Bill Kristol On The Absurdist Theater Of The President’s West Point Speech
Bill Kristol joined me in hour three today to discuss the president’s speech today. It is an extremely troubling speech and presidency, and the next two-and-a-half-years becoming more dangerous by the minute even as the president says we are “by most measures, America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world.”
HH: When I sent an email off to see if Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, would be available this morning to my booking producer back east, I had intended to talk to him about Hillary Clinton’s audio book. And perhaps I’ll still get there, but in between that email and this broadcast, President Obama gave, well, a remarkable speech, stunning, actually, at West Point, stunning in its inaccurate understanding of the world. And I thought I’d get Bill to join me and talk about that a little bit. Bill Kristol, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show.
BK: Thanks, Hugh, good to be with you.
HH: Have you had a chance to read or listen to the President’s remarks, yet?
BK: I’ve read it, and I’ve read some of the commentaries by our friends on it, and yeah, I mean, it’s a nice, well, it’s not a particularly good speech. Even if it were about the real world, it would be kind of a pointless speech. But it’s not about any actual world that exists. And I’d like to know why President Obama gave that speech.
HH: I want to begin with what I’ll call the money quote, and it’s less than a minute. It’s 42 seconds long, but I don’t know that I’ve ever been as taken aback by a president saying anything in a prepared remark, cut number 19:
BO: In fact, by most measures, America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world. Those who argue otherwise, that suggest that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away, are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics. Think about it. Our military has no peer. The odds of a direct threat against us by any nation are low, and do not come close to the dangers we faced during the Cold War.
HH: Now Bill Kristol, overall, I want to parse this, actually, with you, and it may take two segments. But what do you make of that claim that America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world?
BK: I mean, I think it’s ludicrous on its face, and so ludicrous, you can’t…does he believe…I mean, what’s more worrisome? That he thinks he can just say that and have us credulously nod our heads, or that perhaps he believes it? I think what’s more worrisome is that he may believe it, in which case, of course, he’s not changing any of his policies, and he’s just going to chug right along as we get…I mean, does he ever talk to a foreign leader? I guess maybe they don’t tell him the truth, but I happen to have talked to a couple, I don’t talk to as many as President Obama does, in the last three, four, five months, actually one from East Asia, one from the Middle East, quite separate parts of the world. And both of them are sort of what are you guys doing? You’re retreating. You look so weak. This is very dangerous. And these were friends of ours who wish the U.S. well. So I don’t, yeah, I mean, as I say…
HH: How could he possibly…
BK: As I say, it’s almost more worrisome that he believes it than that he’s just blowing smoke.
HH: Well, let’s try for a moment to at least imagine what facts might be in his head that would allow him to conclude that rarely have we been stronger relative to the rest of the world. I mean, when we were a young republic, two hundred years ago this summer, Great Britain burned our capital, so that was not a particularly strong period of time. But we still had the advantages of oceans, Bill Kristol, and we did right through to post-World War II.
BK: You know, I’m looking at the paragraph from which you played that quote. So it begins four and a half years later, the landscape has changed. We have removed our troops from Iraq. We’re winding down our war in Afghanistan. Those are the first two sentences. That’s supposed to be evidence for what he then says, as you just said, which is that we are stronger, we’ve rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world. Now is that true? Removing our troops from Iraq, was that a sign of strength? Has that worked out great, not leaving any troops there? Has that not just objectively, leaving aside whatever you thought of the Iraq War or anything like that, has that no objectively strengthened Iran, strengthened the forces of chaos in the Middle East, made it look like we don’t have the stomach to stay? What about Afghanistan? I mean, I just can’t believe, if he wants to get out of these wars, if he wants to say we can’t afford them, we don’t have the stomach for them, we just can’t succeed in them, then just say that, and then just make the case for why an isolationist foreign policy. It’s not something that, you know, never been made before in the history of the United States. But don’t pretend that this is making us stronger. And for me, if I can just go on for a second, I’m so outraged particularly about what yesterday, the announcement about Afghanistan, not so much going down to 9,800 troops, that’s probably too low, but you know, that’s a judgment call, but announcing that you’re going to zero troops in 2016. What is the conceivable strategic rationale for that? Why is it conceivably a good idea to commit to that instead of just saying we’re going down to 10,000, we’re doing counterterrorism and very limited operations, and you know, in 2016, maybe we can go lower, I’ll consult with the generals, I’ll consult with the next president, or the two people who might be the next president, the nominees of the major parties. I want to leave them the flexibility to make sure we do as well as we can in the end game in Afghanistan. He doesn’t say that. He wants to in fact prevent the next president from having the options, from having a set of options which respect to Afghanistan. He wants to be out. Why does he want to be out? Because he wants to be able to say he got us out.
BK: It’s entirely about him. I’ve never really seen, I’ve got to say, I’ve almost, I can’t believe I’ve ever seen anything like this. I mean, Bush, when he left office, went out of his way to sort of leave options for Obama. He didn’t do a surge in Afghanistan. He kind of wanted to, actually. But he thought you know what? This is really for the next president to call. He didn’t bomb Iran. Maybe he should have, but he thought you know what? There’s not an urgency here, so I’m going to let the next president decide on that. And Iraq, he stabilized, a drawdown after the surge, and said you know, let’s let the next president, whether it’s Obama or McCain at the time, you know, decide on that. And I think even Clinton and others have sort of tried to be responsible as they left office. I remember at the end of the Bush administration, the first Bush administration in which I served, if I’m not mistaken, Brent Scowcroft called maybe Warren Christopher, who was in the incoming Secretary of State. Remember, we intervened in Somalia, you know…
BK: And it turned out, it ended up badly a month later, and he called him and said you know, we can pull troops out by January 20th if you want, where they had achieved their initial humanitarian mission, or we could leave them there. And we’ll let you guys decide. Which would you prefer? That’s what a president does when he’s going to hand over power. But this president, to sort of preclude options for the next president, and why? Not for any strategic reason, so he can have a good talking point as he leaves office? It’s really disgraceful, I think.
HH: It is. He’s attempting to foreclose another expansion on either front, which he’s effectively done in Iraq. It is almost impossible to imagine circumstances in which American troops are recommitted in Iraq, regardless of the amount of chaos in al-Anbar Province or Iran’s intentions. Afghanistan, I’m not sure. The succession of Karzai might very well appeal to the next president and request assistance.
HH: But I want to go back to that paragraph that he also went on to say al Qaeda’s leadership on the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more. He got applause. Of course he would get applause. But as a predicate for the idea that America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world, Bill, it’s ludicrous. And I think he must believe that nuclear weapons, that our reducing our arsenal has made us safer, vis-à-vis the rest of the world, as opposed to achieving historical levels of overarching, awesome power.
BK: Right, and he sort of acknowledges later in the speech that al Qaeda actually, outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan, is probably stronger than ever, and incidentally, the announcement of the withdrawals from Afghanistan will, I’m afraid, mean that al Qaeda in Afghanistan and as important, Pakistan, could well be stronger than it is today two years from now. So even the things he wanted to take credit for, which is a very narrow counterterrorism effort, are not going so well, let alone, as you suggest, the big, strategic issues of how intimidated are the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians, by how we assured our allies and our friends by our behavior. And I’m afraid the answer in both cases is they’re not intimidated, they’re not reassured.
HH: They are neither, and his second statement after saying we’re stronger relative to the rest of the world, those who argue otherwise, as you and I are doing right now, who would suggest that America is in decline, which you and I have not done, or has seen its global leadership slip away, which neither you nor I have done, but we have both disagreed nevertheless with what he said, are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics. It’s a parade of straw men to an absolutely indefensible argument.
BK: Well, and in the next sentence is, which you played, think about it. Our military has no peer. Agreed. The odds of a direct threat against us by any nation are low and do not come close to the dangers we faced during the Cold War. What does that have to do with anything? No one is saying it’s like the Soviet Union. The question, the relevant questions are the last 20 years since the Cold War ended.
BK: And there, he’s not being, he makes no serious case, and that’s what struck me the most about this speech. You can make a speech and you and I would a disagree, one could make a speech you and I would disagree with, but it should refer to the real world. It should refer to what’s happened since 1989, if not before 1989. There’s almost none of that in Obama’s speech.
HH: At this hour, China and Vietnam are engaged in a game of very serious confrontation in the South China Sea. And his world doesn’t admit that that could spiral, that Japan is rearming out of fear of our weakness, Bill Kristol. So here is the question. Do you think he doesn’t know? Or do you think his political instincts override the fact that he does know, because I can’t believe he doesn’t know.
BK: I don’t know. Self-delusion is a powerful force in people’s lives, and I guess I might have said at one point he knows, but he’s just kind of telling a nice story. But I think maybe he’s deluded himself. He thinks he’s Barack Obama. He sort of wants it to be this way. This is his rationale, and so it sort of is this way.
HH: You know, later in the speech, and we’ll come back after the break and play another one, he talks a little bit about Russia. He talks a little bit about Syria. He talks a little bit about China as though by acknowledging that they have gone bad or are in confrontation with us he somehow solved the problem, Bill Kristol, does that add up on an abacus of anyone’s choosing that he’s left us stronger than when we were four and a half years ago?
BK: No, because what he’s knocking down, one of the straw men he knocks down, that you know, people say we shouldn’t get involved at all, he says there’s a Syrian civil war that spilled across borders, the capacity of battle hardened groups to come after us increases. Well, the Syrian civil war has spilled across borders. The capacity of battle-hardened groups to come after us has increased, and that’s the result of his policies.
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HH: I had intended to talk about Hillary Clinton’s opening barrage of almost unlistenable audio. By the way, Bill Kristol, have you listened to that, yet?
BK: I have, and I heard a little clip last night when I was on Crossfire. It sounded as though it becomes somewhat robotic.
HH: Oh, it’s like Siri took over the former Secretary of State. And it does not, I cannot believe her advisors allowed her to do it, because it is a great volcano of ridicule erupting as a result of it. But let’s go back to the serious thing. I want to play two clips from the President at West Point and go back to them, cut number 20 where he says not every problem, this is deep thinking, requires a military solution, cut number 20:
BO: But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution. Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences.
HH: Stop for a second. Bill Kristol, what’s so irresponsible here is he does not specify of what he speaks. And now, a lot of people immediately assumed he meant only Iraq. But what else did he mean? And because, does he give us one example? Was Korea a good war? Was John Kennedy’s policy in Vietnam a good effort? He doesn’t do the job of a commander-in-chief talking to his future officers about when they ought to act.
BK: Yeah, nor the job of a president trying to actually engage the country in a serious foreign policy debate based on a serious analysis of history. If he wants to say that Vietnam was a mistake, a lot of people would agree with that. And I don’t think it’s quite the reason he gives, but that would be a legitimate point to make. Nor do I think, however, that anyone right now is rushing us into another Vietnam. I mean, it’s such a parade of straw men. But I’ve got to say this, that kind of smugness with which he delivers these lines, it makes me, it reminds me of sort of a B minus type student. You’ve had them in law school. I had them when I taught years ago in college and grad school a little bit, I mean, who sets up some ridiculous choice neither of which is a serious alternative, knocks them both down with some generalities, and then says see, I just made a serious argument. You know what I mean? It’s so, it’s just so kind of mediocre as an actual argument.
HH: Here’s my test. Could a president facing a future decision whether or not to commit troops learn anything from this speech, whether or not to act, Bill Kristol?
BK: Yeah, nothing. I mean, that’s right, and that’s a good test, actually. And could he even learn, I’m thinking about the world, I mean, what is the characteristic of the world according to Obama right now? Well, it’s very vague. I mean, is Islamic radicalism growing or receding? Is that a real threat? What about the threat that President Bush spoke about many times, of the marriage of nuclear weapons, or weapons of mass destruction, and Islamic extremism, and regimes that support that, a kind of aesthetic extremism and terrorism? I mean, is that a real threat? Or is that no longer the threat we’re supposed to be primarily concerned about? Bush set real standards. And people could then say wait, you’re wrong, there isn’t as much of a threat as you thought of in terms of terrorism hooking up with weapons of mass destruction. Iraq wasn’t, you know, people argued against the war in Iraq, that allegedly Saddam wasn’t that close to terror groups, et cetera. At least Bush gave you criteria by which you could argue about his policies.
BK: As you say, what can you, what does Obama tell you about what you’re supposed to do about anything?
HH: You see, he doesn’t, he quotes Eisenhower. He says like Eisenhower, there’s generations of men and women in uniform know all too well the wages of war, and he quotes him later, I think trying to borrow the idea that the Eisenhower presidency is somehow like the Obama presidency. And he goes on to say this, cut number 21:
BO: Here’s my bottom line. America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will. The military that you have joined is and always will be the backbone of that leadership. But U.S. military action cannot be the only or even primary component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.
HH: Bill Kristol, this is so astonishing as well. America must always lead on the world stage, and we don’t. And we don’t treat every problem as a mail. And we don’t necessarily have the best military anymore in the South China Sea where we are overawed by a regional power. I mean, it’s astonishing what he says here.
BK: Yeah, I mean, it’s as you say, it’s straw men and it’s platitudes. It’s appropriate, I’m just listening to it, the world stage, I guess, is the usual metaphor. There’s something to be made of his using it. But there is something about the way he thinks about politics. It’s all kind of a play. It’s all a theatre, right? And you can sort of have nice lines, and you can make some symbolic gesture. He can say, for example, that well, he is getting serious about Syria, we’ve got to be a little more careful if Syria crosses the border. Maybe we’ll provide some kinds of arms to some of the rebel groups, maybe, possibly. I gather there was a conference call after this morning, after the President’s speech, one of those background briefings by a White House senior staffer. I didn’t listen. Steve Hayes was on. He said it was embarrassing. They couldn’t specify anything about what they were doing in Syria. So it’s all just talk. There’s no actual policy. I mean, there’s no specificity. It’s like everything he’s always…he wants to reform the NSA, worried that we’re spying on our own citizens, but he doesn’t actually have a reform proposal. I mean, this is true in issue after…he wants to reform the war on terror. He wants it to be somehow more…he wants to have more transparency and have the Defense Department do more and the CIA do less. But again, give an example. It’s so peculiar. It’s just irresponsible.
HH: It is, and I’ll close this way. I asked you about a future president, and it doesn’t help a future president. But let’s talk about Netanyahu and the Ayatollah Khamenei right now. If they read this speech, or they listened to this speech, what do they conclude? There’s a Wall Street journal piece today on the weaponization criteria which are emerging that Iran is very close to weaponizing, they are very close to being completely enriched uranium pile. And so we’re very close to losing control of that situation. If you’re Benjamin Netanyahu or the Ayatollah Khamenei, what do you think about these words today?
BK: God knows what Khamenei thinks. Maybe he thinks we’re so clever and subtle that we’re about to bomb him, and this is all just deception. If only. I think if you’re Netanyahu, you have watched, and I hope this is true, honestly, so I hope he’s really getting an accurate read on America and on Obama, well, not on America, because I don’t think Obama speaks for all of America, but he is our president, so on Obama’s policies for the next two and a half years. You read this speech, there is no sense of urgency about the Iranian nuclear program. There is no sense that we could be close to a tipping point where not just Iran goes nuclear with all of that implications of that for the Middle East and for terrorism and for Islamic radicalism, but that we trigger, he triggers, Iran’s going nuclear triggers a nuclear arms race in the Middle East with all the implications that has for the world spiraling out of control. That is not, you read this speech, that is not how Obama thinks. The rest of us are sitting here thinking oh, my God, we could be in a world two years from now that is just unimaginably more dangerous than the world we have today, which is already more dangerous than the world we had five or ten years ago. And you just have no sense that Obama has any sense that this is an urgent situation.
HH: Now coming up after the break, I’m going to talk to Tom Cotton about this, but I’ll close with this with one minute left. What do you think the men and women of our military think about this speech? Honestly, Bill Kristol.
BK: I don’t know. You know, I’m so impressed by them in so many ways, that in one way, it’s that they, the civilian control and sort of respect for your superiors and for the civilians, for the commander-in-chief, is pretty deeply embedded. So I imagine the ones sitting there, I hope were just pleased to have the President recognize their choice, their joining the military and praise them for doing so. But if you’re a serious person and you’re in the military, you’ve got to think oh, my God, I just hope we can make it through the next two and a half years, and have some serious leadership.
HH: I agree with that, Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard. Thanks for spending a couple of segments analyzing this most amazing of presidential addresses.
End of interview.