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Times of London U.S. editor Gerard Baker on foreign policy.

Monday, December 18, 2006
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HH: Joined now and for the next couple of segments by Gerard Baker. He is the assistant editor and the U.S. editor of the Times of London, a graduate of Oxford. You see him on Fox, CNN, a bunch of different places. Gerard Baker, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show.

GB: Thank you very much, Hugh.

HH: It’s good to make your acquaintance. I’ve been reading your stuff for a long time at the Weekly Standard and other places. And when we called you up to be on Somalia day, you said to my producer, I haven’t written anything about Somalia. That’s going to change, I think, pretty soon.

GB: Yeah, I think you might be right. I’ve been following it from, well, from a great distance, both kind of geographically and intellectually. But I think you’re right. I think as soon as this week, we could start to see things getting really unpleasant and very interesting there.

HH: Yesterday, your newspaper ran a very long piece which I’ve linked at Hughhewitt.com, How Memories of Black Hawk Down Cast Shadow Over Hopes For Peace. And it goes into detail, the rise of the Islamic courts, the rise of Sharia law, and the looming war with Ethiopia. How would you describe the players in this part of the world to someone who’s just looking at them for the first time on a map?

GB: Well, I think it’s not too simplistic to say that this is really part of the global struggle that frankly is going on between the forces of civilization and progress, and the forces of, essentially, Islamist fundamentalism. And what you’re seeing in Somalia, and you’ve seen over quite a long period of time now, is the growing influence of Islamist, frankly, Islamist-facists, the kind of terrorist supporting groups, who have been trying, and pretty successfully, to destabilize the government of President Yusuf, who is…I mean, actually, he’s not a particularly great figure in Somali politics, or at even global politics. But he does, on the whole, represent a belief in a more pro…if you like, pro-Western progressive approach. But the supporters of Islamism are making considerable progress, and they are…I think we are on the verge of an all-out civil war. It’s one of those…been kind of a low-grade civil war going on for the last fifteen years, which the U.S., of course, got involved in back in the early 90’s to a disastrous outcome. But we are now seeing…the chances are, I think, that very soon, that civil war is going to escalate, and that this is going to be an all-out struggle to see whether Islamism and al Qaeda, and they’re strong supporters of al Qaeda in Somalia, whether they end up taking control of the country.

HH: Now Gerard Baker, when your newspaper was covering this, as well as the Washington Post today, and in fact, the Standard of Kenya, there’s a temptation to present this as Christian Ethiopia versus Islamic Somalia. Is that fair?

GB: It is obviously more complex than that, and let me also say…I mean, this is not part of the world that I’ve spent a lot of time in, so I’m going on, to some extent, what I’ve read, histories I’ve read, and what I’m reading at the moment in the papers. You can always be too simplistic about these things, but that…I mean, the broad threat in Somalia itself, as others have said, is divided, and actually has a government…it is a predominantly Muslim state, but it’s divided between Islamic extremists, that is to say the al Qaeda supporters, who are essentially making progress there, and others who would prefer, frankly, for their own…not necessarily just because they’re better people, but actually because they believe the future of their country lies in aligning itself with the West. So that’s what you’ve got going on in Somalia, and Ethiopia is largely a Christian country. I mean, that’s correct. And Ethiopia bordering Somalia feels increasingly threatened, because Ethiopia also has Islamic minorities, Muslim minorities, and it wants to…it fears a resurgent Islam in this part of Africa, the Horn of Africa, it’s called. It could really destabilize its own people and its own society, too. So it really is very unnerved by what’s going on in Somalia, and wants to try and stop it.

HH: You know, in the 80’s, when there were Cubans in Ethiopia, and Mengistu was the dictator of the decade there, Siad Barre was the dictator in Mogadishu, and he was sort of viewed as a counterweight. And this is now…they were areligious states at the time. Now, they are known for being religious states. Do you think this is the trend throughout the continent, Gerard Baker? And understanding fully that it’s not your particular area of expertise, nevertheless, I think Europeans watch Africa a lot more than Americans do.

GB: Yeah, I think it is. I mean, Africa is fascinating in this respect, because it’s one…there is this myth in Europe, actually, that religion…it’s a very Eurocentric view of the world, that religion is in decline everywhere, because religion is obviously…or organized religion, certainly, is heavily in decline in Europe. And Europeans tend to think that they’re advanced and more civilized and more reasonable than everybody else in the world, and sooner or later, the rest of the world is going their way. That’s of course actually not the case. I mean, religion actually, not just Islam, but actually Christianity all over the world, is actually advancing in many areas. And Africa is in many ways the kind of global flashpoint of these advancing religious…I mean, Christianity has made significant progress in Africa, both the Catholic Church, but also the Protestant Chuches throughout many parts of Africa, and it’s coming into more and more conflict, obviously, and you’ve seen the incredible tragedy we’ve got in Darfur and Sudan, which is part of this story. And you’re also seeing in other parts of East Africa now, and in Somalia. And I think that it is true, that the old clash…East-West clash, Cold War clash, communism-capitalism clash that we saw for fifty, sixty years, to some extent, has been replaced by a kind of clash of civilizations, which a lot of people have talked about, a clash of religions in places like Africa. To some extent, I think also the false ideology of communism, and the false construct that we had through the Cold War, actually sort of put a lid on these religious differences and these religious tensions that were there all along, but were somehow superseded by the need to take sides in the Cold War. When the Cold War went away, I think what came back to the surface were these religious tensions.

HH: Now Gerard Baker, you were an economist before you became a journalist. Is there any economy, per se, in this region of the world? I’m just so unfamiliar with Somalia. I know Kenya’s sort of a basket case nowadays. How do they make any money there?

GB: Well, that’s a very good question. I mean, the problem is, this is a continent, a whole continent, that has been marked by economic misery and, frankly, by a kind of…by essentially expropriation and kind of rape by extremely bad leaders over a very, very, very long period of time. There have been one or two success stories. I mean, I always think this is fascinating that the amount of Western aid that has been poured into Africa over the years, you know, runs into the hundreds of billions of dollars. And most of these countries that have received it are actually as poor, if not poorer than they were when they started receiving it 50, 60, 70 years ago. There are a couple of cases where countries that have followed, actually, relatively sensible, benign, kind of economic procedures such as…Uganda is a good example. Uganda is probably one of the few, one of the handful of examples you can find in Africa, where there has been modest success. I mean, it’s actually…Botswana is another one. There are a couple of countries that essentially have followed the kind of capitalist approach, that are relatively free countries, and nobody would begin to describe these countries as free in most of the sense that you or I understand it in America or Britain. But they are freer than most of the other countries in Africa, and they have made remarkable strides. I mean, you compare a country like Uganda, its poverty rate and its mortality rate, compared with some of the poorest countries, and Somalia’s a good example, it’s almost as though they’re in different worlds, let alone in different continents, although they’re close to each other on the same continent. So there has been success. The problem is, unfortunately, a kind of…the kind of do-gooding tendency in the West, the kind of view that puts the United Nations and kind of liberal approach to the rest of the world above all else, has not done most of the people of Africa any benefit, any favors at all. Those countries that have done well are ones that have actually learned, where the people have started to learn to stand on their own two feet, and have succeeded economically.

– – – – –

HH: You’re in Washington, D.C. a lot, Gerard Baker. How often are you in London?

GB: I’m based in Washington, D.C. I go to London, though, probably five or six times a year, so I’m there once every couple of months, usually, for a few days at a time. I was there, in fact, just the week before last.

HH: And how long have you been in exile in the United States for?

GB: Gosh, a long time now. I’ve been here for almost exactly ten years. I was first here with the Financial Times, and then a couple of years ago, I joined the Times of London. So I’m, as you say, I’m in almost permanent exile these days.

HH: Now in your December 1st column for the Times of London, you wrote, “War in Iraq is melting down U.S. resolve.” This was, of course, in the aftermath of the Baker commission. And that meltdown may be more pronounced in some circles than in others, but I’m wondering, given that weakness in support for the Iraq war, do you see the United States having the necessary political resolve to handle the Somalia problem?

GB: Frankly, no. I mean, I think…actually, I would say in the two weeks since I wrote that column…in fact, I wrote another column last week saying, adjusting that view slightly. I’ve been encouraged by the response, in a way, to the Baker commission report, which seems to me to have been…essentially, it’s been drowned in a kind of chorus of raspberries here in Washington, that people have understood that the Baker commission report, I think, is a kind of recipe, definitely a recipe for defeat in Iraq. So that has changed a bit. And my sense is, just from talking to people around Washington, that the President will, when he comes out in the new year with his policy for Iraq, will actually commit himself to it with new resolve to doing something about it. But even if that is the case, and even if the American people, as I think and hope they have, they have the resolve to continue the fight in Iraq, I think the idea…or even the question of the military capability of going off and doing something on another continent, addressing another insurgency, if you like, in a continent where, especially a country where the United States so recently got such a bloody nose, seems to me to be pretty well inconceivable. I just don’t see any prospect whatsoever that the United States will be able to do anything about what’s going on in Somalia.

HH: Can we be indifferent to it, though? Because they are going to be Taliban south. It’s going to be a haven. It already is, actually, for al Qaeda. Your newspaper reported that al Qaeda’s actually cheering on this radicalization that’s going on. Who knows, I raised last segment, I suppose Saudi irregular money is flowing there, as it’s flown to every Wahabist group in the globe. So can we just stand back and say we’ll check in a few years after we’re done being tired?

GB: I don’t think you can. I don’t think…I certainly don’t think you can ignore it. I think the question is whether or not significant…whether there’s any prospect of a significant deployment to Somalia to try and intervene there, and stop what’s going on. And that’s what seems to me to be impossible. But let’s hope that there’s still ways in which the U.S. can leverage relatively small amounts of resource commitment and manpower into real political outcomes. And it’s possible, it seems to me, that…essentially, we are probably back into the situation we were quite often in during the Cold War fight. We’re not just going to have to confront the enemy directly. The United States and Britain and its allies are not going to just confront the enemy directly. They’re going to have to confront it through proxy wars, too. And to some extent, what you could end up with in this part of the world is a series of proxy wars. And there, the United States probably has got much more capabilities to commit resources in terms of financial support, in terms of advice, in terms of assistance, in terms of diplomatic support, to a country that is actually, if you like, fighting al Qaeda for us. In this case, I think it probably is likely to be Ethiopia, with its allies, with its kind of anti-Islamist allies in Somalia.

HH: The United States military does have a pretty large footprint in Djibouti, from which it deploys assets throughout the entire region on missions which are, more often than not, clandestine. But nevertheless, we do have trainers there. Great Britain…I’m pretty poor on colonial history. Were they…did they run Kenya?

GB: Yes, yes.

HH: Okay, does it retain a special relationship with Great Britain?

GB: Yes, very much so, still a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, and it’s still…I mean, well, you know again, Britain, it’s been a messy history, but Britain, on the whole, retains, yes, pretty good relations there. And in fact, one of the things that Britain, that Tony Blair has tried to do in the last five years or so is actually to galvanize a little bit some of these African countries that are allies, or potential allies of the West, to try and resist some of this slide in Islamism. So there are certainly things that can be done there, and you know, let’s hope that Britain and the United States will be able to do them.

HH: The first paragraph of yesterday’s editorial in the Standard, the leading newspaper in Kenya, “Somalia, our next door neighbor, is headed to war. This is no longer an expression of fear or speculation. The drumbeats of war are on. A face off may be Tuesday. The guns are oiled. The consequences for the region, particularly Kenya, which is like to host thousands of those who will flee the bloodbath, are grim. There’s every indication that the war is set to begin any time.” Does that mean stepped up deployment from Great Britain? Have you heard anything like that of advisors or assistance?

GB: No, there’s been nothing of that sort. There’s certainly been nothing public. And again, Britain is obviously even more stretched than the United States is at the moment, in terms of military commitments. We’ve obviously got a sizeable contingent, nothing on the scale of the U.S. contingent, but by our standards, a pretty sizeable contingent in Iraq, a very sizeable contingent by any standards in Afghanistan. And then that’s in addition to the existing military deployments the U.K. has in Europe and Northern Ireland, the Falkland Islands.

– – – –

HH: Mr. Baker, going back to where we were right before the break, when Tony Blair leaves in the next four or five months, will the government that replaces him, the prime minister that replaces him, be the same sort of supporter for the Global War On Terror that Mr. Blair has been?

GB: Well, that is the $64,000 dollar question. Let me…for the benefits of your listeners, the man who is almost certain to replace him is Gordon Brown, who is currently the Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, or treasury secretary equivalent. He has been the man in waiting to replace Tony Blair for the last ten years. He will take over…we don’t have to have another election in Britain for another two, at least a minimum of two, two and a half years. Gordon Brown will take over. His views, generally…I mean, he’s very well known in terms of his economic views, because he’s been, as I say, the equivalent of treasury secretary for the last ten years. His views on issues on terrorism, or Iraq, or foreign policy generally, are much less well known. He’s not actually spoken very much about them. And there’s a sense that, partly because Tony Blair’s so unpopular in Britain, unfortunately because of the Iraq war, there’s a sense that those people who have essentially forced Tony Blair out somewhat earlier are looking forward to Gordon Brown, because they think he’s actually going to be much less likely to support the Global War On Terrorism. My own view, and I know Gordon Brown a bit. I’ve spoken to him on a number of occasions, and I know a lot of people close to him. I think they’re going to be in for a big surprise. I think actually Gordon Brown is going to be a pretty reliable supporter. Now I don’t think he’ll have the same personal relationship that Tony Blair has with George Bush, or indeed, actually, as it happens, Tony Blair had with Bill Clinton either, for that matter. But I think Gordon Brown is very pro-American. He very much understands, I think, what’s at stake in the world. And even though it’s not a popular position, my goodness, it’s not popular at the moment in Britain to support the Iraq war, I think Brown understands really what’s at stake here, and that sometimes, you have to do some unpopular things. So I think actually, that’s the good news, that Gordon Brown will, insofar as he is politically able to, continue to prosecute this war, and continue to support the United States in it.

HH: And so, right before the break, though, you were pointing out how stretched the UK’s forces are. So even if Somalia explodes, and Kenya is caught in a crisis, you just think the cupboard is bare?

GB: Yeah, I mean, my guess is the first thing that will happen, indeed if it’s not happening already, is that Britain does have a slight kind of knee-jerk reaction to go to the U.N. in these circumstances. Now I don’t want to sound too critical of the U.N. The U.N. can be useful in these circumstances if it can assemble a reasonable force, reasonably quickly. And I think what the British government position will be, as I suspect the American administration’s position will be, too, will be to say look, obviously implicitly say we don’t have the resources to do much about this. We can’t…but we need to get together an African grouping to step in, and there will be efforts to get the organization for African unity, I’m sure, as well as on Britain’s part, some of the Commonwealth nations in Africa to come and to step in. So as I say, I do think we’re looking much more at the likelihood of…if resources have to be committed to a kind of proxy war, rather than a direct military engagement by the United States, Britain, or indeed anybody else from outside this region.

HH: Now a couple of final questions, Gerard Baker. Thanks for your time today, by the way.

GB: Nah…go ahead.

HH: The UK’s had a couple of very high profile warnings, very specific to this time of year, about terrorist attacks in London or its close environs. Is there a sense of inevitability among the Londoners you’ve been speaking with?

GB: Yeah, I think there is. I mean, I think…we already had a big attack in July, last year. Many other attacks have been thwarted, most famously, the attempt this summer to blow up airlines headed towards the United States. We know in Britain that we have a sizeable minority, sadly, of people who are fundamentally opposed to the British way of life, who are essentially Islamist terrorists, or their sympathizers, and Britain is a very easy country to get in and out of. Even though it’s an island, you can now get whatever you need, inside and out. And you may not even need to bring stuff in from outside anyway, because as I say, there are these people there who are intent on destroying, if they can, British society anyway. So the mood in London, whenever I go, is one of yeah…it’s not quite fatalism, or just sort of acceptance of the inevitable, but an awareness that this is an extremely likely probability. And in a funny way, it doesn’t stop people going about their ordinary lives. They carry on, going about their ordinary lives, but they are, I think, all the time at the backs of their minds, is the presentiment that there’s going to be another enormous attack sometime soon.

HH: Is there a racial confrontation coming as a result of this? Is there a sense that…

GB: I think there…I mean, I really think there is a danger of that. It’s quite striking to read…we actually had a piece in my paper today by a man, by a Muslim, actually, who feels increasingly kind of uncomfortable on the streets of London, funnily enough, because…also much, I think, if you like, ordinary, law abiding Londoners have no…are perfectly good and decent and tolerant people. They’re not going to attack Muslims. But actually, there is a kind of undercast, if you like, an underclass of British society that is on the lookout for trouble anyway, and is turning itself, to some extent, into a kind of vigilantist group looking at seeking out Muslims. And unfortunately, the problem we have in Britain is that many of the leaders of Muslim groups just make that situation worse by actually, if not directly condoning terrorist groups and condoning those who want to destroy British society, then at least purporting to understand them, and asking people to understand them, and to be more sympathetic. And instead of coming out writing and condemning them, they think that they’re better off, for whatever reason, actually, as I say, giving them some kind of tacit tolerance. Now the problem with that is that most British people see that, and as I say, even the most tolerant British people think that that is unacceptable, and that that turns, that does raise the danger of a religious and ethnic clash in the country.

HH: Gerard Baker, last question. Your duty is to report and explain what’s going here to your readers back in London.

GB: I try.

HH: If people are asking you who’s going to be the next president of the United States, who are you telling them now?

GB: Well, you know, I always say, I’ve been in this country for ten years, and actually, I’m been here longer than that, because I was here in the late 80’s and early 90’s, too. But ten years continuously, and I always say, and I’ve also studied American politics in Britain before then. I love American politics. I’ve always been fascinated by it. I always say making predictions at this stage of presidential elections are absolutely, absolutely pointless. Really, any prediction you’d have made at this stage in the last ten presidential elections would probably have been wrong. However, when pushed, people always say well, that’s all very well, I understand that. But I still want to know who’s going to win the next election. At this point, you say well, the frontrunner seems to be John McCain. I mean, he seems to have all the requisite qualities that would make him win a general election, certainly against Hillary Clinton, or even, I would argue, a Barak Obama. And the question obviously is, everybody wants to know, can he win the Republican nomination, because he’s known not to be liked by conservatives. But that’s obviously what makes politics so fascinating. That’s what we see, so that’s the answer.

HH: Who do you see as his biggest threat?

GB: Sorry?

HH: Who do you see as his biggest threat within the Republican Party?

GB: Well, I would guess, that’s in a sense what makes it so hard for his opponents. All his big threats seem to have, seem to be flawed in some way. I mean, I do think Mitt Romney has a problem to some extent. He’s an attractive candidate for conservatives. He’s got two problems, obviously, because both of his religion, but also because he does seem to have shifted his views on some of these important issues for conservatives. You’ve got Rudy Giuliani, who’s obviously an attractive candidate, but has positions that are obviously unacceptable to most conservatives. And I would say Newt Gingrich, funnily enough. He might start to become an interesting contender.

HH: Interesting. Gerard Baker from the Times of London, thank you. Great to make your acquaintance. Look forward to having you back on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

End of interview.

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