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Previous guests for interview included Norman Podhoretz, Daniel Pipes, Laurie Mylroie, Bat Ye’or, and a Minister of the State of Israel, Effi Eitam, and others… TODAY’S GUEST
William Kristol, Ph.D., is the former chief of staff of Vice-President Dan Quayle (Bush senior administration) and Secretary of Education William Bennett (Reagan administration). He is currently the editor of the Washington-based influential The Weekly Standard. He writes a column in the New York Times and is a guest on FOX News political shows.
Interview made by phone on August 14, 2008 and later translated in French by the author.
Audio excerpts – complete transcript
DRZZ : President’s Bush second term will end next November. In his 2005 State of the Union address you helped to write, he said : “Our generational commitment to the advance of freedom, especially in the Middle East, is now being tested”. Do you think America did pass the test during the Bush’s Presidency ?Our generational commitment to the advance of freedom, especially in the Middle East, is now being tested”. Do you think America did pass the test during the Bush’s Presidency ?
KRISTOL : Yes. The most important thing was to win the war in Iraq. If we had fled from Iraq, if we had allowed Al-Qaeda to win and Iran to dominate the Iraqis, that would have been an horrible defeat. There are other things I wish we had done better and other areas where I think we retreated a little bit like Lebanon. The main victory for us and for the Iraqis was the democratic elected government and the elections that happened there. That’s very important.
DRZZ : What would according to you be the best successes of the Bush’s Presidency ?
KRISTOL : Two things, I would say. Iraq in particular and the fact that we have really broken the back of Al-Qaeda. The expectations that Al-Qaeda would be strengthen by a war in Iraq and that terrorists would use it as a recruiting tool have been finally proven wrong. They saw Iraq as a central front and the Sunnis have turned against them. It is a major achievement. If you have said five years ago that Arabs would fight with American troops against Al-Qaeda in the center of the Middle East, nobody would have believed you. It was difficult, it was mismanaged for quite a while but it ended up being a success.
DRZZ : And the worst failures of the Bush presidency… ?
KRISTOL : (laugh)
DRZZ : Well, you cannot escape from that one… .
KRISTOL : I think Bush backed off in the second term in terms of confronting Iran, promoting democracy and standing up against terrorist groups in Lebanon. Especially, I would say, allowing Iran to apparently make progress in his nuclear program without effective response can be seen as a failure. I don’t judge it as irreversible but I don’t think this situation is a good one.
In general, Bush has been in my view not strong enough in facing up dictators, especially Russia’s Putin and China’s Jintao.
DRZZ : Many observers don’t understand why the Bush administration didn’t really defend its decisions, especially the Iraq war. For example, it has been proven Saddam Hussein’s regime had links with Al-Qaeda. Yet the White House was unable to explain the truth to the American people. How do you explain that ? Is it Bush’s fault ? His communication staff ? The military ?
KRISTOL : Bush never got full control of the executive branch of the government. He never was able to put in the right people to head the different agencies and he was not willing to use his power to really make sure that the government was working in the same direction. So you have to blame Bush. He did not understand how important that was.
Then, in Iraq, we did not find Weapons of Mass Destruction in 2003 and I think the whole White House got scared of making the argument about the war and the relationship between Saddam’s regime and Al-Qaeda. They decided instead to say : “well, we are there, we can not afford to lose so we have to win”, which is true. But they gave up on making the argument about why it was right to go to war, and the war with Saddam in the first place. I think they have paid a huge price for this mistake. The American public and foreign audience wanted to know that this war was reasonable and that we are better off since Saddam Hussein has been defeated.
The administration did a very bad job in communication and barely even tried to explain the core of the point, which is: we are better now, in 2008, than we were in 2003, despite the difficulties of the war in Iraq. If we had let Saddam and his sons in power, we would have experienced terror and the renewal of the Weapons of Mass Destruction programs.
DRZZ : You wrote in the New York Times last week that “2008 is an auspicious year for freedom and democracy” . Yet Israel is now under attack and nearly surrounded by Hamas, Syria and Hezbullah…
KRISTOL : Iraq was auspicious in 2008 but the rest was not so good. The main point it to make sure terrorist groups and rogues regimes don’t strengthen themselves. The Hizbullah’s increasing domination of Lebanon is very worrying, Syria is killing Lebanese politicians and trying to build a reactor and despite Israel destroyed this plant, Syria never paid a real price for having built this forbidden nuclear facility.
I think if you step back and think about it, Iran is the key. If Iran would set back, I think a lot of other conflicts would be resolved.
DRZZ : I saw you on Fox News saying that if Bush believed Barack Obama would be elected, he would order military strikes. Former ambassador Bolton said the best period would be between Election Day and January 2009. Do you think President Bush will allow bombings during this period ?
KRISTOL : I was just guessing what the President could think. I prefer not. I think it is hard to strike as a lame duck President. If Bush believes it is the right thing to do, he should do it now, honestly. If Bush thinks we have plenty of time, then he should leave this to the next President. I was just saying what I thought Bush might think but I personally don’t like the idea. Maybe the best thing Bush can do it is to keep the coalition together and tighten the pressure on Iran with sanctions. A lot depends of how fast the clock is moving, something that is hard to tell.
DRZZ : Will the US foreign policy change if Barack Obama is elected ? Do you think he could be pressured by the US military to order military strikes against Iran ?
KRISTOL : It is not impossible. American Presidents, whatever they say, when they come to power, when they campaign for the presidency, once you are President, you are President and you have to be serious about the war also. People change quite a bit. I prefer McCain but I think Obama could be a serious person as President. Part of being serious is using force to destroy the Iranian nuclear program. And it is much better if we strike than if Israel does.
I believe Obama would think about that.
DRZZ : Russia just invaded a neighbor. During years, President Bush chose appeasement toward the Soviet Union. Are we witnessing a new Cold War ?
KRISTOL : No. We are seeing an aggressive Russia which we shouldn’t permit. I don’t think it is a new Cold War, in a sense that it is not an ideological confrontation with Europe divided. The very good news is now Europe is mostly together and mostly free. But we have to be serious about stopping the Russian aggression. I think Bush is a little weak in respect of the Russian invasion of Georgia. As my friend Bob Kagan wrote, it is like the “return of History”: dictators try to beat neighbors they find annoying and our responsibility as the US, especially toward our allies, is to prevent that from happening. Putin doesn’t understand nice talks and we need to be strong in standing up to him.
DRZZ : Russia could argue that if the international community granted independance to Kosovo, why not South Ossetia… ?
KRISTOL : No, that’s ridiculous. Kosovo is an excuse for the Russians. They wanted to teach Georgia a lesson regardless of the consequences. Kosovo was attacked by Milosevic. In the Georgian case, Russia is the aggressor. Russia needs a lesson, we cannot accept that kind of violation of foreign sovereignty.
DRZZ : What is your opinion on China, the third rogue element of the international community, after Iran and Russia ?
KRISTOL : China is getting stronger, on the other hand it has real weaknesses. They are strong democracies like Indian, Australia, Japan and others, promoting democracy and ready to work with us to bring political alternative in China. I’m not terrified of China. Ultimately, the good news is dictatorships are weak. They have problems sustaining themselves. The legitimacy of these regimes is based on economics, fear and a certain kind of nationalism and these things can live for a while but are doomed to fail. So I’m not scared of Russia or China, but I do think it requires a strong alliance of democracies to stand up to them. In Europe, primarily through NATO. In Asia, we should build a kind of NATO primarily through our relationship with Japan and others. That’s where the US should take the lead, obviously. And we are taking the lead but we could do it a little more effectively. It’s gonna be important over the next several years.
DRZZ : The Weekly Standard supported John McCain during the 2000 presidential elections instead of Mr. Bush. We can say McCain has always been your guy. Why ?
KRISTOL : Yes, in 2000 for me personally McCain was more sympathetic than Bush. McCain has shown a real understanding of the world. I say so because I agree with him and because he has been proven right several times. He was right about the surge in Iraq. He said it could work and it did. He was right in warning us about Putin.
McCain is a real believer in strong alliances and democracy, which I think is important. I don’t agree with him about every details but I think he can be a serious and strong President.
DRZZ : How do you explain Obama’s surprising low numbers ?
KRISTOL : Obama is inexperienced and McCain is a strong candidate. Americans traditionally prefer experience in time of war. Obama is pretty liberal too. I think McCain has a pretty good chance to beat Obama.
DRZZ : Is that Bill Kristol’s prediction for 2008…?
KRISTOL : (laugh)
DRZZ : You are one the leading political commentators of the United States. You correctly predicted Bush’s victory in 2004 and the Republican defeat in 2006. What do you expect to happen next November ?
KRISTOL : That’s very hard to tell. I think McCain will win.
DRZZ : Let’s talk of the growing rumor in conservative ranks. Do you believe Hillary will try a comeback during the Democratic Convention at Denver next week ?
KRISTOL : No. It’s too late. She will deliver a speech endorsing Obama and then sit around and see what happens, hoping to run in 2012.
DRZZ : Your worked in the Reagan administration. Is the conservative revolution over ?
KRISTOL : These things happen in seasons. You have to have fresh thinking, I mean, you cannot propose the same solutions for twenty, thirty years. I think in a deeper level, conservatives and neoconservative have a pretty good record. Reagan, Thatcher, and Mitterrand, in some degree ironically, had a certain sets of policies which were coherent in economics and straight in foreign policy. Those worked pretty well.
We ended the Cold War, we united Europe, the economic growth of the last twenty years is not bad, China and India are growing by moving to market-oriented economy… I mean it not only worked in theory, but also in practice.
So I believe those principles remain very true.
DRZZ : Indeed. I guess you agree with Norman Podhoretz who told me the best years for neoconservatism are ahead ?
KRISTOL : I hope so ! (laugh) You never know. History is very hard to predict.
DRZZ : Well Mr Kristol, that where all the questions I had. I really thank you for your time.
KRISTOL : My pleasure.
DRZZ : Again, I wanted to tell you I really admired the work you are doing and I’ll do my best to make it available to European audience.
KRISTOL : I appreciate that and I hope we can meet sometimes, maybe in Paris or over here ?
DRZZ : I will come to Washington ! Have a great week.
KRISTOL : OK. You too.