Foundation for the Defense of Democracy’s Clifford May on the ISG report.
HH: Now joined by Cliff May, who is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He’s also chairman of the policy committee for the Committee on Present Danger. And do not hold this against him, a long time foreign correspondent and editor at the New York Times, and many other fine journalistic operations. Cliff, good to have you on tonight.
CM: Good to be with you.
HH: Cliff, you were part of the Iraq Study Group in some capacity. Can you describe for us what that capacity was?
CM: Sure. What there was, you had the ten principals. There was Baker and Hamilton, and Ed Meese, and Alan Simpson and Sandra Day O’Connor, and all those folks. And then, you had about 40 people who were called the expert working group. And we had long discussions and debates and e-mail traffic back and forth, and we were supposed to advise the principals on various policy ideas. Just to kind of cut to the chase, I would say the so-called expert group broke down. There was a minority of people, I was one of them, who thought our mission was to find a way forward in Iraq, and a majority who thought their job, or our job, was to find a way out of Iraq. They thought defeat was inevitable, and should simply be managed.
HH: Did they offer you, the commissioners proper, an opportunity to see a draft of their report and comment on it, or argue the case with them?
CM: Not the first, yes to the second. In other words, we met with them at various times. They would ask us questions, we might present some options to them, you know, sort of like Congressional testimony kind of thing. I thought they played their cards pretty close to the chest, asked pretty good questions most of the time. I disagree with those who thought you could necessarily tell what they were all thinking. Maybe they could. I couldn’t. But once they started to write and do what they were going to do, they did not share with us, because they figured some of us would leak, and they were probably right about that. They had no obligation to take anything we said, or use it. And of course, they met with people outside of us, and they traveled to various places, and that sort of thing as well.
HH: Now there is a controversy about whether or not you, Cliff May…
HH: …in fact were converted to the Iranian option, the talkfest option. Were you?
CM: No, I was not, and I’ve complained vociferously to the writer of that article about how she could get that wrong, because we talked, I wrote a column on this subject. It wouldn’t really have taken much to find out. What you are referring to was a piece in the Washington Post on Sunday. It’s with some of the e-mail traffic that somebody, not me, had leaked it to one of the reporters. My e-mails are exactly as I wrote them. That’s fine, and I’m making the argument against it. I’m saying we shouldn’t be negotiating with Iran, unless there are sticks as well as carrots. And I said what are the sticks? And Jim Dobbins comes back with some thoughts, and I say to him, Jim, that’s not enough carrots to make a salad, it’s not enough sticks to make a bonfire. And we really don’t have anything to negotiate on this basis with Iran about at this point. I’m very disappointed, among other things, that we knew, when we were going into Iraq, that Iran and Syria would try to undermine our mission. Assad, the dictator of Syria, he said so. He said I can turn this place into another Beirut, meaning from the time of the civil war. We knew that was going to happen. I thought sure we would have cards to play, there would be consequences, if Syria and Iran facilitated turmoil in Iraq, and the killing of Americans and Iraqis. Instead, for three years. all we’ve done is say geez, I wish these guys would be more cooperative. We’d be much more friendly with them if they would be. I wish they would, and we haven’t done a thing.
HH: Now Cliff May, as you run down over at the website for the Foundation For the Defense of Democracies, and America, you should bookmark this, www.defenddemocracy.org, we find the late, and much missed, Jean Kirkpatrick, but Forbes and Kemp. We see Lieberman and Louis Freeh, and Gingrich and Woolsley. We see Kristol and Marshall, and Miller and Pearle and Hayworth. I mean, just great people down the line. Of this group represented on your staff and advisory council, how many of them, do you think, believe in the ISG?
CM: I haven’t heard very many who’ve had good things to say about the ISG’s report so far. Most that I’ve talked to have thought it was a failure, which is sort of what I thought. And by the way, I had a chance to say that to President Bush the other night. I went to a holiday party at the White House, had a moment with him. I said I want you to know I served on the working group of the ISG, he said thanks for your service. I said you’re welcome. If I were you, I’d throw the report out. I think it’s a failure.
HH: Now he is embarked upon a series of round robin consultations. Yesterday with three generals and Eliot Cohen and some other people…very smart people. Obviously, he is open to hearing, but I don’t think he is open to quitting.
CM: I hope that’s the case. I hope that’s exactly right. And I think he’s got a very important speech to make next month, but it’s more than a speech. He does need to find a bold, new strategy forward. He does need to tell the American people it’s not just more of the same. There are things, missions, we will and can achieve. It doesn’t have to be exactly what he had hoped for. I actually don’t think that what Bush had hoped for in 2003 is going to come to pass. I don’t think Iraq is going to be, any time soon, a sort of shining, Middle Eastern city on a hill. I think that we’ve made too many mistakes, there are too many pathologies in Iraq, too many malevolent neighbors that they have to contend with. But I do think there are things we can and must achieve, and we shouldn’t simply resign ourselves to a catastrophic defeat, the effects of which we would feel for decades to come.
HH: Now Cliff May, when Harry Truman looked at Europe in the immediate post war, he saw in Greece a very, very violent civil war between the communists and the non-communists. And it was bloody, though I don’t have a body count here. It went on for two and a half years. It was brutal. Did he, or did the American people ever think about leaving Greece to its own devices, and to the communists?
CM: There are probably some who did, and probably some who advised him of that. And he probably said no, that’s not what I’m going to do. That would be a terrible mistake, just like there were plenty of people advising Churchill look, it’s over with. Europe’s been defeated by Hitler, we don’t want Hitler coming over here, let’s just make a deal with him. And Churchill said no, I’m not cutting a deal with Hitler. I know it looks unlikely, but we’re going to defeat Hitler, and I’m going to…what’s more, I’m going to get the Americans to help me eventually. You’re right, that’s part of the problem of designing these things by committees. The conventional wisdom is often more conventional than it is wise, and I think that’s what you have a lot in this Iraq Study Group report, is a lot of conventional wisdom, very few new ideas, a lot of old ideas that probably shouldn’t have been resuscitated from where they were lying.
HH: Cliff May, I began the program by reading the very troubling story from Gaza City about the assassination of three children by fanatics opposed to…I guess you’d call him an Arafatist, one of the old Arafatists, but a secularist. And his kids were targeted and killed. You know, we’ve got nothing to do with Gaza. This is a virus, this is a debilitating disease within Islam. Do you think the ISG understands it’s not your father’s Oldsmobile?
CM: No, I don’t think so. And it’s very odd. Yes, you have Sunnis killing Shias, and Shias killing Sunnis in Iraq, and that’s a big problem. But somehow, a lot of the intellectual elite thinks that the only answer for that is for the U.S. to pull out, as if, for some reason, our being there is what’s causing the Shia to kill the Sunni, and the Sunni kill the Shia. Or, they think what we’ve got to do is settle the century old conflict between Jews and Arabs that’s taking place in Israel, and the surrounding Palestinian territories. I don’t think so. Yet these same people will tell you we need to take the troops that we’re going to pull out of Iraq, because they’re causing a civil war, and send them into Sudan, because there, Muslims are also killing Muslims, and there we’re going to help with the civil war. I don’t understand that. If the presence of Americans causes Muslims to kill Muslims, why is it different in Sudan and Darfur than it is in Iraq?
HH: An excellent point.
HH: Cliff May, as we gather, so do anti-Holocaust “scholars”, including the estimable David Duke and many other nutters in Tehran, and Ahmadinejad today, the charming president of said state, announced that Israel will go the way of the Soviet Union. At what point does it break through to even dedicated ISG’ers that this is a regime that really doesn’t have any interest in talking to us?
CM: Boy, I don’t know. There are some ISG’ers who really have, I think of what I can only call a very naive view of Iran. I’d argue with them, because they’d say it’s essentially a normal country, it has rational motives, it has real concerns about the U.S. After all, back in 1950, we were responsible for the overthrow of a leader. We supported the Shah. Don’t forget, they helped us in Afghanistan. They don’t seem…they kind of mirror image, I guess, and they don’t understand that someone like Ahmadinejad is genuinely different than we are. He has a very fanatical view, and you can’t simply think that he’s going to act in a rational way. Let me say it a little differently. You know, I spent some years studying the Soviet Union. I was an exchange student there. I was a reporter there. The Soviets, the communists, were evil, but they were rational, because they didn’t want to die. They didn’t think that an apocalypse would be a good thing from a religious point of view. So you could, in a way, deal with them. That’s not the case here. Ahmadinejad believes that a terrible apocalypse, in which millions of people are dying, their screams will be heard by the 12th Imam, who is now in occultation, and he’ll come back and save the world, which will all convert. He actually believes this kind of thing. But they don’t get that.
HH: And in not getting it, does that render…if you don’t get the central premise of something, what good could your advice possibly be?
CM: I think that’s true. I think there’s also this. There’s…some diplomats have an odd, almost faith-based belief in the power of talking, of diplomacy. Now there are talking tours in psychoanalysis. But when diplomacy, or any kind of negotiation, I think any businessman would tell you this, before you sit down, you’ve got to know what you’re going to say, and in particular, you’ve got to know what you’re going to offer, and you’ve got to know what you’re going to threaten. And my argument was to say if you guys want to talk to the Iranians, tell me what we’re going to offer them, and tell me what we’re going to threaten them with. Because until you can answer those questions, I don’t think you want to sit down with them, or they’ll see it as weakness and desperation. And in fact, they’ll probably be right about that.
HH: Now given that we have an enemy there, and that it’s expansionist and it’s deadly, and they want bad things, what do you…you get more than a minute with the President. What do you want him to do, visavis Iran?
CM: Visavis Iraq? Gosh, there’s a bunch…
HH: Not Iraq, Iran.
CM: In Iran? I think it is vitally important that Iran learn that we have the will and the power to damage them, to make them pay a price if they are not going to cooperate, and they are going to continue as they have to fuel turmoil in Iraq, and facilitate the killing of Iraqis and Americans. I think it should be made clear, we haven’t done this for more than 25 years, that if you kill Americans, you will pay a price, and we know how to exact that price. We stopped doing that a long time ago. I’d say we stopped doing that certainly in 1979. Our Embassy was seized, our diplomats held hostage, the Iranian regime responsible, including probably Ahmadinejad, almost surely. They were not held responsible, they were not made to pay for that. As a result, four years later, they said well, let’s see what else we can do, and Hezbollah, suicide bombers, way back in the early 1980’s, were dispatched to kill American Marines and diplomats. Our CIA chief in Beirut was tortured to death. Again, we did nothing to show them that you can’t get away with this.
HH: Now Cliff, let me ask you quickly. What are the sorts of things you are talking about? Are you talking about assassinating them?
CM: You know, I think that’s what you go to the CIA and Pentagon for, and say what can we do to hurt them? It could be as simple as you know where there’s a terrorist training camp, maybe it’s here today and gone tomorrow. Maybe there are islands they possess that have oil, and you hold them, and perhaps you decide that that oil is going into escrow for a better government. Maybe there are sea passages that you send your ships into, and you say we’re going to control these now, and that’s the way it goes. And maybe you decide that they’re not going to travel, and you try to get other European governments to go along with you. But if you can’t, you find another way not to let them out of the country. I think you find…a superpower can find a way to hurt a government and a regime that it dislikes, and explore your…
HH: Do we have the stomach, Cliff May, with 20 seconds, do we have the stomach for that?
CM: We’d better learn to have a stomach for that. If we don’t, all we can do is build a lot of barriers around our country, expand the Coast Guard, dismantle the military, hunker down, and hope for the best, because we’re finished if we can’t stand up to a regime like that in Tehran.
HH: Cliff May from the Foundation For the Defense of Democracies, thank you. Bracing stuff. www.defenddemocracy.org.
End of interview.