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Times of London U.S. editor Gerard Baker on Karl Rove, the surge, and the British view of the war.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007
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HH: Joined now by Gerard Baker. He is the U.S. editor of the United Kingdom’s Times of London, and he’s not long removed from a trip back to the homeland. Gerard, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show.

GB: Thank you, Hugh.

HH: How recently were you in the UK?

GB: I just got back just over a week ago.

HH: Oh, excellent. I’ve got lots to talk to you about, but since you wrote yesterday’s column, or today’s column about Karl Rove, and I quote here, “Bush’s brain has finally left the building,” I thought I would ask, you know, the United Kingdom’s had some superstar political consultants before. I can’t remember the fellow’s name who was in the Queen, advising Tony Blair. Who was that supposed to be?

GB: Yeah, Alistair Campbell, probably.

HH: That’s right.

GB: In fact, he’s just written his notes, his memoirs, he’s published his memoirs from this Downing Street years. Yeah, he was a pretty…I don’t think he was quite in Karl Rove’s league, but he was a pretty serious political consultant.

HH: And what has happened to him? If we try and project what happens to Karl Rove post-White House, what’s happened to Alistair Campbell?

GB: Well, it’s a bit different for him, because I mean, he became, he got into some difficulty over, if you recall now, it’s all too sort of painful to bring it all up again, but there was the whole issue of the Blair government and the BBC, and the BBC accusing the Blair government essentially of lying about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

HH: Right, right.

GB: And Campbell was very much involved in defending Blair, obviously, as you would expect over that, and got himself into pretty hot water…well, I mean, I don’t think actually he did anything improper, but he certainly became a very kind of a very controversial figure. And it was just felt, I mean, Blair was in so much trouble, and of course, you know, having a Parliamentary system as we do in the UK, you know, you’re in this position where if you have an approval rating of 30%, let’s say, or a little bit over which, say, the President has at the moment, which is exactly where Tony Blair was, the pressure on you to go is very, very strong. And that in the end, obviously, is what led to Tony Blair going. So all those people around you in those circumstances are very vulnerable. So he found himself really in really quite, quite serious political difficulties. But what he’s done is he’s gone off and he’s gone to write these…he’s written up his book, and he’s giving speeches, and you know, he seems still a fairly sought after person, because he’s a very bright, very clever, very thoughtful political thinker.

HH: Now you write, “It was a consciously partisan style that aimed to energize the conservative political base of the Republican Party,” when you were writing about Rove today. Do you expect he’ll go off to write his memoir, give some speeches, and remain a very influential person?

GB: I certainly hope so. I mean, I certainly hope he writes his memoir, because I think I, for one, and I’m sure lots of other people would like to read it. Yeah, I would have thought…I mean, my view, as I wrote in the rest of that piece about Rove, that it was that in the end, yes, all the things that have been said about him, of course it’s true that he obviously did sort of go for the kind of polarizing approach. You know, I thought David Frum had a very interesting piece about him in the New York Times today in which he said he may have been a great sort of technician as it were, a political technician, but he wasn’t a great political strategist. I think in the end, my own view is that look, that was his job, after all, to be a sort of, to win elections for the President, and it really…I mean, what has gone wrong for President Bush and this administration, above all else, and I think it really would, nothing would be as bad as it is now if it weren’t this, is Iraq. And that’s, whatever else you can say about Karl Rove, you can’t blame him for the way the administration has mishandled the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

HH: Now you call the Iraq invasion/occupation a catastrophe in your column today. Need it remain that way in your opinion, Gerard Baker?

GB: No, I don’t…I mean, look, it’s always hard to know exactly what noun or adjectives to use when you’re describing this thing. I’m fairly comfortable in my position that I think the last four years have been a catastrophe. I think the administration has handled it incredibly badly. I still think, I remain, you know, optimism has not been very well rewarded over Iraq over the last four years, so I’m hesitant to describe myself as an optimist. But clearly, the evidence that you know, since the surge got up to speed just a couple of months ago, since the U.S. has really started to get beyond the problems of the last four years, and get beyond the mistakes of the last four years. And there is, there are encouraging signs. And it’s not just conservatives like me or you who see these encouraging signs. I mean, it’s interesting that people, you know, really good, I think, really good objective reporters on the ground…you’ve had John Burns on your show. I think he’s just one of the best reporters in the world, quite frankly. I mean, even what he’s been saying, and he’s an objective reporter, is that there is, there are encouraging signs of progress. So I call it a catastrophe up to now, but I don’t, I haven’t given up hope that something good can still come of it.

HH: And to that end, and I’m not hammering you too hard, it’s just that I think it’s a word that connotes a lot to some people. Did Lincoln’s conduct of the war prior to the summer of ’64 and the appointment of Grant constitute a catastrophe, Gerard Baker? Did the government, His Majesty’s government conduct of the Boer war, Her Majesty’s conduct of the Boer war constitute a catastrophe up to winning?

GB: I don’t know. I mean, this is where we get into, obviously, semantics. I’ll give you another example. Did the British government and the short-lived French governments’ conduct of the first year of the Second World War, from September, ’39 to June, 1940 constitute a catastrophe?

HH: Sure.

GB: I mean, it was, in that wonderfully British way, of course, Dunkirk, the retreat of British forces from France in the beginning of the Battle of Britain, which is a terrible catastrophe for Britain, unquestioned. I use the word there advisedly. It turned out it was turned into a great triumph, I mean, in public relations terms, because we did actually manage to get most of the British out. Look, wars do not always go in a straight line, never go in a straight line from beginning to end in a straight line on a sure path towards victory. And I think that that is true of every war, and I hope that is true of the Iraq war. I think, however, I would say that the mess that the U.S., and actually the British, too, have managed to get themselves in, in Iraq, is probably greater. The hole that they’ve dug is probably deeper for themselves than the holes that were dug in those previous examples that you’ve given. But again, you know, I use words…sometimes we use these words a little loosely. I don’t think there is reason yet to believe that the entire Iraq operation, the entire Iraq war is a catastrophe, but I think up until now, it’s been very disappointing.

HH: Let me switch over to the Basra issue, because the Washington Post ran a lengthy piece in recent days saying that the Brits’ pullout from Basra had turned the city over to warring militias, and a renewed sectarian, though it’s Shiite on Shiite violence, is there any regret in Great Britain over the precipitous withdrawal from Basra, though not from Iraq?

GB: Unfortunately not. The debate…and I think that’s exactly right, and it’s not just the Washington Post. There have been some very…we actually, my own paper had an extremely good report from our reporter, Anthony Lloyd in Basra just last week, saying, actually in much more detail, exactly the same story that a desire by the British, frankly for political reasons, it’s not dissimilar to the argument that’s been going on here with Democrats in Congress, a desire for political reasons to get British troops out of the front line, and to hand over prematurely the running of Basra to undesirable troops has been a disaster. And you know, that is clear. Unfortunately, the problem in Britain is that the debate is so…I mean, in political terms, the war is over in Britain. The Iraq war is over, it’s lost. We’ve lost. I mean, you know, Harry Reid would be right in the mainstream of British political opinion, I’m afraid at the moment. The view is the war is lost, it’s hopeless, we shouldn’t be there, the British troops should come out as quickly as they can, and frankly, it’s better off if they end up going into their barracks in Basra, and the Iraqis end up killing each other, fine, so be it, it’s not our fault. So no, the answer is the debate…there’s no…unfortunately, except for people like me who’ve supported the war, and a tiny minority of Brits like me, most people think no, no, this is crazy, we shouldn’t be there in the first place. Unfortunately, it’s not having much of a political impact.

HH: 30 seconds left. Is Gordon Brown popular in the UK right now, Gerard Baker?

GB: He is at the moment. He is, he’s got off to a good start. He’s new, he’s different, he’s managed to sort of ride the desire for change, and he looks like a different prime minister from Tony Blair. It’s early days, though, yet, and I have difficulty believing that the Gordon Brown that we in the media have always, and indeed most of the public to be honest, have always had doubts about over the last few years, has been sort of banished forever in this.

HH: We’ll see. Gerard Baker, a pleasure. Thanks for being on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

End of interview.

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