Weekly Standard editor emeritus Bill Kristol joined me this morning:
HH: Joined by editor emeritus of the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol. Good morning, Bill.
BK: Hi, Hugh.
HH: You might expect that I will, I brought you on to talk about your Omarosa in depth knowledge, and to plumb that story. But in fact, I want to talk to you about a cascading series of crises in the Middle East, which is actually stunning. Right now, we have President Erdogan threatening an Ottoman slap at Lt. General Funk, who said American troops would defend themselves. We have a story from Bloomberg that U.S, the U.S. troops killed scores of Russian mercenaries in Syria this week. And we have Israel attacking Iranian drones, having an F-16 shot down, and a massive series of counterstrikes on Iranian positions in Syria. In other words, that is a tinderbox. It’s actually more than a tinderbox. It’s on fire, and we’re talking about Omarosa, Bill. What in the world?
BK: Well, I’m glad you’re calling attention to it. I’ve had the exact same thought the last few days. The Iran-Israel confrontation was a big deal. And hopefully, it doesn’t escalate into a full-scale war. But it certainly could. And then of course, Turkey and everything else, I think President Obama began a process very self-consciously and quite explicitly of withdrawal, basically, from the Middle East. He maybe didn’t quite use that word, but nation building must begin at home, and he took us out of, of course, Iraq, and didn’t commit in Syria both in 2011 when the civil war when we could, I think, have really made a difference in the nipping of the violence in the bud, or at least shaping it and controlling it. And then of course with the famous red line in 2013 and then the Iran deal in 2015, which seemed to signal that we were willing to let the, sort of, Iran have a kind of hegemony over the area, and certainly weren’t going to exert ourselves. And so whoever had become president would have inherited a very difficult situation. President Trump, despite his occasional bellicosity of rhetoric, is an America first guy, very averse to American troops on the ground, has done some good things, I think, in crushing ISIS, but no real strategy of dealing with Iran or stabilizing the area as much as possible, and so here we are. I think it’s really, it is a real live, you know, what’s the word I’m looking for, end time kind of, real time lesson in what happens when the U.S. withdraws, which is not regional stability, balance of power, it’s increasing chaos. The bad guys get stronger. People who are on the fence tend to become bad guys or work with bad guys, because who else are they going to work with? And so you have this insane situation in Syria where everyone’s looking to Russia as the kind of peacemaker and you know, the resolver of the issues as opposed to the U.S.
HH: Now General Mattis, Secretary of Defense Mattis called the shooting of all the Russian mercenaries, I mean, we killed dozens of them. That hasn’t happened, as was pointed out to me by a caller, since the American Expeditionary Force to get with the White Russians in 1918, we haven’t killed Russians since, in a hundred years. And we killed scores of them, according to Bloomberg. More than 200 contract soldiers are said to have been killed. The casualties dwarfed the official Russian Army death toll in Syria, according to Bloomberg. That is, and as was just said to me by Tom Cotton, everybody works for Putin in Russia. There are no mercenaries who are being sent there without some kind of knowledge in the Kremlin. Do you agree with that assessment?
BK: Yeah, most likely. Most likely. And the degree to which everyone has been, Putin’s been emboldened, I always come back to something we’ve discussed before. It’s one world out there. You know, we think of it as the Middle East, as the Far East. They’re at, the Syria red line, when I was in Japan a couple of months after that, that’s all they were talking about, is the U.S. reliable. Every time I’ve traveled abroad, any sign of our failure to intervene in Ukraine, or the South China Sea, the sense that everyone can take advantage of us have built up in the second Obama term in a pretty serious way. I think there’s been a little hesitation, because Trump seems like a tough guy, and Mattis is there and McMaster. But I think people having tested a little bit now, think you know, he may do a, some big thing. He may sort of bluster. He may, there may be an occasional bombing raid, but not a sustained reversal of Obama’s policy. And so as you say, everyone is real, Putin sends people into Syria. Erdogan, you know, has his own foreign policy. He’s a NATO ally. And he’s, you know, attacking people close to us and with whom we may even have U.S. advisors, right?
HH: Well, he said an Ottoman slap. They’re approaching Mandib, where the American forces are. Well, we’ve got an airbase in Turkey.
HH: And so if Russians, I mean, if Turks are shooting at Americans in Syria, what in the world is going to happen at that airbase? This is a genuine crisis. And let me switch to the south. Israel shot down an Iranian drone, which by the way, was a copycat production of the American drone, which for whatever reason, President Obama did not order destroyed on the ground for risk of upsetting the Iranians, right?
HH: And so they’ve now replicated it. It’s in the skies over Syria. And 20 Syrian air defense missiles were fired towards Israeli jets that were engaging the Iranian position. We are very close to a full-on blowout war on the Syrian-Israeli border. And I don’t see it being covered anywhere, Bill.
BK: No, and isn’t the American Secretary of State in the region? I think he is, or was, at least, until yesterday or something. And you don’t get much sense that he’s, you know, a central player in this, either. And again, it comes back for me to the, we can’t solve every problem. God knows things can be very difficult, even when we are very much involved. But with us absent, with us unreliable, with us neither feared nor relied on, these things can really escalate in a way that we haven’t seen in a long time, just like your caller said about us killing Russian troops. I mean, a lot of things could happen that we had sort of thought were out of bounds, because there is a kind of stability you get when people thing we’d better not do that, because the U.S. is here, or we don’t need to do that, because the U.S. will take care of it.
HH: The good news of the last year, the switch from Obama, is that there is a new entente – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf States, such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, as well as Israel. It’s not formal, but it’s real, and the United States, but they don’t really have a plan, yet. And Turkey’s swinging in the wind. Admiral Stavridis said to me that makes that almost impossible to effectively work, because of the multiparty conflict in Syria. I’m reading a Mark Greaney novel, Bill, about Syria that brings it home. It kind of illustrates for someone like me, I don’t follow the Syrian Free Army versus al-Nusra…
HH: …versus the Assad basically gang warfare in the streets of Damascus. How do you see, if you had five minutes with Trump and Mattis, what would you urge them to do to begin to bring some sort of order out of chaos here?
BK: I mean, obviously it’s tougher once the disorder, once the order has broken down, just like in everything else, right?
BK: It’s harder to restore order than to keep it. I do think Syria will be viewed as the sort of the spark of the entire dissolution of the U.S.-led order in the Middle East, the migrant crisis as well, obviously, as well as the humanitarian catastrophe. It destabilized Europe. It destabilized Turkey. It may destabilize Jordan. I think it’ll be like, you know, it’s too, I agree. I don’t follow it as closely as I should. It’ll be like the Balkans, probably, in 1913 or something if we were discussing it then. You know, none of us would have really followed very closely the incredibly complicated ethnic rivalries and fights there and the different groups. But at the end of the day, these things can light the match that really causes a conflagration. And I worry very much about that there. I guess I would urge Mattis and the President and Tillerson to, you know, have a strategy and to really not be as bashful about the U.S. telling allies like Turkey look, you cannot do this, and we’re going to, and telling Russia to back off, and sending troops if necessary, at least in targeted ways, to try to enforce stability. The Israel-Iran situation on the Lebanon border, that’s been allowed to grow up in a way that’s very, very dangerous, obviously.
HH: Now it seems to me the one guy who commands instant and quite respect is General Mattis. He does not like to talk, right? He just does not do, even as much as Rumsfeld did, and Ash Carter. I think that should change. I think he ought to go out there and talk about the fact that if conflict begins, we will begin rapidly and in force on the side of our allies, just to send that message that, because if it starts, we can’t have a repeat of, what was it, 2006 Lebanon war where Israel kind of just mucked around for three weeks and Condi Rice finally forced them out and nothing really happened?
BK: I think Israel won’t do that again, and I think Israel will, it’ll be a bigger war and a quicker war, or not a quicker war, but a quicker attack and a more full-throated Israeli attempt to remove the threat. But it’s a big, big threat on the norther border, and it would be destruction in Northern Israel. And you know, Iran is, Syria is the match and Iran is the cause, if I can put it that way, of the fundamental, I think, instability in the region. And this is, I now think, I’ve been somewhat cautious on the Iran deal. I mean, I was of course against it, but how to get out of it struck me as complicated, and I was sympathetic to those who said, I was sympathetic to the White House and Tom Cotton and others who said let’s signal that we want to get out of it, but let’s not do it in a precipitous way. And that may still be right. But I really wonder now whether it wouldn’t be healthier to just pull the plug on it and say look, Iran has got, everything about Iranian behavior has gotten worse since the deal.
BK: And we need to just confront it and stop sort of putting this, you know, we need to rip the Band-Aid off here and get serious about confronting the Iranian threat.
HH: It’s a cancer, and you don’t treat cancer with vitamins, right? You have to be very explicit about the nature of the problem. And they are building permanent bases there. Last word to you, Bill Kristol, this is a week where American media ought to be focused on this, and it’s not.
BK: And I think, incidentally, we should do much more to help the demonstrators in Iran, that after a little bit of initial talk by the Trump administration that we’re not like Obama, we’re speaking up, there’s not been much either speaking up, or so far as I can tell, actual change in policy. So I think a much more resolute policy across the board towards Iran, that probably is the key to everything else.
HH: Bill Kristol, you’re right as always. Thank you, my friend, editor emeritus of the Weekly Standard. Follow him on Twitter, @BillKristol.
End of interview.