.

Postscript 2, December 10, 2014: Just in case you thought that a discussion of James Baker, secretary of state in a previous administration, was irrelevant to the machinations of the current secretary of state, consider this article in today’s Times. In the hard copy New York edition, the title is, “Kerry Argues Not to Ban Ground Troops in Fight Against Islamic Militants.” Verbal gymnastics don’t get better than this:

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry urged Congress on Tuesday not to preclude the use of ground forces to fight the Islamic State as lawmakers consider setting limits on the nature and extent of American involvement in the military campaign against the group.

Mr. Kerry made his request in testimony before an unusual session of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He underscored that the administration was prepared to negotiate over a measure authorizing the use of force, but he made clear that the administration believes it needs greater flexibility than many lawmakers seemed ready to allow.

“The president has been crystal clear that his policy is that U.S. military forces will not be deployed to conduct ground combat operations against ISIL,” Mr. Kerry said, using an alternate name for the group. “It doesn’t mean that we should pre-emptively bind the hands of the commander in chief or our commanders in the field in responding to scenarios and contingencies that are impossible to foresee,” he added.

Got that? The president has been crystal clear that U.S. military forces will not be deployed to conduct ground combat operations against ISIS. And that’s why the president is demanding that you give him the flexibility to deploy U.S. military forces to conduct ground combat operations against ISIS. It would be unreasonable, after all, for anyone to “pre-emptively bind” the president by a solemn promise that he himself made.

How is it that holding the most powerful man in the world accountable for not starting a war he promised not to start ends up sounding like a collective imposition of BDSM on an unwilling captive?

Postscript 3, December 14, 2014: I just happened to notice this article, “Following the Rise and Fall of Machiavelli,” in the Travel section of last week’s New York Times. It’s an interesting article, and obviously, I have no objections to the idea of visiting Florence to take a look at the world he inhabited (or visiting Florence for any other reason). But why the need to valorize Machiavelli as a political thinker and whitewash the argument of The Prince?

But even as Machiavelli was creating his masterpiece, he had fears it would be misinterpreted, seen by the court as less a letter of forgiveness to the Medicis than a master plan for Machiavelli and other ambitious types to orchestrate their own takeovers. After “The Prince” was written in 1513, his fears were almost immediately realized, the treatise was quickly vilified, and Machiavelli labeled “an agent of the devil.”

Now, however, just before the 500th anniversary of the presentation of “The Prince” to the Medicis in Florence, theorists and political scientists not only believe that in parts it was indeed misread, but also that it, in fact, marks the starting point for modern politics, serving as a highly persuasive treatise on diplomacy and the behind-the-scenes maneuvering required to curry favor in an ever-changing political landscape. “One must be a fox in order to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten off wolves” — it was just this sort of pragmatic thought that has made him so important across the centuries. Leaders from John Adams to Bill Clinton have been influenced by Machiavelli, reciting from his work or studying his texts to put in context their own political times.

Amoral power worship is “the starting point for modern politics”? With handwaving views of that sort, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised or even much dismayed when our foxy leaders come to regard their own promises as traps, and make lying promises as a matter of routine, as illustrated by this article, “Senate Panel Approves Limited ISIS Fight, Reviving War Powers Debate.” President Obama’s erstwhile promise not to send ground troops has now become a debate over the tentative limits to be placed on the use of ground troops. Apparently, the debate over whether to send them ended before it began.

So this is what Machiavellian politics looks like in real life:

“We really don’t want to use ground troops,” said Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona. But, he added, to have that restriction written into law, “I think is not the right way to go.”

That is a view the administration shares. Secretary of State John Kerry testified before the committee on Tuesday that the president would fight any effort to preclude the use of ground forces because, he argued, there are simply too many unknowns.

We don’t want to use ground troops. That’s why restrictions on the use of ground troops are a bad idea. In other words, when you don’t want to do something, you insist on leaving all options on the table for doing it.

The President promised not to use ground troops. That’s why he’s fighting any effort to preclude using them. In other words, when you promise something, you make sure to facilitate breaking the promise.

The President has no idea what’s going on out there in Syria and Iraq. That’s why it’s crucial to send troops: you send troops when you have no idea what effect sending them will have, for what purpose, or with what scope. Amazingly, the article discusses the Senators’ refusal even to restrict the sending of ground troops to Iraq and Syria. Just in case you thought that Rumsfeldian epistemology was  a thing of the past or restricted to members of the G.W. Bush Administration.

In other words, what we get from Machiavelli in modern politics are two essentially insane ideas that people nowadays would like to regard as the essence of “modern” wisdom: moral  principles don’t apply to politics; consequently, there are no limits whatsoever on the use of force by the state.

In the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant famously condemns the act of making a lying promise. According to Kant, once the lying promissor universalizes his maxim, he

sees at once that such a maxim could never hold as a universal law of nature and be consistent with itself, but necessarily be self-contradictory. For the universality of a law which says that anyone believing himself to be in difficulty could promise whatever he pleases with the intention of not keeping it would make promising itself and the end to be attained thereby quite impossible, inasmuch as no one would believe what was promised him but would merely laugh at all such utterances as being vain pretenses. (Ak. 422).

The problem is, I don’t hear laughter.

7 thoughts on “The Princetonian and the Discourses: James Baker III on ISIS

  1. While I don’t follow all this stuff in great detail, tilting toward Iraq, and then toward Iran, and back again seems to characterize U.S. policy in the region. Baker won’t be making any of that policy; I doubt Obama can garner support for another large land combat expedition to Iraq now, even if that’s what he would prefer. Americans don’t really understand Muslim groups or the countries they operate in. Sometimes I think simply admitting the true interest of our state lies in oil supplies and deflecting terrorist attacks, rather than making pretensions of establishing Western democracy there, might result in better decisions. Unfortunately it does remain true that states are amoral creatures – they are governed by imperatives for survival and expansion of influence, and states that don’t play that are sidelined, if not conquered.


    • I mostly agree with that, except that I wouldn’t characterize the state as an amoral creature. The state is ultimately our creation, not something that acts wholly independently of us. It’s in our power to assent to what it does, or dissent from it. If the American people wanted a less interventionist foreign policy, they could take the initiative to demand one–in just the way that they demand other things, like lower taxes, affordable health care, Social Security benefits, disaster relief, etc. They haven’t demanded it, and the result is a foreign policy that reflects their priorities and passivity. Our Islamist enemies are right about one thing: we are (collectively) responsible for our foreign policy. We can’t blame it on some external force. The great contradiction in American public opinion is that the average American feels great moral pride in American democracy, but is somehow baffled by the idea that he or she bears any responsibility for the policies that arise from it. It’s like self-government minus the self.


      • No indeed, we’ve demanded instead the “right” to drive cars as much as we want, among other aspects of consumerism that ensure our country must drink 15M bbl of oil a day. Although the “average American” can’t control foreign policy in any direct way, you are correct to say that they have some responsibility for it – public pressure against warfare does generally reduce the number and the length of wars, and less consumerism would reduce the need for foreign raw materials and foreign factories. I still think Machiavelli (who wasn’t an amoral person) had the right idea that states can’t operate by the morals that drive individuals – states can morally take lives to enforce their laws, for instance, while individuals very rarely can do so. But the existence of amoral – or objective – state interests doesn’t mean the leaders and citizens should disregard ethics. 🙂


        • I feel bad to keep finding disagreements, because we’re basically agreeing. But I think Machiavelli’s fundamental point goes way beyond the point you’re making. It’s not just that he thought that the principles that apply to states are different than those that operate in our ordinary lives as non-state actors. (That’s a tricky statement, but at some level I’d agree with it.) I think Machiavelli’s conception of politics is fundamental amoral. In other words, I don’t think it’s possible for a Machiavellian to have a coherent account of the limits of government at all. In chapter 15 of The Prince, there’s a famous (notorious) passage in which he says “how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather learn to bring about his own ruin than his preservation.” That’s a parody of a line from Aristotle, and I think the point is that there are no moral principles that apply to the state. In other words, if you want to preserve the state, you have to abandon morality altogether. So ultimately, I agree with Leo Strauss’s interpretation of Machiavelli as “a teacher of evil.”


    • “Baker won’t be making any of that policy; I doubt Obama can garner support for another large land combat expedition to Iraq now, even if that’s what he would prefer.”

      That seemed plausible enough when you wrote it, but check out the update I just put in today. The strategy seems to be for Obama to insist that he doesn’t want to use ground troops while Kerry asks for their use in dribs and drabs. By that method, Obama need not garner support for a large land combat expedition. He can just ask for “contingency troops” on an indefinite basis until he leaves office. Unsurprisingly, the supposed withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan involves leaving 1,000 more troops than was originally planned. No end in sight…


  2. Pingback: Update: James Baker on ISIS | Policy of Truth

  3. Pingback: 503+ Boots on the Ground and Counting | Policy of Truth

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