DATE May 18, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: William Kristol discusses the war in Iraq
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the insurgencies in Iraq and the absence of
weapons of mass destruction, aside from one old artillery shell holding sarin,
have left some of the war's early supporters questioning whether regime change
was a good idea after all. My guest, William Kristol, is critical of war
supporters who now want to throw in the towel. `Are you a man or a mouse?' he
asks in his latest column in The Weekly Standard, the neoconservative magazine
he edits. Kristol also co-founded the think tank the Project for the New
American Century, which advocated regime change in Iraq even before the
attacks of September 11th. I spoke to Bill Kristol this morning about how his
expectations compare with the reality of the war and the Bush administration's
handling of it.
Bill Kristol, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let me start by reading you a few
recent headlines that you're probably familiar with. And this is about how
conservatives who supported the war are now trying to figure out, you know,
what to do and where they stand. Washington Post headline: `Conservatives
Restive About Bush Policies.' Washingtonpost.com headline: `Pro-war Press
Breaks With Bush.' New York Times: `The Hawks Loudly Express Their Second
Thoughts.' Salon: `Time To Get Out'; subheadline: `With the war in Iraq
turning into a nightmare, increasing numbers on the left and the right are
calling for America to withdraw.' Another Salon headline: `Breaking GOP
From where you sit, what does the split among people who supported the war
look like now to you?
Mr. WILLIAM KRISTOL (Columnist, The Weekly Standard; Co-founder, Project for
the New American Century): Well, obviously, Terry, conservatives aren't
homogeneous, and conservatives aren't automatons. And we have differences of
opinion about where to go now. We had differences of opinion, obviously,
about whether to go to war; it was not a universal position among
conservatives that the war was necessary or just. I was a strong hawk, and I
remain that, an unapologetic hawk. I've been very critical of the Bush
administration's management of the war, really, since the beginning, since
even before April, in terms of the number of troops--that is, April of last
year. And I continue to be critical of the administration's management of the
war. But I'm not having second thoughts in the sense that I do think it was
the right thing to do, really, the necessary thing to do. And I still think
GROSS: What are some of the problems you hadn't bargained on?
Mr. KRISTOL: I think I underestimated the depth of the Baathist sort of
tentacles in the Sunni community in Iraq. I think if you had told me that a
year from now Kurdistan would be entirely almost quiet, that the Turks would
accept a fair degree of autonomy for the Kurds in Iraq, that the rest of
Iraqis would accept a fair degree of autonomy for the Kurds--that's good news
up north. I think the Shia in the south have been much better than people
expected actually. The majority of them clearly want to move towards some
form of democracy, not quite what we might wish but perfectly acceptable, I
think, decent democracy. Grand Ayatollah Sistani's been a responsible voice.
Sadr has not picked up much support in the Shia community. So I think that,
too, is good news.
The Sunni triangle has been very tough. We all, I guess, underestimated the
degree to which there would be recruitment opportunities for Saddam loyalists
and for jihadists among the Sunnis. I think we made terrible mistakes that
made that easier, unfortunately. But, you know, all wars have surprises.
Plans, you know, change when they make contact with reality. My main
criticism of the Bush administration is they didn't adjust their plans nearly
quickly enough when they made contact with reality.
GROSS: Critics of the war said that winning the peace would be much more
difficult than winning the war. As we're faced, still, with insurgencies from
both Shia and Sunni, do you think that maybe they had a point?
Mr. KRISTOL: Sure, I always thought that winning the peace would be more
difficult than winning the war. I'm not sure we should call it a peace,
actually. I think it's just finishing the war. And one problem, ironically,
is that the war went so quickly, some of the Republican Guard divisions melded
back, especially in and around Fallujah, into the woodwork there and that we
didn't--if the war had been tougher, winning the peace in a way might have
been easier. But, you know, this is all--hindsight is 20/20, and there's no
point second-guessing that. If we had had more troops, if we could have come
in from the north through Turkey, which, you know, depended on two Turkish
legislators voting differently from what might have been the case, we might
have crushed many more of the Republican Guard and Baathist loyalists earlier
on, and the insurgency never would have taken off.
So it's been tough. I'm not going to deny that. I've, in fact, been saying
that for a year, which is why I consistently urge the administration to
recognize that it's tougher than we expected and to send in more troops. That
really is the core mistake, I think. Everyone's going to make political
errors, errors of judgment in this kind of delicate and difficult operation.
You can get away with errors if you have a margin of safety. We tried to do
this on the cheap. We didn't give ourselves much of a margin of error. Once
the Sunni insurgency took off and we weren't able to crush it--and we didn't
crush it up north or in central Iraq--we allowed it to sort of gain steam; we
allowed it to build a network. That's been, I think, the fundamental error.
GROSS: Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld has had a plan--I think this was
his plan even before the Gulf War--to change the nature of the military, to
downscale the number of men, to change the kind of arms and technology,
weaponry that our military uses. Do you think that his plan doesn't fit with
the reality in Iraq?
Mr. KRISTOL: I think that's right. I mean, obviously some of what he wants
to do is sensible, and I think lots of--any other secretary of Defense would
have probably moved in that direction as well. But the fundamental notion
that we could afford to downsize the military was wrong. And we've argued
from the very beginning of this administration and from the preceding
administration that it was wrong. Rumsfeld came in wanting to cut 10 Army
divisions to eight actually. He was so enamored at the high-tech, whizbang
military; you don't need those old-fashioned infantry ground troops anymore.
And I think that's wrong for fighting wars. It's certainly wrong for winning
the aftermaths of wars and for building the nation-building and consolidation
and providing security that you need to make this a real success. And I think
it's been a terrible error of judgment of Rumsfeld, which he has obstinately
stuck to in the face of huge amounts of evidence to the contrary.
We have a piece in the new issue of The Weekly Standard by Fred Kagan, a
military historian at West Point, pointing out that we're stretched so thin
now that we're going to send a training division, which is used to sort of
train our--as the opposition force, I think it's called, in the Army for
the troops before they go overseas. You know, they practice against this
force. It's a very sophisticated force, but it's really necessary to get the
rest of our troops up to speed. We're sending elements of that force over to
Iraq now because we're stretched so thin.
So if you ask me to make one fundamental criticism of the Bush administration
from 9/11, it would be that we're trying to prosecute Bush's foreign policy, a
foreign policy I basically support, with a Clinton-sized or, let's say, a
pre-9/11-sized Army. And you just can't do it. It's ridiculous. And they've
been just absolutely stubborn on this.
GROSS: We already have National Guard there. Tens of thousands of troops
have had their tours of duty extended. What would you propose doing?
Starting a draft?
Mr. KRISTOL: It's not necessary. I mean, I'm not against the draft, as a
matter of principle, and I'm open to various forms of national service. I
think it'd be a good thing for the country. We had a 2.1 million-man Army, or
at least million men and women armed services, under Clinton, which was at the
beginning of the Clinton administration. That was an all-voluntary Army.
We've taken it down to about 1.45 million. We could certainly go up two or
three divisions to about 1.6 without a draft, and we should have done that two
years ago and we still could do that. As I say, I'm not, sort of in
principle, you know, against the draft, but it's certainly not necessary to be
able to get two or three more divisions, which is certainly I think what we
GROSS: Let me ask you about Abu Ghraib. I mean, one of the biggest arguments
for going into Iraq, in addition to weapons of mass destruction, was to create
a democracy in the Middle East that could become something of a model for
other countries. And the hopes were that, you know, democracy would spread.
The Abu Ghraib prison scandal is--I mean, how much of a problem do you see
that as being because if going into Iraq was about bringing our values there,
our democratic values--and what people are seeing around the world are
pictures of our men and women sexually humiliating and physically coercing
prisoners, those weren't the values we were trying to display.
Mr. KRISTOL: They're not, and I think our leaders have said they're not, and
I think we're punishing the people responsible. I don't believe that it
undermines the fundamental cause or the fundamental task. And I think
actually there's a fair amount of evidence that liberals and Democrats are
making some progress in the Middle East and in the Arab world, and I think we
could do much more, frankly, to promote that than we've been doing. I don't
think we should obsess about Abu Ghraib, to be totally honest. I mean, we
should punish the people who were responsible; we should go up the chain of
command as appropriate. If we want to have a debate about the rules under
which our military intelligence operate, that's totally appropriate, too.
Congress has responsibilities there. And I don't know if Rumsfeld made the
right calls in every case. I don't believe the notion that this is systemic
or that, you know, this fundamentally undermines the moral integrity of the US
GROSS: Well, according to Seymour Hersh's latest New Yorker article, `The
system of physical coercion and sexual humiliation was started as a highly
secret operation for interrogating al-Qaeda suspects. But then that system
was expanded.' And that's what we saw in Abu Ghraib, an expansion of that
system to treat some Iraqi prisoners. And according to Hersh, the expansion
of that top-secret system was approved by Donald Rumsfeld.
Mr. KRISTOL: He doesn't really show that there's much of a connection between
this alleged top-secret system, which would be used for very high-value
al-Qaeda targets and what these reservists were doing at Abu Ghraib, which I
think it's evil--that has nothing to do--these weren't high-value suspects.
This wasn't authorized behavior. That's why they were keeping it quiet from
their commanders. Now, look, were there people--was a failure of command
control in Abu Ghraib? Should the people in charge have known this was going
on between 2 AM and 5 AM? Probably. And there may have been a bit of a
turning of a blind eye. But, you know, it was what it was. It was very
unfortunate. It's very easy to sit here and denounce it, and I'm perfectly
happy to do so.
But I just don't buy the argument that this was somehow all of one piece; that
the entire Pentagon and the entire military intelligence community and all the
MPs were sort of engaged in this systematic form of abuse. I think there's
very, very little evidence. If it were going on, we would know. You know,
there are an awful lot of people in the military; most of them are very decent
people. They don't go around doing this kind of thing. And if there were a
lot more of it going on, we would have a lot more people coming forward to say
so, as we had in Abu Ghraib, incidentally. Why do we know about this?
GROSS: Well, yeah...
Mr. KRISTOL: Because people came forward and said, `This is wrong, what's
happening.' There's this group of people who, unfortunately, had a couple of
extremely bad apples in it, a couple of very weak, I suppose, people who went
along and then some commanders who perhaps turned a blind eye. But this
doesn't seem to have been the norm at all.
GROSS: But what Hersh is saying is that the reason why he has the story is
that people who were involved were so disenchanted with it that they came to
him, some of them people in the CIA. He says the CIA was so upset. The CIA
had been in on this plan, and they were so upset by it they pulled out last
fall. But my question is: Where does this leave you feeling about Donald
Rumsfeld? You know, you disagree with Hersh and you think he might not be
implicated in the Abu Ghraib controversy. But certainly...
Mr. KRISTOL: Well, even Hersh doesn't say that. I mean, the Hersh thing
really deserves some serious scrutiny. I don't want to get into it here in
great detail, and we could, I suppose, go parse the article. But it's a bit
of a calumny. I mean, are we going to seriously say that people at the
level of Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz all down--I mean, think how you would have to
translate these commands. How many Americans would have to be involved in
signing off on fundamental abuse for Hersh's fundamental point to be correct?
Now maybe that's the way he thinks people in the Defense Department are; that
you can get hundreds, thousands of people to agree to foolish, actually, and
wrong, illegal behavior. I don't believe that's the case.
But, look, I think--a month ago Kagan and I wrote an editorial suggesting
Rumsfeld should be fire, or at least suggesting to Bush that he order Rumsfeld
to change policies. And if Rumsfeld isn't capable of doing it, he should look
for a new Defense secretary. I must admit in the last week or two, because of
the hysteria over Abu Ghraib, I felt like I had to defend Rumsfeld a little
because I just don't think it's at all fair to hold him responsible for this.
You know, there could be better Defense secretaries. I don't think he should
be fired under pressure probably right now. I think Bush should take control
of the war, though. This is the fundamental problem. He needs to take
control of the war. He needs to--or he doesn't need to, but it might be a
good idea to cancel all these campaign trips, spend 10 hours a day in the
White House getting fully briefed by everyone, make whatever changes are
necessary, including changes in military intelligence procedures, if that's
appropriate, and really make sure we have a serious strategy to prevail.
GROSS: My guest is Bill Kristol, co-founder of the neoconservative magazine
The Weekly Standard and chair of the think tank the Project for the New
American Century, which advocated regime change in Iraq even before September
11th. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bill Kristol. And he's the
editor of The Weekly Standard, and he's one of the founders of the Project for
the New American Century, which wrote a strategy paper in the year 2000 that
some experts consider a blueprint for the Bush administration's foreign
policy, including the war in Iraq, although, as you're hearing, Bill Kristol
disagrees with a lot of the ways in which the Bush administration has actually
handled the war in Iraq.
Yesterday the head of the Iraqi Governing Council was killed in a bomb blast.
How significant is that, do you think, in terms of managing the future of
Iraq, or, you know, what does it say about the ability to actually create a
stable democracy there now?
Mr. KRISTOL: Well, obviously no one incident, you know, is dispositive.
People are assassinated, unfortunately, in countries all over the world. But
the fundamental fact is the security situation in Iraq has gotten worse over
the last five or six months, and that is simply unacceptable. And it's a
failure of the US. And it's due to the fact that we allow these insurgents to
organize themselves better and to build a network which is quite dangerous and
has made it hard--has led to this kind of assassination, has led to attacks on
US troops. It's led to the killing of Iraqis working with us. And it's bad.
It's bad. It shouldn't be this way a year after the war. I don't think it
had to be this way. I don't think it reflects any--you know, the fact that
most Iraqis think it's a good idea to go around killing this well-respected
Iraqi, who was doing his best for the future of his own country. It's just
that we've allowed these insurgents to mobilize and to network in ways that we
shouldn't have. And we're paying a terrible price for it, and the Iraqis are
paying a terrible price for it.
GROSS: The United States plans to hand over sovereignty to Iraq on June 30th.
The UN representative is going to appoint interim leaders until elections are
held. Those elections are scheduled to be held in January. You're proposing
moving them up to September. What do you think that would accomplish?
Mr. KRISTOL: It would give Iraqis a sense that we're well on a path to their
own assumption of real sovereignty and not being governed by us, not being
governed by some people appointed by the UN, which does not have great
credibility in Iraq, especially after the scandals that have come out in the
last few months. I think we should have moved to elections much earlier. We
said that at the time, but I feel it much more strongly, in retrospect; that
we've tied ourselves in knots, we couldn't have a perfect electoral process.
Everything's very complicated. So we never actually got about the business of
giving the Iraqis some measure, at least, of real sovereignty.
And there's no reason, I don't think, why we can't go ahead and push forward
the elections to try to give the Iraqis--those waverers, who aren't certain
whether, you know, they're going to end up governing themselves and,
therefore, were intimidated and maybe even cooperation with some of the
terrorists because they're not sure who's going to end up governing them--we
need to really show that we're committed to helping them establish some form
of representative, democratic government. So I think elections for a
constitutional assembly should be held as possible. You don't want to have
the interim government in charge any longer than is necessary.
GROSS: Do you worry at all that if we do the elections too early, that it
will look good on one level, it will look like democracy is happening, but
there won't be enough preparation in place for the elections?
Mr. KRISTOL: Well, maybe. We had a year to prepare, and there's a lot of
violence, but there was a lot of violence in a lot of other countries that
went ahead and had elections, ranging from the Philippines to El Salvador.
And I think it turned out to be a good idea to have them because it really got
a serious political process going. And I guess I have enough faith in the
Iraqi people. I think they want to have elections. They want to choose their
own leaders. And it's not a fantasy, you know, and I'm not on the ground; I
don't know exactly how difficult it would be. But I think we've maybe let the
best, in this case, become an enemy of the good. And I guess I do think a
combination of more troops and more force and more democracy is the way to go
in defeating this insurgency in Iraq.
GROSS: What kind of presence would you like us to maintain in Iraq?
Mr. KRISTOL: Oh, I think we need to keep pretty substantial troops there, for
one thing, just for basic security, you know, for a year or two years, three
years. I don't know. We'll see how it goes. It'd be great if we could get
rid of these insurgents and if the electoral process had an effect also in
decreasing their base of support and we could get out more quickly. But, you
know, we have a lot of experience with this. Often there are long-lingering
guerrilla and insurgent efforts. They don't fundamentally make democracy
unworkable. You've had it in the Philippines for a long time, Indonesia, lots
of countries. It makes life very unpleasant for the people who are subject to
it. But we could obviously tolerate kind of low-grade insurgency for quite a
while but not at this level of insecurity. And that's our responsibility. We
shouldn't kid ourselves that the, you know, Iraqi police whom we train can
deal with this. We have a serious insurgency, and we need to defeat it.
GROSS: The president just asked for another $25 billion for the Iraq Freedom
Fund. The war is costing obviously a lot of money. I'm wondering if the
cost--you know, there was the $87 billion, now the $25 billion. Is it costing
more than you expected, or were you planning on that kind of financial
Mr. KRISTOL: Well, I didn't know, obviously, how much it would cost, and I
don't suppose--I guess no one else did. And that's why the president has to
ask for these supplementals. I mean, if you think the war is worth it, it's
worth it at this cost. If you think the war is a mistake, it's a mistake
whether it cost $200 billion or $150 billion or $100 billion. So I don't
think the money is a fundamental issue.
GROSS: Critics such as Richard Clarke say we don't have enough money for
homeland security because we're spending so much money on Iraq. Does that
trouble you when you hear it?
Mr. KRISTOL: No. We should spend as much as we need on homeland security and
on Iraq. We're spending way less than we spent 15 years ago on defense as a
percentage of GDP. And this is an extremely wealthy country. And if we spend
another percentage point of GDP on homeland security and another percentage
point on defense and foreign policy efforts, we should do so. I mean, this is
the world we live in, I think. And I think this money, both at home and
abroad--and I would include in this diplomatic money, public diplomacy money
and the like--not all this money is well spent. Some of this money is not
going to be well spent, but that's the nature of government; that's the nature
of life. I don't think we can skimp on this, and I don't think we should, you
know, damage one part of our national security effort for the sake of another.
GROSS: You say we live in a wealthy country. The government is less wealthy
right now as a result of the president's tax cuts. Have you supported those
tax cuts in time of war and in time of these huge increased expenses?
Mr. KRISTOL: I've supported them--well, I had a very strong view on them,
frankly. I supported them mostly as a matter of economic policy and keeping
the recession shallow. But I would be happy to raise taxes if the money went
to the war, for national security. National security comes first. I think we
can probably do it on the current tax structure. But if people want to have a
special surtax for the war, I'd be happy to support that.
GROSS: Bill Kristol edits the magazine The Weekly Standard. He'll be back in
the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with William Kristol, who
advocated regime change in Iraq even before the attacks of September 11th.
And book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews the novel "The Jane Austin Book
Club" by Karen Joy Fowler.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with William Kristol, editor
of the neoconservative magazine The Weekly Standard and chair of the think
tank the Project for the New American Century, which advocated regime change
in Iraq even before the attacks of September 11th. We've been talking about
how the war and the Bush administration's handling of it compare with what
On "Meet the Press" with Tim Russert on Sunday, Colin Powell said that the
sourcing on the weapons of mass destruction report that he gave at the United
Nations, which was one of the big arguments for going to war--that it was
`wrong and misleading.' He said he's disappointed, and he regrets it. What
was your reaction to that?
Mr. KRISTOL: You know, Terry, I saw Powell at the UN on whatever it was,
February 5th or 6th, I think, and was as impressed as anyone. I mean,
obviously, it didn't--the Congress voted to go to war way before that report.
And, again, I think it, unfortunately, made it seem as if a case for going to
war was based on US intelligence, which it really never was. It was based on
his failure to comply with the UN resolutions and the UNSCOM and UNMOVIC
finding that there was no evidence he had complied with these obligations and,
of course, the fact that he had had these weapons and had used these weapons
and the character of his brutal dictatorship. So, you know, in retrospect,
the Powell presentation to the UN was a big mistake and I--but, you know, I
can't say--I certainly didn't know it was at the time.
GROSS: But wasn't the fact that the Bush administration said that Saddam
Hussein had weapons of mass destruction or, at the very least, was just on the
verge of creating, that made the case for immediacy: `There's no time to wait
for the UN weapons inspectors to continue to inspect. We have to go in there
Mr. KRISTOL: Yeah, I don't think that was really the core of the case for
immediacy, though. I mean, God knows I made the argument for the war enough
times before, you know, March of 2003. I mean, the case for immediacy was
just that post-9/11 we had to make a decision one way or another. And we
wouldn't have learned anything more from waiting a year or two years. I
suppose--I'm not sure we could have kept the sanctions on. There would have
been a huge drumbeat of criticism about keeping the sanctions on. We couldn't
have kept 150,000 troops, I don't think, in the region, which was the only way
the inspectors even got back in. If you really want to have an upsurge of
al-Qaeda recruitment, you know, let's just have a whole bunch of American
troops sitting around Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and sanctions on with Saddam
able to exploit that in terms of propaganda. So I think the case for
immediacy was more that we had to make a decision one way or the other,
unless, you know, some nuclear weapon was going to be lobbed at us the next
week or two.
Now did the administration say certain things that in retrospect they
shouldn't have? And was there a certain amount of, you know, sort of
simplification of the argument? Sure. But I actually don't think people were
fundamentally misled. American congressmen and the senators and the American
people and your listeners did not say, `You know what? I'm for this war
because Saddam might lob something at us tomorrow.' They understood that
basically it was a geopolitical, strategic judgment about whether we could
accept Saddam staying in power given his history, given his record, or not,
and that that was a threat to us, certainly a threat to friends and allies in
the region. But I think in retrospect we're sort of--there's been a certain
tendency to make it seem as if the administration misled more than it did.
Not that they weren't wrong about certain things, but I don't think there was
a conscious desire to mislead.
GROSS: Well, I know a lot of people would disagree with you on that. One of
the arguments for going to Iraq was that it would make us safer in the war
against terrorism. Critics are saying that going into Iraq has made us less
safe; Iraq has become, they say, a magnet for terrorists. It has become a
recruiting tool for terrorists who are saying, `Look how America occupied Iraq
and look at how they're treating prisoners in Abu Ghraib,' that all of that
becomes a recruiting tool for terrorists. What's your response to that?
Mr. KRISTOL: Well, the sanctions on Iraq before were a recruiting tool for
terrorists and obviously our foreign policy in general has been a recruiting
tool for terrorists. The worst terrorist attacks were launched before we went
into Iraq. I'm not going to deny that obviously they're not idiots, the
terrorists. They'll use whatever they can for their propaganda and for their
recruitment. And we could use a lot more help from allegedly friendly
governments in the Middle East in stating the facts, including the facts that
are bad for us, but in putting them in context rather than simply allowing
this kind of recruitment and incitement to go on.
But as an empirical matter, I don't think it's at all clear that Iraq has
helped terrorists recruit. I mean, they're--you know, terrorists were doing a
pretty good job, unfortunately, recruiting before we went into Iraq, and we've
actually had some victories in the war over terror over the last year or two.
I do think some the governments, like Saudi Arabia, which had been utterly
turning a blind eye to the terror network before 9/11 and really before they
were attacked, have helped us much more in getting a handle on that network.
But look, the threat and the danger remain, and they were going to remain
whether we went into Iraq or not. So, I mean, I think it's a judgment call
and I can't tell you, obviously--it's hard to sit here and be precise in
assessing benefits and costs. And one reason, of course, is, as you know, you
don't know what the war would have looked like if we hadn't gone into Iraq.
So it's very hard to tell.
GROSS: I've been asking you about things that have not gone as planned in
Iraq. But what do you think we've gained by going in? What do you think the
United States has accomplished?
Mr. KRISTOL: We removed Saddam, which is not a small thing, and it's--who
knows how many people he would have killed if he had been in power for an
additional year. But that is not a small matter. And it also, I think, is
not a small matter to signal that we are able and willing to remove dictators
who don't do what they say they were going to do, kill their own people,
invade neighbors and all that. It was a huge mistake not to remove him in
'91. I don't think we make up for that mistake by removing him in 2003. We
don't save all the lives that were lost between '91 and--1991 and 2003, but I
think an Iraq without Saddam is a better Iraq than an Iraq with Saddam, better
for the Iraqis, better for the neighbors. And if we can just stick to it, I
still think we have a pretty good chance of having a positive ripple effect
throughout the Middle East--not an automatic domino effect, obviously, and no
one thought the whole place was going to become democratic overnight, but we
can trigger positive changes, some of which are happening, incidentally, in
countries throughout the Middle East, despite the difficulties we've had in
GROSS: My guest is Bill Kristol, founder of the magazine The Weekly Standard
and chair of the think tank the Project for the New American Century, which
advocated regime change in Iraq even before September 11th.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Bill Kristol is my guest. He is the editor of the neoconservative
journal The Weekly Standard and he's also the founder of the Project for the
New American Century, a think tank that advocated regime change in Iraq even
before September 11th.
Bill, I'm sure you know this. The Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen
once called the looming war in Iraq--this was before we actually went into
Iraq. He once called it `Kristol's war.' I'm wondering personally what it's
like for you, since you were such a strong advocate of the war and since you
were so identified with it--what has it been like for you to actually watch
the reality play out?
Mr. KRISTOL: Well, I don't know; I've just gone about, you know, editing the
magazine and making my arguments and, you know, this is a wonderful democracy
and I don't exaggerate the importance of my arguments at all. I was one of
many who thought we should have removed Saddam. We made the argument publicly
in The Weekly Standard, I think, beginning in 1997, I guess in a certain way
beginning in 1991, obviously, with the failure to remove him at the end of the
Gulf War. So I wouldn't, you know--I don't want to exaggerate sort of my
importance in any way.
No, I feel some responsibility, obviously, as anyone would who advocated a
policy and then saw it put into effect, more or less. I guess that's one
reason that in The Weekly Standard we've been--tried to be quite critical of
the administration where we thought it was right to be, not for the purpose of
distancing ourself or covering ourself or anything like that, but for the
purpose of being honest about what needs to be done, and also because I really
think it's important that this succeed, and I'm very disappointed that the
administration has done a bad job in the last year in making it succeed, and
I'm worried that it could fail. And I think it would be very bad if it
And I supposed at that point maybe I'll say, `Well, gee, given how incompetent
the administration was, I never should have advocated it.' But I would
accept, I guess, that I would have made an error in judgment at that point.
But I don't believe that they needed to have been this incompetent. I still
think they can fix the situation. I still think we can prevail in Iraq. And
I guess I spend most of my time thinking about how to do that rather than
second-guessing, in a sense, the judgments, you know, I've made and others
have made, obviously in good faith based on what we knew at the time.
GROSS: You said that we don't think we need to fail in Iraq. What would
failure mean? Like, what would constitute failure?
Mr. KRISTOL: Well, that we have to get out, in a sense, or choose to get out
because we can't take the casualties, and the place either falls apart or
becomes a dictatorship or both, I think, would be likely. And even if the
people there are slightly better off than they were under Saddam--it's hard to
believe they could be, you know, any worse off--still, if, basically, there's
not a decent regime there, if it's then that the US has been defeated and
driven out, I think the consequences of that could be catastrophic, really,
and I don't think it will happen. I don't think an administration of either
party would actually allow that to happen. I just wish the Bush
administration were a little more imaginative and willing to change course
here and make adjustments to make sure it doesn't happen instead of assuming
that we can kind of slog through with the current military strategy and the
current political strategy.
GROSS: And changing course would mean more troops; you'd like to see that.
Mr. KRISTOL: More troops, quicker elections, and generally I think the
president has to take charge of this war and be the commander in chief and
make sure that his subordinates up and down the chain are doing what needs to
be done. I think in a way the State Department's doing its own thing; the
Defense Department's doing its own thing. We don't have a coherent war
strategy and we can--we're a big, strong country. We can muddle through with
a certain amount of incoherence. God knows we have in the past. But still,
it's risky at this point, I think.
GROSS: Now it sounds like you feel like you've advocated a policy, the policy
didn't play out quite as you thought but, you know, you're just now advocating
adjustments in that policy. So I take that to mean that there aren't nights
where you're laying awake thinking, `Oh, my gosh. Things just, like, didn't
turn out the way I expected.'
Mr. KRISTOL: Not really. I mean, I--look, I'm happy to debate this and I
have debated this with many people and I'm sure I'll continue to. I mean, I'm
willing to make the case that the war was right and necessary, that the people
of Iraq are better off. And, again, let's be totally honest. People who take
the other point of view have to, I think, argue that we should have left
Saddam in power. I mean, that is the choice and the choice--in the real
world. I mean, we don't get to rewrite history and have the best of, you
know, all policy. So the choice was to remove Saddam or not to remove Saddam.
I'm perfectly happy making the case that removing Saddam was right and I--you
know, I sleep well having made that case.
I do lay awake at nights in frustration and anger sometimes at the
administration for all the mistakes they've made and their stubbornness and
imperviousness to criticism and to constructive criticism. I mean, look,
everyone makes mistakes. I mean, if I'd been--you know, if I had Condi Rice's
job, I would have made my share of mistakes, obviously, or Paul Bremer's job.
Those are very, very difficult jobs in the postwar effort, if you can call it
a postwar. Let's say a continuation of the war effort. But they've been so
resistant to making some obvious miscourse corrections urged by Democrats and
Republicans alike, liberals and conservatives alike, and I do think that is
a--that's just turned out to be a huge problem. I still think it's winnable
and I think we're going to win it, actually, but we've made it much more
difficult than we had to, I think.
GROSS: Let me quote something that John Tierney wrote in The New York Times
on May 16th, and this was an article that was headlined `The Hawks Loudly
Express Their Second Thoughts.' And Tierney wrote: "Many hawks are
wondering, `How did so many conservatives who normally don't trust their
government to run a public school down the street come to believe that federal
bureaucrats could transform an entire nation in the alien culture of the
Middle East?'" What's your reaction to that?
Mr. KRISTOL: Well, my kids have gone to public schools down the street and
they were pretty good, actually, and I've never been an anti-government
conservative so I probably--those who really were, the libertarians, were
always against this war. Look, I mean, I never thought it would be easy to,
quote, "transform a country in the Middle East." Could we help them make
their lives better? Yes. I supported Clinton in Bosnia. I supported Clinton
in Kosovo. Lots of very wise, learned people explained that there never--this
was hopeless. The Balkans have had this ethic hostility for hundreds of
years, this was a pathetic effort by us to go in, without much historical
sophistication, and bring about peace. Is everything perfect in Bosnia or
Kosovo now? No. Is it still a mess? Do we still have troops there? Sure.
Are they better off than when Milosevic was engaged in ethnic cleansing? I
So I'll make the case that, you know, on net, in the real world, weighing
pluses and minuses, it was the right thing to do, and I would also make it,
incidentally, with regard to Rwanda, where we didn't act, and lots of other
places. I don't think the problem in the world is that the US has been too
aggressive in intervening in stopping justice or to advance the cause of
liberal democracy. I know that these--it sounds like a crazy thing to say
these days and the caricature of the neoconservatives is we're a bunch of
woolly headed Lesonians(ph) who sort of foolishly think you can transform the
world. That's not my view. I think Saddam was a real threat. That was the
main reason to go in. But I think if we don't try to improve the Middle East,
we're going to live in a horrific world for the next--well, for the
foreseeable future. So I think it's both the right thing to do and a
necessary thing to do to begin that transformation, and it's not going to be
easy or clean, but I think it's within the capacity of the US government,
working with other allies, to do that.
GROSS: Is this type of regime change something we should try again in a
different county in the Middle East?
Mr. KRISTOL: Well, I wouldn't rule it out. I mean, I certainly hope we have
regime change in other countries in the Middle East. I hope we have it
peacefully. And, thank God, most of these countries don't have dictators with
as great a stranglehold and who use as much brutality as Saddam. But, yes, I
would be extremely unhappy if the Middle East looks, in terms of regimes, the
way it does today 10 years or 20 years from now. And I think that would be an
actual threat to the United States because this--you know, we made that bet 20
or 30 or 40 years ago, `Let's work with these dictators as long as they're
pro-American. We can live with them.' We saw what that led to. I think it
led to 9/11. It led to a growth in extremism and anti-Americanism and
terrorism, the opportunity for recruitment for terrorists.
Maybe those decisions were understandable at the time. I didn't criticize all
of them so I'm not--you know, I don't want to sit here and claim that it was
obvious that it was wrong to be buddies with the Saudi monarchy, but I'm not
sure how many people now would say that was a very intelligent decision to
have sustained through the '80s and '90s, and I don't think it's tenable now.
So, yes, I would defend the proposition, the fundamental kind of insight, I
think, of the Bush doctrine, which is we need to change the character of the
Middle East if the world is going to be safer in the 21st century.
GROSS: In terms of global stability and protecting people against dictators,
we're so in need of more troops in Iraq that we've been taking--we're taking
troops out of South Korea, in spite of North Korea being a real problem, and
we're moving those troops to Iraq. What do you think about that?
Mr. KRISTOL: Well, I think we need more troops in general, which would allow
us to keep troops in places where they do contribute to stability, as in South
Korea. I think we can probably get away with 33,000 troops in South Korea
instead of 37,000. I don't think it's a fundamental change. But I think--you
know, your question is a good one in this sense: I mean, if it turns out that
we have to with--draw down our troops and that we're incapable of providing
basic stability in many areas of the world, in the Far East and in the Middle
East, I think we just end up with an incredibly dangerous war. People need to
be honest and think that through. I mean, if we have to draw down in Korea
and Japan, aren't we looking at a nuclear arms race between China and Japan,
South Korea, perhaps, Taiwan?
In the Middle East, if we fail in Iraq, I think one immediate consequence is
countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia and Egypt think much harder about their
own security, and maybe they can't count on the US to kind of stabilize the
situation, and maybe nuclear weapons aren't a bad idea. And then what does
Israel think? I mean, it just--the degree to which we--for all that the US
makes mistakes, for all that it's a burden often to be the world superpower,
the prospect of a weak superpower is much more dangerous, I think, than the
prospect of a strong superpower, even if we sometimes don't use that strength
And I do think that's--in that respect, I'm with Bush. I mean, I think he's
fundamentally right--his instincts are right about the US role in the world.
Obviously, I wish we executed our policies more competently in many cases and
especially in Iraq.
GROSS: I know that you want President Bush re-elected; at the same time,
you've been so critical of how he and his secretary of Defense have handled
the war. So why do you want to put your faith back in their hands?
Mr. KRISTOL: You know, that's a question I've actually stayed up a little
bit at night thinking about, and I got--and I was on "The Daily Show" with Jon
Stewart last week and he really trapped me on this. And since he's not as
nice as you--and though he's actually a very nice guy and quite witty,
GROSS: He's a lot funnier than I am.
Mr. KRISTOL: Well, maybe. I'm sure you could be if you wanted to be. It's
just not that type of show.
GROSS: I'm just holding back.
Mr. KRISTOL: Exactly.
Mr. KRISTOL: And he said, you know, `So your analysis, basically, that Bush
drove us into this ditch. He didn't have to do it but he screwed--he messed
things up so much that we're in a ditch and we're spinning our tires in the
ditch and so you're saying, "Hey, let's trust this guy to drive us out of the
ditch."' And I must admit I was a little stumped for a second or two. No, I
mean, look, you only get a choice between two candidates and I think, on the
whole, Bush's view of foreign policy is certainly closer to mine than Senator
Kerry's, though I respect Senator Kerry for not--you know, for being
responsible mostly on Iraq--I mean, for saying `We can cut and run,' for
saying that, you know, we need to finish the job. I think he's a really--it's
wishful thinking to think that we're going to get a huge number of
international troops in to help us, but I give Senator Kerry credit for
running mostly a responsible campaign.
But, you know, if you look across the board, I'm going to be--I think I'm
closer to President Bush than to Senator Kerry in terms of foreign policy
analysis. But, look, one reason Bush is now behind Kerry in the polls by a
point or two and is sliding is that an awful lot of Americans who are more
wavering--you know, waverish between the two parties--Independents, weak
Republicans, weak Democrats, have--who were inclined to be for Bush six months
ago, for the reasons I just said, are now inclined to be for Kerry, sort of
for the reason your question suggests, not because of some great ideological,
I wouldn't say, opposition to Bush or to his effort, but just out of a sense
that, look, maybe this was a good idea, maybe it wasn't. It's hard to judge
But in any case, he did it. But he's turned out to be incompetent in
executing it. That is the fundamental threat to Bush's re-election, and right
now I think it's--you know, a 50:50 proposition because a lot of Americans--or
at least enough Americans among the swing voters, obviously--40 percent of,
you know--are going to be for Bush no matter what and 40 percent will be for
Kerry no matter what. But among the swing voters, the failures in Iraq are
crippling Bush's case for re-election for precisely the reason you said, that
it's you know, sort of, `Gee, I sort of thought he could pull this off, and he
seems not to be doing it well.'
GROSS: Well, Bill Kristol, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. KRISTOL: My pleasure, Terry.
GROSS: Bill Kristol edits the weekly magazine The Weekly Standard. Coming
up, Maureen Corrigan reviews the novel "The Jane Austen Book Club."
This is FRESH AIR.
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Review: New book by Karen Joy Fowler, "The Jane Austen Book Club"
TERRY GROSS, host:
In an essay published in The New Yorker eight years ago, Martin Amis said,
`Jane Austen is weirdly capable of keeping everybody busy. The moralists, the
Marxists, the Freudians, the deconstructors all find an adventure playground
in six zany novels about middle-class provincials. And for every general of
critics and readers, her fiction effortlessly removes itself.'
The inexhaustibility of Jane Austen's work is the premise of Karen Joy
Fowler's latest comic novel, "The Jane Austen Book Club." Book critic Maureen
Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
A few days ago, a neighbor of mine told me that her book club had vetoed her
proposal that their next book should be Karen Joy Fowler's new and already
much-praised comic novel, "The Jane Austen Book Club." Apparently, my
neighbor's fellow reading group members bristled at the self-conscious
cuteness of a book club reading a novel about book clubs, and they also
suspected Fowler's novel might be too light.
My neighbor's book club is one of those serious book clubs. Sure, the members
may polish off a few bottles of wine in the course of an evening's
gossip-larded discussion and I hear that it's rare for anybody to actually
read the entire assigned book. But this is a group that always chooses
classics like "Middlemarch" not to finish.
Too bad my neighbor's book group is so intent on literary uplift, because
anyone who even nominally likes books should just lap up "The Jane Austen Book
Club." First off, for Janeites, as the worshipers of Austen are called,
Fowler artfully alludes to the plots of Austen's six novels as she recounts
the meetings of the fictional Jane Austen Book Club, which is based in
Sacramento, California, and composed of five women of various ages, marital
states and sexual inclinations, and one 40ish straight, single man. The club
bands together for six months for the purpose of reading all of Jane Austen.
Beyond droll, insiderish commentary on Austen, as well as on the cultural
meaning of book clubs in general, Fowler uses the literary setting of her
novel to full advantage. "The Jane Austen Book Club" offers a sparkling
rumination on the act of reading itself and on how beloved books can serve as
refuge, self-definition, snobbish barricades against other people or pathways
out of the old self to a wider world.
The Jane Austen Book Club was Jocelyn's idea. She's a post-menopausal dog
breeder as well as a tireless matchmaker of human beings. And she contends
that it's essential to reintroduce Austen into your life regularly. Let her
look around. Because Jocelyn is a control freak, she handpicks the five other
group members, including her oldest friend Sylvia, who's on the verge of
divorce, Sylvia's daughter Allegra, who's a beautiful lesbian with
relationship problems, and an affable man named Grigg, who's never read Austen
Jocelyn met Grigg when they shared a hotel elevator months earlier. She was
staying at the hotel for a dog breeders' pow-wow; he for--shudder--a sci-fi
convention. The seventh member of the Jane Austen Book Club, so to speak, is
our omniscient narrator, who uses the royal `we' and, in the shimmering
tradition of Austen's own narrators, finds nothing more jolly than peeking in
on the thoughts of the anxious gentry. Here's a tiny sampling of the
narrator's wit and worldly wisdom.
(Reading) `Each of us has a private Austen. Allegra's Austen wrote about the
impact of financial need on the intimate lives of women. If she had worked in
a bookstore, Allegra would have shelved Austen in the horror section.'
Later in the novel, after Allegra has dumped a thieving lover, the narrator
eavesdrops on her mother Sylvia's sad realization. Sylvia thought how all
parents wanted an impossible life for their children: happy beginning, happy
middle, happy ending, no plot of any kind. What uninteresting people would
result if parents got their way.
The six book group members slosh back margaritas and red wine and launch their
way into loop-de-loop discussions in which they compare Austen's minor
characters to sitcom characters and deliberate over Emma's frigidity. By the
time the book group finishes their wet dissection of Austen's last novel,
"Persuasion," the six members are all either dating or married, though they're
not, thank goodness, all involved with each other. It's a happy ending the
narrator attributes to the magical effect of reading Austen. Even more
magical, though, is the fact that Fowler pulls off this final fanfare without
being at all twinkly.
"The Jane Austen Book Club" is a terrific comic novel about a closed society
merrily transformed by reading. In the tradition of Jane Austen and her funny
girl inheritors, like Angela Thirkell, Barbara Pym, Stevie Smith and Susan
Isaacs, Fowler recognizes that intelligence and humor are natural literary
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "The Jane Austen Book Club" by Joy Fowler.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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