HH: We open today’s program with a segment, I promised you I’ll do a segment at least once a day on the conditions leading up to the report by General Petraeus in September. Today, we’re joined by Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol. Hello, Bill, good to talk to you.
BK: Hi, Hugh, how are you?
HH: Good. Now you’re just back from Iraq.
BK: Yes, and in fact, I had dinner with General Petraeus a week ago today now that you mention him.
HH: Tell me, how long were you inside Iraq for?
BK: I was there with Fred Kagan and Kim Kagan, the two military experts, for eight days. And we were in Baghdad, and out west in Anbar province, saw very senior officers like General Petraeus and General Odierno, and talked to a lot of battalion and brigade commanders, and to lots of lieutenants and captains and enlisted guys.
HH: We’ll come back and walk through the specifics, but give us the bottom line. Is the surge working?
BK: Yes. No one there thinks it’s not, and that includes, incidentally, lots of military officers we talked to who were skeptical about it. There were divisions among the military over there about whether this was doable. Now that it’s been going six months, I had a long conversation with a colonel who was a skeptic, he thought it was a mistake in January, and he says it’s unquestionably working.
HH: Now given that the military believes it, and a number of observers…you’re not alone in this, nor is Mr. Kagan. You’ve also got O’Hanlon and Pollack and a number of other people, John Burns was on this program at length, General Petraeus is expected to say the same thing. Does that mean that the Democrats will listen?
BK: Well, I hope a few will. I mean, Ken Pollack and Mike O’Hanlon are Democrats, and they went over there and saw things with their own eyes, and reported back the truth. Whether elected officials will listen, I don’t know. I mean, it’s a depressing thought that an entire political party, or the bulk of one, doesn’t want, seems not to want to hear good news about a major American foreign policy effort in which, you know, 160,000 American soldiers are fighting bravely, and the country is fighting a brutal enemy, which if it defeats us, will be a very bad thing for America. So I hope some Democrats do decide to listen.
HH: Now when you say it’s working, unpack that a little bit for the audience. Does it mean more terrorists dead? Does it mean more ability to walk the streets? A greater amount of power? What’s it mean?
BK: Well, all of it. It means more security…Iraq’s a complicated place. Things can work in some areas, and be lagging in others. But there’s more security throughout. In some areas, that security has translated with amazing speed to political improvements. In Anbar province, in Ramadi, the Sunni tribes have flipped. They’ve turned against al Qaeda. We fought al Qaeda, they’re no longer intimidated by al Qaeda. They saw al Qaeda close up, too, and they’ve decided to throw in with us. So that province has gone from one of the worst in Iraq a year ago to one of the most secure, and one of the most hopeful. Parts of Baghdad which are mixed, or more complicated to deal with, but even there, we walked around Haifa Street, now we walked around in body armor, and it was, you know, it wasn’t the most peaceful, and there were threatening things there. But we walked around Haifa Street. Six months ago, that was a no-go zone. There were bitter, bitter firefights, a famous video of one which you can watch on YouTube. And now that area is improving. The American soldiers are doing a fantastic job. There’s a lot of political reconciliation going on at the ground level. The national government’s pretty dysfunctional, and that’s something of a problem, but at the ground level, things are getting better.
HH: I talked with Max Boot yesterday about not making the mistake the Kennedy administration did with Diem, because political paralysis, they moved against Diem, and we ought not to move against Malaki simply because paralysis has affected the national level when you’ve got developments on the ground. Do you agree with that?
BK: I think I do, and I think you make an even broader point which you’re hinting at, which is that I think our government has actually put a little too much emphasis on the Iraqi national government. It’s not a very well-functioning government, and it could be better. But a lot can happen at the local and provincial level. A lot is happening. In some respects, all you need from the national government is a kind of benign neglect. You don’t need to do that much. You need to not to mess things up, and they’re not messing things up as much right now. So eventually, would we like to have a more competent and focused national government? Sure. But can we sustain this progress for the next six months or a year without much more from the national government? I think we can, actually.
HH: We need them to build an Iraqi Security Force that are as competent as necessary to secure stability. Is that happening, Bill Kristol?
BK: Yes, and one of the great success stories is the Iraqi army. At least I saw this personally. Almost every patrol that Fred and Kim and I went out on with American troops, we also went out with Iraqi troops. And they’re obviously not quite up to the level of the Americans, but they are serious fighters, and they are taking casualties. There were three times as many Iraqi casualties over the last few months, General Petraeus went out of his way to point this out, as there were American casualties in fighting al Qaeda or the Shiia sectarian militias. They’re fighting, they’re patrolling, they’re doing a good job of helping with the political reconciliation. The Iraqi police is more problematic. That’s the more iffy thing. They’re a little more penetrated by the Shiia sectarian militia, but we’re working hard on that. We spent half a day with the new head of the Iraqi police, who’s really committed to making this a non-sectarian organization. It’s a long, difficult slog. But the Iraqis…that’s what I mean about the government. You can have a pretty ineffective government, and a pretty ineffective minister of defense. But on the ground, these Iraqi units, partnered with American units, are doing a pretty good job.
HH: Now I opened my virtual Washington Post this morning, and see a Karen DeYoung and Tom Ricks article that oh, sure, things are going well in Baghdad, but Basra’s going to hell. A) your reaction to the reporting of that, and B) does it matter?
BK: We didn’t go to Basra. They’re worried, our people are worried about Basra. The reason it’s going to hell to the degree it is, is that the British basically pulled out, unfortunately. They turned it over too soon, they didn’t stay, and they didn’t partner with the Iraqis down there, and now you have some Shiia gangs sort of fighting there. I don’t think it’s a strategic problem for us, but it’s a bit of a mess, and it’s probably going to remain a bit of a mess. It doesn’t matter, fundamentally, in terms of our strategic objectives in Iraq, to prevent Iraq from becoming a terror-friendly state, prevent it from becoming an Iranian puppet state. Basra can be something of a mess without fundamentally threatening that.
HH: It does matter, though, in terms of optics back in the United States, and to find that there’s another front for the defeatists to seize upon, is what’s defeating us. When you sat down with General Petraeus, what did you gather about how he’s going to approach this September report? Not what he’s going to say, but how he’s going to try and communicate? Is he going to try and get to the American people or just to the lawmakers?
BK: Well, he didn’t say. He kept his cards pretty close to his vest. I think he has an obligation to report to the lawmakers. I think he also understands, and he’s done this on your show, obviously, and on others, he understands he has an obligation to report more broadly to the American people. He seems to believe that things are going pretty well, in some ways, faster than he expected. In other ways, there are some challenges. But in general, I would say, incidentally, if you ask the senior American military where they expected to be in August, they’re a little ahead of schedule, both on the military situation and on the political situation. I just want to emphasize that. They are astonished by the speed with which there’s political progress in certain areas. Not just in Anbar province, but Diyala and other places. You know, war is a fluid situation, and things can go worse faster than you would hope, things can get better, sometimes, faster than one expects.
BK: So I think he is going to say that he feels they are basically on plan, the strategy is working, it certainly deserves another six months to play out. That’s the time frame that he planned the strategy for, you know, the surge plays out for about fifteen months. And I think he thinks it would be a real shame, and more than a shame, kind of a disgrace to pull the plug and make all the efforts for naught, just because people here are frustrated or because of partisan politics.
HH: Now Bill Kristol, give us some sense of how you went about this process, because obviously, the military is opening itself up to people from all parts of the ideological spectrum for close examination. But the anti-war fanaticists are out there saying no, no, no, they’re being…Potemkin village here, and sweet meats there. What did you see? How did you go about it? How did you live for that eight days?
BK: We stayed mostly in the international zone, right by the Embassy. We went out to forward operating bases, we went out to very dusty small patrol bases where American soldiers were living in pretty primitive conditions. Fred Kagan and Kim Kagan had been there before, I haven’t been, so I’m not going to claim to be some kind of before and after expert on this. But they had been there before, and they asked to see certain areas where they had been before, so they could do a before and after snapshot. We were not given a Potemkin tour. There were certain places that are very dangerous that I didn’t, we didn’t go to. I don’t want to put American soldiers at risk having to like shepherd people like me around, you know, so we went to places where we weren’t too much of an intrusion or a strain on the military. But I’ve got to say, we got briefings from brigade commanders, colonels, battalion commanders and lieutenant colonels. We talked with lieutenants and captains, we talked with them in private when they were not with their superior officers. Petraeus has given orders for people to be candid and frank, and they really were. I’m very…I’ve been in government in and around Washington, as you have, Hugh, and I know when I’m getting a snow job. And I think we got a pretty candid look at what is going on, or what these American soldiers think is going on. And you know, you couldn’t get 160,000 American soldiers to deceive everybody, even if you wanted them to.
HH: Right. Speaking about soldiers deceiving…
BK: And look at how consistent they are in what they’re e-mailing back, and what they’re telling their relatives and their friends back in the U.S. Everyone there knows, people who were skeptics, people who think it was a bad idea to go to war in Iraq, people like that, soldiers and civilians, those, no one there denies that things have gotten pretty remarkably better in the last six months.
HH: We don’t have much time, but I do want to go to the Beauchamp deception at the New Republic. Your magazine’s been hard on the New Republic. What does Franklin Foer have to do at this point, Bill Kristol?
BK: I’m just amazed that he’s sticking by a guy who’s in fact, we know, recanted his own story. But look, he publishes this story, the core of it was this story about him and his buddies humiliating a woman who had been injured by an IED at a base in Iraq. This was supposed to show the dehumanizing effects of the war. He first lied to Franklin Foer, then he admits okay, it happened in Kuwait. I don’t believe it happened at all, and no one’s been able to find anyone who thought it happened in Kuwait, either.
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HH: I carried on my conversation with Bill Kristol after we had to go to the break. Let’s conclude that, because we talk about the New Republic article by Private Beauchamp, which is now revealed to be completely, totally false. Here’s that conversation with Bill.
Finish your thought about…once he makes that deception, it does destroy the credibility of this.
BK: Yeah, once you, once a writer acknowledges to his editor that he has deceived the editor about the most important aspect of the story, this was the core of the story that he had done this dehumanizing thing in Iraq, once the writer admits oh, well, that was in Kuwait, then the editor has to say I have lost confidence in this writer, and I can’t stand behind his story. It’s like in the law, you know more about this than I do, Hugh, but isn’t there, if you’re a witness…
BK: …and your key claim collapses, you just have to throw out the whole…
HH: Yeah, it’s the Perry Mason moment. You’re exactly right. It’s the Perry Mason moment. As soon as you find someone lying on the stand, everything crumbles.
BK: And this is lying about the most fundamental claim that the war is dehumanizing. It turns out this alleged bad behavior by Beauchamp happened before he went to war. At that point, the editors at the New Republic should have said I’m sorry, we cannot stand behind this person, we were deceived, we retract the story. And I think they’re really, frankly, a little crazy to be defending this guy. He himself has retracted the story to the military. There’s not a single named witness to any of these incidents, and the New Republic is sort of stubbornly standing behind it.
HH: Well, they’re going to go to the mattresses, aren’t they, and say the military made him recant, and we’re standing by our story. That’s the only way Franklin Foer can stay as the editor, isn’t it?
BK: Well, I don’t know. But what happens when Beauchamp comes back from Iraq? What does he say? I mean, I just think they’re really, they’ve lost, they’ve let their anti-war animus, and frankly, probably, their hostility to the Weekly Standard and to all of us, I think just simply trump into their normal editorial judgment.
HH: I think you’re right. Bill, thanks for spending time with us. I appreciate it.
BK: Hugh, my pleasure.
End of interview.