Yesterday I interviewed Peter Beinart on his new book The Icarus Syndrome. The transcript is below.
Peter is a frequent and a welcome guest on my program because he is smart, funny and usually willing to argue it out, but this interview, like his book, is very frustrating because Peter will not easily confront the very real possibilities of a worst case scenario arising from a withdrawal from Afghanistan. This refusal to consider such scenarios cripples the analysis of the left even as it does their analysis of the invasion of Iraq.
Peter bristles when I bring up 1932 through 1938 and the failure of France and Great Britain to confront Hitler when he could have been stopped. As with most of the left that has now changed their minds about Iraq, Peter denies the applicability of the “rise of Hitler” question, based upon demographic and industrial capacity issues that separate Germany then from Iraq seven years ago (and Iran today) without for a moment stopping to consider that the availability of WMD combined with fatalistic ideology renders those differences almost irrelevant. A suicidal dictator or a suicidal nation possessed of WMD or desiring to gain them (and with a reasonable possibility of doing so) makes every such scenario a 1932-1938 scenario.
People are much better off investing their time in Eric Metaxas’ magnificent new biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy this summer than Peter’s well-written but fatally flawed work. Metaxas educates us again on what actually happened between 1932 and 1938 which helps us understand why it could easily happen again, and in a place without Germany’s 1939 industrial capacity. Beinart tells us to pay no attention to that inconvenient history.
Here is the interview with Peter:
HH: Joined now by Peter Beinart. He’s an associate professor of journalism now at the City University of New York. He’s also at the New America Foundation. He writes for Time, he writes for Daily Beast, and he has a brand new book out called The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris. Peter, welcome back, good to talk to you.
PB: Thanks. Good talking to you.
HH: How hot is it on the East Coast?
PB: Oh, it’s insane.
HH: Just miserable?
PB: It is pretty miserable, I have to say.
HH: My goodness, it sounds like you’re in a echo chamber, but we’ll deal with that. Now Peter, the long and the short of The Icarus Syndrome is we shouldn’t have gone into Iraq, right?
PB: No, I wouldn’t say that. I would say the long and short of The Icarus Syndrome is that hubris and American foreign policy disaster tends to stem from American foreign policy success. That is the story of Iraq, I think, but it’s also the story of Vietnam, and I think it’s the story of World War I as well.
HH: Now I love the history, and I think the history is very interesting, especially when you put it opposite of Jonah Goldberg’s work on American Fascism. But I want to stay on the Iraq war, and particularly chapters 18 and 19, The Romantic Bully, etc. And your question is why did America invade Iraq. At the final analysis, Peter, after doing all this work, what’s your answer to that?
PB: I think America invaded Iraq because America overestimated its military and economic and ideological power as the result of a whole series of successes that really start with our victory in the Cold War, and our victory in Panama in the late 1980s.
HH: But you also write because of fear, I mean, I’m looking right now at Page 337…
PB: Yeah, but my argument is that fear is a function of power, which is to say we only allow ourselves to become truly terrified when we believe we’re powerful enough to do something about it. The reason America allowed the Soviet Union and China to get nuclear weapons, and kept our fears in check, was because we knew we had no military option. It was because we had so much military self-confidence in 2003 that we allowed, that the Bush administration allowed itself to basically create this sense of deep, deep fear about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.
HH: Now Peter, what I want to ask you and get right to the nub of it, because we only have two segments today, and I love talking to you about this at length, but yesterday, I interviewed Eric Metaxas about his new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And that chronicles in great detail the rise and the paralysis of the West in the face of the rise of Hitler through 1932-1939, the start of the war. And throughout that, I was thinking, because you’ve got The Icarus Syndrome on the other hand, if we had not moved against Saddam, would we be better off today?
PB: Yes, I think we would have. That’s not to say that there haven’t been real benefits to the Iraqi people and to the world in getting rid of Saddam. But when you look back, if you had told an American in 2003 on the eve of the war look, we’re going to overthrow Saddam, we’re going to create a better government, but it’s going to cost upwards of a trillion dollars, and we’re going to lose this many lives, and we’re still going to be there, and oh, by the way, he didn’t have a nuclear program and didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, I think people would say no, that was not the best use of American resources.
HH: Well, that’s a different question from what I’m asking, not whether or not we would do it again knowing what we know now, but whether or not the world is better off without Hussein today. What’s your answer to that, Peter?
PB: The world is better off without Saddam Hussein, but America is weaker because we went into Iraq.
HH: Well, wouldn’t the same thing have been said about France or Great Britain had they stopped Hitler after he reoccupied the Ruhr, or after he took over Austria, or anything like that? Wouldn’t it have been ugly and terrible, but they would have preempted what, which was by far a worse situation?
PB: No, I mean, it’s a terrible analogy. I mean, this tendency to kind of go back to Hitler as the foundational analysis, Germany was the most powerful industrial country in the world, with the capacity to dominate the entire, you know, European heartland and potentially, then, project naval and air power throughout the entire world. I mean, there’s simply no comparison to the amount of power that Saddam Hussein had.
HH: But Peter…
PB: And the threat that he was.
HH: That wasn’t the case in 1932, ’33, and ’34. It became the case in ’39 when they chose not to oppose him, but in ’32, ’33 and ’34, he was nothing.
PB: Germany had a latent power, because it hade been, starting in, you know, when it unified in the late 19th Century, the most potentially powerful country on the European continent, the only country, really, with the power to dominate the European landmass. I mean, Iraq simply just doesn’t anywhere near come close to that in terms of its latent or real power.
HH: But Peter, I never understand why the left will not confront the problem of the small dictator who is growing larger. And in this case, Saddam could have made the jump by use of WMD, which you point out he did not have, although Hitchens in his memoir says we’re still not sure about that. Have you read Hitch-22 yet, by the way?[# More #]
PB: No, but I would take the U.S. government’s own investigation, you know, on these questions as opposed to Christopher Hitchens, as much as I like him.
HH: He doesn’t say he had them. He said we don’t know what happened to them, or what might have been going on in his mind. I don’t think you would disagree with that.
PB: Well, look, we haven’t found anything. I think that’s…and we’ve dominated the country, we’ve occupied the country now for many, many years. I think there are lots of really, really nasty dictators out there in the world, but most of them do not represent a threat to the United States. And I think that’s the important distinction to make.
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HH: Weren’t you a left hawk, Peter Beinart?
PB: Yes, I was, and I still think that the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo and the Gulf War, were worth fighting. But I think that left hawks like me went too far in retrospect when we drew from those analogies to support the Iraq war.
HH: So how many of you are there left who were both for the war before you were against it? How many of them are there?
PB: Well, I mean, I think that there were a lot of people on the left who supported the Iraq war, and then of course, there were even more people on the right. And I think frankly, many, many, many thoughtful people have reconsidered in the wake of what we’ve learned. I mean, it seems to me intellectual growth is all about trying to factor in the new experiences that you have, and try to make sense of them. So I would hope that virtually everybody who’s thoughtful would have tried to learn something from the really, really agonizing experience that America’s had in Iraq.
HH: Yeah, but I think you’ll find a lot of left hawks, I’m not so interested in the center-right hawks of which I am one, or the neocons, or the American greatness conservatives. I know those people. I’m curious, since you live among them, about the left hawks, Hitchens being one of them. And I wonder if you had to guess about percentages, how many of the left hawks have become regret hawks?
PB: It’s hard to judge, but I would say probably, you know, more than 50%. I think there’s been more of a willingness to come to terms with the limits of American power among the left hawks than there has been amongst the neocons.
HH: But of those who have gone over to oppose themselves, in essence, who is the most obvious of them? Who is their spokesperson? Who’s out there hitting themselves on the back the most of the time and saying I was wrong, I was wrong, I am sorry?
PB: Well, I think actually, probably, I have probably spent more time writing about the reasons that I supported the war, and why I think it was a mistake, than most other people. Most other people kind of tend to kind of flee these things, and try to turn onto another topic. But I felt for me, it was really important to do that in order to try to rebuild a worldview that I felt took account of what I had gotten wrong in Iraq.
HH: And so what’s that worldview now hold about the use of American power, and does that worldview now believe we ought to stay the course in Afghanistan?
PB: I think that what I would say now is that when you’re talking about wars that are not based on a direct threat to the security of the American people, I think one has to recognize that the public’s willingness to sustain large-scale interventions, and huge amounts of spending, is really quite limited, and beyond that, that America is involved in a growing economic struggle due to rising powers in which wars that plunge us further and further into debt are more a source of weakness than a strength.
HH: But now going back to the same question, though. Ought we to leave Afghanistan, Peter?
PB: I’m afraid that I think we’re going to have no choice but to leave Afghanistan. I think that the United States is involved in a very, very strange endeavor now in Afghanistan, in which the war on terror itself, the fight against al Qaeda, is mostly being fought in Pakistan, with drones, especially, and with counterintelligence, and we are essentially involved in a massively expensive, unending effort to try to build a nation in Afghanistan. And as much as I wish the Afghans well, I would actually think there would be conservatives, of all people, who would recognize that that is probably going to be an effort beyond our capacity.
HH: But Peter, that is descriptive. I’m asking for your prescriptive opinion about whether or not we ought to leave.
PB: I think we ought to leave, yes.
PB: Because we do not have the capacity to defeat the Taliban in anything like, you know, a reasonable space of time. The core principles of counterinsurgency are you have to have a government that really believes it. You can’t have a successful counterinsurgency effort when, as we found out from the recent Rolling Stone piece, the leader of Afghanistan itself doesn’t even know all the provinces where the U.S. military is fighting. If the Afghan government does not own this effort, it’s not going to succeed. That’s the history of all development efforts. We can’t own it more than them, and they don’t own it.
HH: So when do you want us to leave?
PB: I would have rather President Obama, I think that I would have, I would start to draw down troops sooner than next summer, which is the date that Obama has set.
HH: And so no matter what the consequences were, even if the Taliban rolled into Kandahar, even if they began to march on Kabul, the heck with it, we’re just done?
PB: They already control Kandahar. They’ve controlled Kandahar for years now.
HH: So your answer is yes, no matter what happens, if they take over Kandahar formally, and not just in a de facto way, and they move on Kabul, we should just roll out?
PB: No, look, I don’t think they’ll take over Kabul, because they’re…
HH: But if they did, Peter, if they did, you would say that’s fine?
PB: No, no, I wouldn’t say that.
HH: Well, come on. You just…
PB: No, what I’m saying is we can prevent them from taking Kabul without U.S. troop presence there.
HH: Well now wait, Peter. You’ve got to live with the consequences of defeatism.
PB: No, I am.
HH: If you’re going to be for defeatism…
PB: Look, the consequences are pretty clear. The Taliban will be the dominant force in the southern part of Afghanistan. They’re very unlikely to take Kabul, because the Russians don’t want them to, the Indians don’t want them to…
HH: But Peter, again, if they do, though, I just want to follow through the consequences.
PB: Well, I mean, who’s to say, what will happen if they take Moscow?
HH: No, I’m asking would you, at any…
PB: I’m saying the chances are…
HH: Would you stop them if they got close to Kabul?
PB: Would I stop them with U.S. ground troops?
PB: I would say maybe, you know, probably not.
PB: But I don’t think it’s going to be necessary.
HH: Okay, I know you don’t. But I’m just following the logical consequences of defeatism through. Probably not. So they take Kabul, and they all of a sudden establish what they had prior to 2001, and they begin to entertain al Qaeda again…
PB: Hugh, you’re making an assumption that is factually wrong.
HH: No, I’m just asking…
PB: And any serious analyst would suggest their chances of taking Kabul are extremely limited.
HH: But Peter, you’ve got to play out the consequences…
PB: Hugh, Hugh…
HH: It’s not intellectually consistent.
PB: No, because Hugh, what you’re trying to do is basically make me conjecture a series of worst-case scenarios…
HH: Yes. Yes, I am.
PB: …and then base my policies…no, but worst-case scenarios are not the only scenarios to confront. It seems to me it’s precisely only thinking in terms of the worst-case scenarios that have gotten us partly into this mess in which we exaggerate threats, and therefore drain ourselves of blood and treasure based on an exaggerated sense of threat.
HH: Peter, it’s like you’ve got amnesia. It’s like you woke up in the Year 2000, and you’re unwilling to recognize that we still have these al Qaeda/Taliban connections, and they might do it again. I just want to hear you say…
PB: No, I believe that al Qaeda is much weaker, much weaker than they were on September 11th. They have not been able to pull off another 9/11 anywhere in the world…
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HH: Peter, I want to give you a chance, though. Yes, I’m asking you about the worst-case scenarios. The reason I’m doing that is because we didn’t do that throughout the 1990s under Bill Clinton. You’re asking us to go back to that period of time.
PB: What are you talking about? What do you mean we didn’t do that during the 1990s under Bill Clinton? We fought, we went to war in both Bosnia and Kosovo during Bill Clinton, and we bombed the heck out of Iraq in 1998 in Desert Fox.
HH: Bill Clinton did not see any risk in allowing al Qaeda under protection of the Taliban to nest in Afghanistan. You’re saying if Kabul falls, as you just said in the last segment, we ought not to oppose that with American ground troops. So if al Qaeda comes back, however weakened they are, if they grow stronger, you are going to be on record as saying that’s just fine.
PB: And you’re going to be on record as having hyped a danger, and therefore led the United States into more and more deaths, and deeper and deeper debt to countries that don’t wish us very well. The truth, it seems to me people on your side have to explain, is why, in fact, al Qaeda has not been able to pull off anywhere another 9/11 attack in the last ten years now. How long do we have to wait before we revise our perception of what this threat is?
HH: It may be that it’s another forty years like the Cold War, and yes, I have to say, I’m glad that they have not been able to regain their strength because we are in Afghanistan, and I would not cut and run like you are suggesting our military cut and run.
PB: I don’t think it’s mostly because of Afghanistan, because remember, al Qaeda’s not mostly in Afghanistan. They’re mostly in the border lands of Pakistan, where we’re fighting them with drone strikes and with cooperation with the Pakistani intelligence. We’ll keep doing that, no matter what happens in Afghanistan.
HH: Oh, now that’s not true. I mean, Peter, if we leave Afghanistan, we lose the ability to base those drones as effectively as we do now, we lose the ability to press them on the east, even as they are on the west. We lose all that. I mean, you’ve just got to live with the consequences of what you’re urging, which is, in fact, defeat, and the resurgence of al Qaeda and Taliban power.
PB: Well, but you keep on, first of all, you keep on talking about al Qaeda and the Taliban as if they’re one thing. They’re not. There are connections between the two, but the Taliban is also an Afghan movement with pretty deep links among the Pashtun, whereas al Qaeda is a transnational organization focused on trying to kill people in the West. The two do not have to be lumped together. It’s like what we did during the Cold War when we tried, when we lumped the entire communist world together, rather than recognizing that they could be dealt with very differently.
HH: Last question. Is there any evidence, because I didn’t see it in The Icarus Syndrome, is there any evidence that the Taliban will reject al Qaeda systematically and whole-heartedly, so that they do not nest again in Afghanistan if the Taliban retake control of the country?
PB: They don’t have to reject al Qaeda whole-heartedly. But we don’t need to fight against the entire Taliban in order to focus our efforts on al Qaeda.
HH: Peter, I just think you’re not dealing with the consequences of your defeat, but I appreciate your coming on. And the book is The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris. We’ve just covered the last two chapters. The rest is interesting history, and I can’t wait to see Jonah Goldberg and Peter debating somewhere about the last hundred years of American history. Thank you, Peter.