Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol on the President’s surge plan.
HH: Joined now by Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. Bill, Happy New Year to you.
BK: Hi, I’m here.
HH: Okay, now we’ve got it connected up. Happy New Year.
BK: Happy New Year to you.
HH: Bill, what is the reaction in anticipation of the President’s speech around Washington, D.C. tonight?
BK: I think it’s breaking down on predictable lines. Most of us who are war supporters, especially those of us who thought we might want to adjust strategy for quite a while, are looking forward to it, and like what we’ve seen of it in general. Obviously, one wants to look at the plan in more detail. Democrats are pooh-poohing it ahead of time, and I guess they believe we just can’t win, or that we shouldn’t try to win. I mean, it is interesting how the anti-war forces have now split into these two camps. It’s impossible, and if they believe that, then they should be for getting out, I guess, and they should vote to cut off funds and force an exit. Or frankly, a lot of them, I think, just don’t want us to win, because that would be a victory for the dreaded George W. Bush.
HH: Bill Kristol, earlier today, Sam Brownback sort of played the opposite of Joe Lieberman. Last night, Joe Lieberman strongly supported the President. Tonight, Sam Brownback said I do not believe that sending more troops to Iraq is the answer. Iraq requires a political rather than military solution. Do you expect more Republicans to back up like Brownback?
BK: I guess a few might, but I just think it’s ridiculous, frankly. Does anyone think a political solution will be harder if there are five additional U.S. brigades there? I mean, I’d like to just see the argument behind those assertions, you know? And no one to my knowledge has made it. There was an argument once that if we have too much military force there, the Iraqis are sort of off the hook, and they don’t have to make the compromises that they need to make. Does anyone think that that’s really the issue now? The issue now is total lack of security, which makes it impossible for Iraqis to work together, and which strengthens the sectarian militias. So I just think there’s no substance, really, to what Brownback is saying. That doesn’t mean a lot of Republicans aren’t going to think it’s politically prudent to walk away from the President a bit, but what is Sam’s…I like Sam Brownback. I respect him as a person. But what is his position?
HH: That’s it.
BK: That the current number of troops is perfect?
HH: That’s it.
BK: It’s incoherent. If you are for staying in Iraq, you have to be for trying to win in Iraq. The President has decided this is the way to try to win in Iraq. It’s a reasonable decision, it’s what he’s going to do. Anyone who wants to win in Iraq, in my view, should now support the President. People who think we can’t win, or who don’t want to win, should oppose the President.
HH: Is there also, Bill Kristol…last hour, I had Dennis Kucinich on, and not only was he not familiar with the Quds force, he couldn’t name the supreme leader of Iran. And when I asked him if he thought Iranian fanatics applauded every time he showed up, he demurred. Do the opponents of the war, like the opponents of the Vietnam assistance in ’74, simply turn their eye to what would happen in the even of an American withdrawal in the Middle East? And I’m not talking about us, yet. We’ll talk about that in a moment. Are they unaware of what would happen?
BK: You know, Fred Kagan, who’s developed this plan with General Kean, which has become somthing, I think, of the basis or the spur, let’s say, to the Bush administration’s rethinking of force levels. He briefed a Democratic Senator at his request today. I probably shouldn’t say who, but you know, a man who’s a serious guy, who was trying to get his head around what was happening, and he said I just can’t go for this increase in forces. It’s been such a frustrating three years. I don’t have confidence in the Bush administration. And I just don’t think I can support it. And so Fred said, well, what’s going to happen then? Well, I think we’re in very bad shape. What’s going to happen? We should probably have to get out. What’s going to happen if we get out? Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis could get killed. Are you willing to say that there’s so little chance that we can still prevail in Iraq that we’re just going to wash our hands of the ethnic cleansing and the genocide that could well happen in Iraq? Let’s even leave aside our broader strategic interest in the Middle East…
BK: Or what will happen elsewhere in the world. And Fred said the Senator was a little bit taken aback by this, but it’s…the taken abackness probably didn’t last more than ten or fifteen minutes, you know?
HH: Well, I have to go back and dust off the conversations at the time of the intervention in Central Europe and the bombing campaign against Milosevic, because that was a humanitarian crisis certainly, but the one that would beckon if we would withdraw, the bloodletting that would mark Baghdad if we were gone, Bill Kristol, what do you estimate it would be?
BK: I mean, it’s very hard to say. There could be a very, you know, brutal and I guess moderately quick slaughter or ethnic cleansing, or it could go on for a long time. I think the odds are it would be very, very bad, it would be terrible. And look how bad it is now, and then just take away the restraining presence of U.S. troops which is holding together an Iraqi army, which is the one main non-sectarian force in the country, as well as the government. Obviously, the government and the army would collapse if we left. And then we are looking at the state of nature there, and I think people…now maybe, you know, maybe that’s just the way the world’s going to be, and we can’t do anything about it, and I guess if that’s the case, Bush should explain that. But if there’s a reasonable chance that we can stop that, given everything we’ve already invested, and given all our strategic interests and everything else, you’d think we should take that reasonable chance. I’ve really been…I was so upset driving in this morning, having read the Democratic comments, they’re really…I mean, I’m not a big fan of Democrats, obviously. I disagree with them. But the level of irresponsibility they’re now showing, pushing resolutions on the Senate floor…maybe you’ve already been talking about this, Hugh, but pushing resolutions on the Senate floor, not for an alternative of policy to the President, that they think would serve the country better. They’re totally entitled to do that. They’re Senators, they’re Congressmen, they can push for different domestic policies, different foreign policies, than the ones the President wants. But just expressing disapproval of something the President is doing, all that that can do is weaken support for the President here, weaken the morale of the troops, embolden our enemies over there, weaken the confidence our friends have in us, it is purely a gratuitous and negative act. There’s no positive, you know, side to this symbolic resolution of disapproval, except to weaken the President, and therefore to weaken American foreign policy.
HH: And of course the argument is, that a withdrawal will end the loss of American life, and that is the only talking point that makes any sense at all, because indeed, if you don’t have troops there, fewer troops will die now, although in the future, that would be many more. But that doesn’t take into account Iran or Syria’s ambitions in Lebanon, much less against Israel. Does the American media, Bill Kristol, ever pose these questions of the Democrats in a systematic way, as I think they’ve got to be posed, otherwise we’re going to blunder into a disastrous retreat?
BK: Well, not as much as they should, and I do think this will be an interesting question. As we go into the next week’s debate, I’m really eager, I’m going to try to talk to some Republican Senators and Congressman. They need, and a few Democrats like Lieberman, obviously, they need to really take on this debate, and really challenge the Democrats by just the sort of question you just said. What are you for? If you’re for withdrawal to save American lives, first of all, propose withdrawing American troops. Propose a limit on the number of American troops that can be there. Propose cutting off funds. Don’t just weaken our foreign policy with no positive effect. It really is wrong. And secondly, if you are for withdrawal, what would the effect be, as you just said, in the region? And do we want an Iran-dominated Middle East? And what does that imply?
HH: Are most of the opponents of the surge and the proponents of withdrawal, Bill Kristol, formally on record, to your memory, of regretting the Rwandan genocide?
BK: Well, that’s the other big, good question, to say nothing of the Sudan genocide that’s going on now. And didn’t they think we should have intervened? I don’t…yeah, I suppose…ugh. I don’t know. I mean, it’s just depressing that there’s the…so few of them are willing to say look, they don’t like Bush, and they don’t like all the mistakes Bush has made. Fine, if you’re a Democrat, you’re entitled to say that. Even some Republicans can say that. But let’s not sacrifice American foreign policy, and tens and hundreds of thousands of lives to just prove that George Bush really, really is a bad president. I do believe, I hate to say this about elected representatives of the American people, but I do believe that for a lot of them, this is what’s now sort of driving them. They want to vindicate their judgment that George Bush didn’t deserve to be president, has run a bad foreign policy, and they’re willing to vindicate that, even at the cost, now, of really weakening, to say nothing of all the deaths in Iraq, and other things in the Middle East, but really weakening American foreign policy.
HH: Yeah, and many of them have gone Old Yeller on us, and that is obvious. But let’s turn to the President, and I think what I’ve seen thus far released, the one weakness of this, which is a soft-peddling of the Iranian threat, and apparently a get out of jail free card for Muqtada al Sadr, I can’t tell you, Bill Kristol, how many e-mails I get that say the President isn’t serious unless he puts a target on that guy and takes him out. It’s like having Ho Chi Minh running around Saigon in ’71.
BK: Well, I don’t know, I’ve got mixed…I mean, believe me, I’m for taking him out. Whether it’s a practical military matter, one wants to go into Sadr City first, and take on that entire two million men part of Baghdad, whether there is a practical matter, one shouldn’t stabilize the mixed areas, and one could live with Sadr and the government for a while, I’m sort of open on that, and willing to defer it to Petraeus on that. I don’t think we should get…look, it’s gone badly, we don’t need to go right after…I don’t believe we need to go after him right away. He is not behind that much of what’s happening right now. Or he is behind it, but he’s been given an excuse by the failure to suppress the Sunni insurgency, first of all, and provide basic stability in the mixed areas of Baghdad. So you know, if they’re going to sit around Sadr City being Sadrites, you know, for a few months, and we get control of the rest of Baghdad, I can live with that as a military strategy.
HH: Last question. Do you expect Petraeus to be much more in evidence in the American media fighting that front of the war than were Casey and Abizaid?
BK: I think so, I hope so. I hope he’s confirmed very quickly. One thing the President needs to insist on is that the Senate Armed Services Committee votes on him next week, and sends him over there to start implementing this plan. It would really be terrible to have a sort of lame duck general in charge for the first month, and then a transition. And I think they really need to emphasize that we owe it to the country to give this plan its best shot, and to give it a good shot, the commanders who are going to implement it should be in charge from the beginning.
HH: Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard, always a pleasure. Thank you, Bill.
End of interview.