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Weekly Standard Publisher Bill Kristol On Syria And Obama’s Mishandling Of It

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HH: At an incredibly perilous time in national security matters, I’m joined by Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. Bill, I actually don’t know where you are on this, because you haven’t written about it. And I spent a half hour with Bret Stephens last hour talking about this, but where you do, how do you assess where we find ourselves on the eve of Labor Day Weekend?

BK: I just wrote about it, and it’ll be up on our website at Midnight, an editorial for the next issue. But I’m pretty close to where Bret Stephens is, I think. I am, I have been for two years strongly for intervening in Syria and for removing Assad, and I think the case for that is much stronger after his using chemical weapons, obviously. There’s a strategic case for it. He’s Iran’s top ally. There’s a moral case that there are, a very, very strong case. Having said that, the President has handled this so, in such an appalling way in the last week, that I don’t blame a lot of people who say you know, will this, will Obama do it in such a half-hearted and indecisive way that it could almost make things worse than doing nothing. I still think doing something is better than doing nothing, and I think people like us should urge him to do the right something, and a big something, and a decisive something. But I am, I’ve really never quite seen an American president, I don’t think, behave so badly in a foreign policy crisis. Maybe I’m exaggerating now, but this is pretty close to the worst I’ve seen.

HH: No, I agree with you. In fact, I suggested to Bret last hour that he is our Stanley Baldwin in his approach to foreign affairs. He’s just completely feckless and doesn’t care.

BK: Apparently not. And to let it, I mean, there’s so many, well, you know, one doesn’t even know where to begin, I guess, and I’m sure that’s how people felt in Britain in the late 30s. And of course, the worse you let it go, the longer you let it go, whether it’s two years in the case of the Syrian crisis, or even a week in the case of the last week, the options get worse, you know? And then of course, if you act, you have less support than you had if you had acted a week ago. Or if he had said right away you know what, I think I’m, I strongly believe we’re going to have to act, I’m calling Congress, I’m asking Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Reid to call Congress back next week, because I want Congressional support. We all should, both for Constitutional reasons, but for pragmatic reasons. I want to show, have a united country here. I think that would have been fine. So I’m not, you know, I’m not, I’m somewhat ambivalent on the Congressional authority issue, or the need to go to Congress, but the wisdom of going to Congress, there is some. He’s not doing that. So Congress, just out of a kind of institutional, for institutional reasons, is now getting more and more hostile. He’s not making the case, so the American public is utterly bewildered. He’s done nothing, so far as I can tell, to help our allies abroad who wanted action and who are now getting buffeted by public opinion in their own countries and backing off. The degree of fecklessness is really extraordinary. And as I say, the situation then gets harder after Obama’s been feckless. I still think people like me have an obligation to say we should do the right thing, and we should urge the President to do the right thing. We shouldn’t give up on him, so to speak. He’s going to be president for another three and a half years.

HH: Yeah, we can’t operate without, with an anti-president for 39 months.

BK: Exactly.

HH: It’s truly…and Joe Biden, if there’s any decency in the man, he’s got to be throwing books, because he’s been an interventionist in the past, and partisan at every step of the way. But there are serious people in this administration who have to understand the terrible…let me read to you an email from my friend, Carl. Carl is a very smart Pittsburgh Steelers fan. I know that sounds oxymoronic, but it’s true. And he fell off a ladder. He’s a house painter, and so he’s recuperating. And he writes, “Hugh, I’m just a dumb, crippled painter, but this Syrian mess seems to be shaping up like the Cuban missile crisis. There are so many unstable players in this case, and we have an incompetent boob making or not making decisions, and Israel is in jeopardy if we botch this.” It truly is, some of my Israeli friends have been saying we can’t risk the miscalculation that comes from a botched operation here. What do you think, Bill Kristol?

BK: No, I don’t quite agree. I mean, it’s funny, I’m just back from Israel. I landed about 12 hours ago, was there for a few days, met with a lot of government officials, public officials, a lot of young people, too, who I think were, incidentally, very encouraging. There’s a little burgeoning, I think, in the conservative intellectual movement in Israel, which there hasn’t been that much of in the past. In terms of government officials, look, they’re unhappy. They won’t quite say it, but they’re unhappy with the way the President’s handling it. But they believe, they do not want to live in a…the Middle East is a dangerous enough region, the last thing they want is to be a region where a dictator gets away with killing 100,000, or presiding over a civil war which kills 100,000 people, and then uses chemical weapons, explicitly crossing a red line that’s been laid down by the United States and others, and gets away with it. I mean, that makes it, and this guy happens to be Iran’s closest ally and a sponsor and a facilitator of Hezbollah. I mean, that makes it even worse. They have their worries about what would replace, what would follow Assad. They have their worries about how Obama is going to do it, of course. But you just cannot imagine what things would be like two months from now if Assad is winning that civil war having used chemical weapons, having stared down everyone, backed up by Iran and Russia. So I think the Israelis, look, they may get hit. They’re used to that. They take it with a, you know, a pretty good stoicism. I was, I had dinner in Jerusalem last night at a restaurant with a lot of these young people, and it was a bustling café, and people were in a good mood. And you know, they’re not panicking, but they know it is such a tough region. And the one thing that came through in all our discussions with Israelis, and these are very senior guys, very calm, they’ve been through this a million times, the degree to which they just can’t quite even believe how much America has receded and withdrawn. They don’t even discuss it.

HH: Yeah.

BK: The meetings tend to begin with, well look, I mean, you guys are gone now, so here’s what we’re thinking. Here’s our plan. We’re going to work closely with the Saudis on this, we think we can work with the Egyptian military on this, we think we can bolster our defenses here, very hard-headed, pragmatic, calm. They didn’t complain, even, anymore about the U.S. withdrawing. They just take it as a fact, and I find that even scarier, almost, that if they were complaining about it, or trying to say how can we help reverse this.

HH: Now Bill Kristol, part of the problem is the Republican Party is somewhat shattered in its coherence. And John McCain is not the guy to be out selling anything, because he was so wrong on Egypt, and that also crippled Lindsey Graham, our great internationalists, were so wrong on Egypt, that a lot of people just look at them and say you know, can we trust them on anything. None of the new guys have stood up. Even when Chuck Hagel last week suggested, and I don’t know if you know this, because you were in Israel, that maybe we’re going to go down to eight or nine carrier groups. You know, we can’t really afford to have what we’ve got right now. It’s astonishing. It’s like a replay of the 30s with a guaranteed terrible outcome. But no one…where’s Rubio? Where is Christie? Where are they, well, Christie kind of did it, but where are they?

BK: Well, I mean, to be fair to them a little bit, you know, they’re on recess, and it’s a little harder when they’re gone. They’re not quite with their staffs. They get nervous about taking on the President, and of course, taking on people in their own party who say no, the Defense Department’s bloated, and what are these carrier groups useful for anyway. They just get us into more trouble. I think they’re, I mean, you know this. You talk privately to some of the Congressmen and Senators, and including some of the younger ones, or even a governor like Christie, I think he’s basically in the right place on a lot of this stuff, but he’s got to get himself reelected first. But I think it’s a great opportunity. I mean, for younger, some of these younger members to step forward, and ignore whether they’re the senior person on this committee or subcommittee, and just say this is crazy.

HH: Yeah.

BK: And I agree on the carrier groups. I mean, it’s really shocking.

HH: Tom Cotton did that on Monday on this show.

BK: Yes.

HH: And there are people like him who are out there that we need to do this. Now, but let’s talk about the legal issue. Yesterday’s letter from Speaker Boehner, which again, you’ve been traveling, so I don’t know if you’ve seen it, yet.

BK: I’ve seen it, yeah.

HH: It was so elegantly done to open the door to the President saying the authorization of use for military force in 2001 covers the use of force in Syria, because al Qaeda is present, and weapons of mass destruction are present. And John Boehner said that and laid it out, because I don’t think he can get the votes. I think that’s what he’s signaling, is that don’t come up here and ask us, go ahead and act. But I haven’t got the votes to back you up. What’s your assessment of that?

BK: That could be the Speaker’s intention. I think he wants to do the right thing for the country here. But again, if he’s trying to help the President, the President isn’t exactly reciprocating.

HH: Right.

BK: …so far as I can tell. I mean again, he’s making it hard for all of his allies, whether it’s me and you in this case, or Speaker Boehner, or even Democrats on the Hill who want to help him, or people out in the country who want to help him, he is making it incredibly hard. Maybe, incidentally, this sounds kind of paranoid, maybe he wants to make it hard. Maybe he doesn’t, maybe he’d like early next week to say gee, I don’t see that…there’s no international support, there’s not really much support in Congress, I think I’ll accept the Russian offer to have a session in Geneva with people from all different parties, and maybe we can kind of come to an agreement that no one should use chemical weapons, and I’ll wave this piece of paper around and say you know what? We managed to get them to back off without force. I said in Israel two nights ago, I can’t believe he’s going to back down. It would be such a humiliation, such a, so damaging to U.S. credibility around the world. But I must say, looking at it right now tonight, I don’t think it’s out of the question, that President Obama would back down.

HH: If he backs down, what do the mullahs do? What does North Korea do if he backs down?

BK: Well, no, I totally agree, but I’m just saying don’t you think, I mean…

HH: Yeah, it is possible, absolutely.

BK: We had this discussion in Israel. I was there with Elliott Abrams, Mike Goldfarb and Noah Pollak. You know them all. Elliott and I, veterans of government, older, you know, said look, we’ve been there, and we don’t like Obama much, but no American president’s going to back down after what he said. Mike Goldfarb and Noah Pollak, younger conservative activists involved in the Emergency Committee for Israel and a lot of other groups, both said I don’t know, I think he could.

HH: Wow.

BK: And at the time, Elliott and I said well, these guys are young, they haven’t been in government, they don’t really understand the dynamics. I now think, ironically, they may be more, have a more of an insight into President Obama than Elliott and I do, because they, in a way, just have this simple view that the guy does not want to get involved anywhere, and he’ll find any excuse not to. And I hope that’s not the case.

HH: I asked Bret what’s the strategic, what drives President Obama? He said his golf game, that he just doesn’t care. It’s not like he wants to usher in an American collapse. He just doesn’t care.

BK: It’s shocking. I mean, you think of a president in this delicate situation, I’m sure he’s making a few phone calls. But what has no sense, someone called me, actually, I got back this morning, someone as I was driving back from the airport said well, have you been, you know, you must have gotten, he said to me, you must have gotten some indirect phone call from someone in the White House, or State Department, beginning to try and rally support among the commentariate, the people who will be on Sunday shows and all that. I said I haven’t had contact from anyone, and I don’t care. I’m not being like personally, you know, I don’t think, they don’t need to call me. But they’re not calling anyone.

HH: Yeah.

BK: They’re not trying to do anything to build support.

HH: It’s amazing. Bill Kristol, good to have you back. Thank you for joining us on short notice.

End of interview.


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