Bill Kristol joined me on the show today. The interview covered a lot of ground:
HH: Joined now by Weekly Standard editor, Bill Kristol. Bill, welcome, it’s always a pleasure to talk with you.
BK: Good talking to you, Hugh.
HH: I want to get to the crises in the Middle East, Afghanistan and China, but before I do, you’re a veteran of the White House. You had an office there for many years. You go in and out a lot. And I’ve been talking to people who any time ever officed there. How shocked are you that this intruder got in the front door?
BK: No, I’m pretty shocked. I mean, I’ve been struck over the years since I was there 20 years ago how much tougher it’s been to get in. And I don’t say this critically. It may be necessary because of the threats. Just as a visitor, someone who’s cleared in for a meeting, let’s say, or for a lunch during the Bush administration with a friend, as I say, I’m not critical of that, but given how much time one often has to wait for them to make sure you really are the right person that you say you are, and they look at your driver’s license, and call back to make sure that you’re cleared and expected, it is, someone just waltzing in there? It’s really unbelievable.
HH: I have been thinking of it as a metaphor for homeland security generally, that we are putting everyone through TSA checks and elderly ladies and little children, and maybe we’re not thinking outside of the box about what rapid response to obvious problems like this beheader in Oklahoma.
BK: Well, and you know, the Secret Service’s reaction was very curious, very interesting and sort of characteristically bureaucratic in the way that you’re suggesting, which is you know, when the story broke, as I recall this, we may have to set up checkpoints and sort of new barriers for people two or three blocks from the White House to sort of get a first look at them there, as if that would have had anything to do with this. And they’re going to inconvenience a huge number of tourists and regular people going to appointments and meetings for the sake of not dealing with the problem, which I think has generally been too often our approach. You know, TSA, you hate to sound like you’re just griping, you’re trying to get on a plane and you’re delayed and it seems annoying. But I do wonder whether all this doesn’t hurt the effort to fight the war on terror rather than help. It makes the whole thing look like a bureaucratic game. I think if you’re a citizen, and you’re standing there taking your shoes off and watching your grandmother in front of you having, who has an artificial hip being sort of patted down, and it’s just a game. And the way the TSA agents, most of them are mostly decent people, obviously, they, for them, it’s kind of check the right bureaucratic box. I don’t know how many of them are really saying hey, is there possibly a terrorist in this group, or how many are saying hey, the bureaucratic rules say that if this thing meets this category, we should stop this person in this way. So does my colleague, Steve Hayes, who was on the TSA watch list. You know, I used to think well, okay, it’s an inconvenience, but I guess we put up with it. But I really wonder whether it isn’t actually sort of debilitating to civic morale, to citizen morale in this effort that we’re all, should be engaged in.
HH: It is at least a massive use of resources that could be spent elsewhere.
HH: You know, the SEAL community, and I know you know a number of them, have this hot wash process, where after every mission, they sit down and allow the junior man and the senior man in the room to criticize how it unfolded. I don’t know that we do any of that. I know for sure, though, that ISIS isn’t sitting around each night planning to use one of their U.S. passport holders by sending him back to the United States so that they can try to get past TSA security. That’s not what they’re planning.
BK: No, you’re right. And again, you know, you hate to be the person who says oh, none of it’s needed and all, but I really do wonder, well, at best, it’s a diversion of resources. At worse, I think it’s a little more dangerous. And it gets us thinking in a certain mindset, I think is what you’re getting at.
BK: That it gets us all thinking, and people in the government, maybe the President, thinking a certain kind of bureaucratic mindset in this war, which is not the way you win this particular war. It’s not the way you win any war, honestly. And I’ve been worried about this from the beginning of this war, do we take a genuine crisis, which requires imaginative thinking to deal with it, and we try as much as we can to transfer the response into let’s increase the size of the bureaucracy, let’s have more rules and regulations, let’s inconvenience a lot of people who clearly are innocent and shouldn’t be inconvenienced. And that almost becomes the proof that well, we’re serious about this, because look how many people we’ve now made go through TSA checkpoints.
HH: That’s very provocative.
BK: I think, it would be interesting for an actual politician, an elected official, not someone like you and me, to get serious about this and thinking about 2017, maybe not a presidential candidate, maybe someone, though, who would advise a presidential candidate, say okay, what really would be a serious homeland security protocol? What should we be doing? How many people do we really need? What kinds of guards to we need at airports? What kinds of procedures do we need before getting on a plane? And what kind don’t we need, incidentally, you know?
HH: Yeah, and you would go to Israel. I mean, you would start there.
HH: And you would think outside the box. But what your point is making, it’s very provocative, I haven’t thought about it, that the appearance and the feeling of security is actually what we’ve been provided since 9/11, and that is a false metric of success. And obviously, someone getting into the East Room, who could have been a suicide vest wearer, it just astonishes me. Bill, coming up next hour, John Fisher Burns is going to join me, and I wanted to talk to him today, because I wanted to pose this question to him, and I’m posing it to you. Right now, there’s massive instability in China, and right now, there’s ISIS on the loose, and apparently not cabined at all by air strikes. Ten years ago, we were just beginning to see the unraveling of Iraq. Ten years from now, which do you think will be the more serious geopolitical challenge – instability in China or the ISIS threat?
BK: Boy, I don’t know. I mean, first of all, I look forward to hearing, to listening to John Burns. I always learn a lot from him. You know, the conventional wisdom I’d say among foreign policy elites here is China, that China’s the huge geopolitical threat, and ultimately, these Middle Eastern problems are, they can kill a lot of people, they can be unbelievably unpleasant to deal with, but they’re not really going anywhere. I’m a bit of a skeptic on that, though. We have a cover story, I think it will be the cover story, by Reuel Gerecht, and it will be unless there’s huge news in the next 48 hours, in the next issue of the Weekly Standard, which really sort of tries to dig a little deeper into what’s happening in the Middle East. It just makes the point that we are underestimating as a modern, liberal, secular (mostly) society, the power of Islam in the Middle East. And we think ooh, gee, ISIS is a little stronger than we thought, oh, gee, you know, they’re sort of, Libya’s now a terrorist playground, not just the Iraq-Syria area, oh, gee, a lot of young people constantly coming from the West, and they’re attracted by this most virulent form of fanatical Islamism, and we still won’t sort of say you know what? Maybe this is really a serious threat. There’s no alternative in the Middle East right now that seems strong enough to deal with it, except, you know, some dictatorships which are probably pretty rickety, as a monarchy is pretty rickety. And so look, I’m no fan, God knows, of the Chinese regime, and I think the administration’s pathetic response on what’s happening in Hong Kong, gee, both sides should show restraint is really horrible. But I guess I remain pretty worried about Islam in the Middle East.
HH: I just have finished a new book by Christian Sahner, I don’t know if you’ve met him. He’s a Princeton PhD candidate, Rhodes Scholar, called Amid The Ruins, which is a 200 page walk through Syrian history. And you can’t read that and set it down. It’s an amazing book, and I’ll read Reuel Marc Gerecht’s piece for the same reason that I read everything by Lee Smith, and now I’ll read everything by Christian Sahner, is that he takes seriously these issues. And not many people really do in the way that you’re saying. They are assuming it will burn itself out like they assumed Ebola could never escape the village.
BK: No, that’s exactly right. And you know, another thing, well, in the West, it’s kind of burned itself out, and they don’t sort of step back and say well, how long did that take? I mean, leaving aside whether it’s a correct analogy with the 30 Year’s War or religious wars of the West or whatever, 400 years ago, I mean, whether or not that’s even the right analogy, even there, look how long that took to “burn itself out.” No, I agree, there’s too much complacency today. There probably has been all along since 9/11. We just so much, in that respect, at the end of the Cold War, this sort of investment everyone probably had, left and right, in thinking kind of the fundamental challenges are done, we’ve got a lot of brush fires to deal with, but we took care of fascism and Nazism, we took care of communism. Surely, there’s no third ism coming along. And there may not be a third ism like those two, but I would say the chance of just pure chaos spreading, and millions of people being killed because of chaos and fanaticism not quite in the way it was by the organized forces of Nazism or communism, but the damage could be just as great. Nuclear proliferation, you know, it’s a ten or fifteen terror sponsoring fanatical regimes could end up killing as many people as the Soviet Union having nuclear weapons could have killed.
HH: Sure, and can bring down through EMP’s all sorts of things. So Bill Krisol, we don’t want to be just overly alarmist. At the same time, I believe that because of these events, this election in 35 days has become a national security election. Now on Thursday, Reince Priebus is going to lay out sort of the GOP policy template that most of his candidates that he’s shepherding along and helping and assisting all agree on. And that will be very useful. But I think really what this is, and I wrote about this at Townhall today, is a referendum on our lassitudinous president. What do you think?
BK: Oh, I think so, and I think you and I have been on beating this drum for quite a while, but I think we’re right, I mean that A) it really is, national security really is the fundamental threat, and B) the country is coming to a really deep judgment of President Obama’s failures in that respect, and C) the Republican Party needs to step up and be the party that’s serious about national security. We can have debates among ourselves of exactly how to deal with some of these threats, but one thing, and you’ve emphasized this, and we have at the Weekly Standard, we’ve been pretty lonely in this, but I think people are finally coming around, is defense. Whatever your preferred tactics for dealing with these threats is, we need to have a military and intelligence community that is strong enough that the next president can deploy it, and maybe have to deploy it in several theaters, and maybe have to worry about China at the same time that he worries about Syria at the same time that he worries about Libya, at the same time that he has to deal with possible problems down in Venezuela. It doesn’t mean we intervene and invade all these places, obviously. But especially if you’re a peace through strength Republican, you need strength. So I really, but I’m encouraged, because I think the public is really coming around on this. I think some of the Republican candidates are becoming much more articulate and forward-leaning on this, and I think when you really think why do we need a Republican Senate, there’s a lot of domestic bad stuff that Republicans can stop, that President Obama would like to push ahead, some important nominations, their paths could be blocked by a Republican Senate. But it’s also to block a bad deal on Iran, and to increase the Defense budget.
HH: Amen to that. Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard, we’ll look for the Reuel Marc Gerecht piece on the cover if nothing else bad happens this week. Thanks for joining us.
End of interview.