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Weekly Standard editor William Kristol on the Iranian crisis, and how poorly American media has covered it.

Monday, June 15, 2009
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HH: Joined now by Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. Bill, thanks for joining us on short notice. What do you assess are the chances of getting rid of this regime in Iran this evening?

BK: I don’t know, probably less than 50-50, but you know, these situations are intrinsically so unpredictable and fluid and volatile that I don’t rule it out. I mean, I would say among my group of friends, we had a lot of e-mails, as I’m sure you did with your buddies, Saturday, Sunday, a lot of the experts I know, the foreign policy guys at AEI and the Weekly Standard and elsewhere, and I was sort of on the end of the spectrum, I was sort of one of the most, I won’t say optimistic, one of those who thought that there was a reasonable chance that this thing could explode, that unlike some previous protests, would be hard to suppress. These things sometimes do take off, and I’ve got to say that it really has. I mean, the normal way this would have gone would have been they would have shown some force, and everyone would have gone back home. And it strikes me there’s something deeper going on in Tehran tonight.

HH: I agree with that, and that’s why I don’t have way to put an odd on it, except that everything we could do in the West we ought to do as a result, including the President, and we’ll have some audio of him after the break, he said something this afternoon. I recall, Bill, that we had a similar situation in the Philippines when you were in the administration back during George Herbert Walker Bush in that Marcos was tempted to be repressive, and got talked down. Now obviously these are much more bloodthirsty people, but at that point, it was up to the West to kind of rally to the forces with democracy.

BK: Yeah, I think that was actually Reagan when you were there.

HH: Oh, you’re right. You’re right.

BK: No, and I mean, Reagan, George W. Bush in both Lebanon and Ukraine in late 2004, early 2005, Ukraine and then Lebanon, did things often in consultation with allies. This isn’t a time to be heavy-handed or you know, belligerent, but it is a time to show support for the democrats, and to make it clear that there’ll be a price to be paid for this kind of repression, and to give people who were wavering, people who weren’t really happy about what’s happening in Iran, probably, people there but who are nervous about taking on Ahmadinejad, who really give them a sense that gee, they’ll have some support and some help if they try to move the regime in a better direction. I think there’s a lot…I’m very disappointed by Obama’s silence until just a few minutes ago, and even then I think it was pretty weak what he said. Look, I mean, what’s amazing is you read some of these left wing blogs over the weekend, I had argued for doing a lot, as you had, actually, for saying be unambiguous in support of democracy, freedom, fair elections, the right of people to demonstrate and not get beaten up, hopes for democratic progress in Iran. And the lefties all said ooh, well, America can’t, you know, be so heavy-handed. The best thing for them is if we don’t say anything. Now it turned out by the end of the weekend that was ridiculous. The people in Iran were desperate to have Obama say something. And secondly, what’s the point of having Barack Obama as president from their own point of view, if he can’t intervene in this situation? This is supposed to be the great gift of having Obama and not George W. Bush, right?

HH: Right.

BK: Bush was discredited. Bush was heavy-handed. Bush couldn’t have helped, allegedly, though he did help in Ukraine and Lebanon and Iraq and elsewhere, but nonetheless, that was their narrative. But if this isn’t a moment where Barack Obama can help the decent people in the Muslim world stand up against the dictators and the thugs in the Muslim world, what’s the point of all the Barack Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world? I mean, I’m really upset about it in that sense.

HH: Yeah.

BK: I took them at their word. I didn’t agree with them, but I thought they were serious about trying to help people in that part of the world. I didn’t agree with the way they wanted to do it, but I thought okay, look, they decently, they believe they want to help people have more decent lives in that part of the world. And now it turns out here’s a real chance to do something, and the president of the United States goes silent for 72 hours?

HH: And he’s still…after the shooting, I thought this was the moment that you come out, after you start gunning down the opposition, is the moment that there is no reason to be cautious about condemnation. Maybe about the language that you use, but to condemn unequivocally this, because I think the people in Iran are watching to the extent they can via international media, to the extent they have access, everything that is said about anything over there, and that we’re letting them down. Now Bill Kristol, what about media generally in America? I shuddered when Christianne Amanpour stood up and played hide the basketball with Ahmadinejad yesterday. And I don’t know that anyone should be engaging with him, but who’s been doing a good job?

BK: You know, I think the blogosphere’s been doing a good job, I’ve got to say, and here I’m sort of bipartisan. I like a lot of conservatives and some liberal blogs that are really trying to get voices from Iran, to report on what’s happening, to speculate intelligently about what might happen. The mainstream media has been way behind the curve. I’m really struck by that. I mean, sort of a day or two late. When you get in a crisis like this is when you really do realize. And we’ve of course posted stuff on our website, and you’ve posted stuff on yours, and you really realize that the problems of the daily newspapers and the people who are on that kind of cycle have. They’re analyzing stuff that’s 36, if you look at the front page of the New York Times today, it’s sort of, they’re giving in, basically. It’s oh, Ahmadinejad consolidating power with Khamenei, no sense of the dynamics of what might be going on beneath the surface or on the surface. I mean, it’s really an interesting case study in what you’ve written about a lot, the way in which the old media just can’t keep up with the pace of events. Incidentally, on your previous point, I mean, what’s so infuriating to me is let’s assume the worst happens, the crackdown succeeds. It does, sometimes, you know, like Tiananmen Square. They suppress the dissidents, it’s Ahmadinejad, Khamenei in a tough, rough, IRG, Republican Guard, jihadist, thuggish regime. What will have been lost by trying to help the dissidents? Will our negotiating posture be less advantageous with regard to them? Will they like us less? I mean, it’s so silly, as if anything, you know, if we have to negotiate with them or confront them down the road, we’ll do that, and then we can argue about how best to do that. There’s no downside at this point in standing up for democracy and for decency. And that’s what’s so really infuriating about Obama’s silence.

HH: Clarity would be…the only thing that we will get absolutely out of any of this would be clarity, and that matters a lot, I think, going forward. In terms of what happens if they do repress this, Bill Kristol, there’s a debate now what’s a decent interval that would be acceptable to engage this regime. And I don’t think there is a decent interval to engage them.

BK: Well, what’s the point of engaging? Do we think this regime, from what we’ve known about them in the past and what’s been clarified, as you said, what’s been clarified in the last 72 hours, do we think this regime can be allowed to have nuclear weapons? Do you trust these people who are willing to beat up their own people to prevent a guy who’s not exactly a friend of ours, Mousavi, from getting elected? Do we think this kind of jihadist, thuggish, militarist regime can be trusted in the middle of the Middle East, can be trusted with nuclear weapons? And if the answer is no, we’ve got to stop them from getting nuclear weapons. I think that’s what this has clarified. You know, there was some arguments before that well, maybe they’re kind of a more cautious regime. Maybe it’s more like Brezhnev’s Russia and not like an aggressive Stalinist Russia. It’s pretty hard to make that argument for the next four years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is president. And incidentally, it looks like he has a lot of power. The notion that he’s just some tool of the ayatollahs, I’m not so sure about that.

HH: That’s a great point that has not been made. That has been said so many times, he’s just a figurehead. No, figureheads don’t steal elections and mow people down. Bill Kristol, thank you at www.weeklystandard.com.

End of interview.

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