David Frum Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
|Photo by Jane Scherr|
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Now, you're referring, and we should show right now, the new book that you have written with Richard Perle, An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror. It's just been published. Is this a manual for foreign policy after 9/11?
I hope so. It's certainly a manual for after Iraq. We are very concerned -- and at the time, especially, that we sat down to write this -- we were very concerned that some of the fighting "oomph" had gone out of Washington. Not just politically, but that even institutionally, bad old habits are reasserting themselves. And we wanted to say both to the administration and to the public, because the administration looks to the public, "Here is how it can be done. This is not a futile task. It is an achievable task. Do this and do that." And to the public, in particular, "Expect this, and expect that, and judge your leaders in the light of this, because the gravitational drag is very strong."
After Afghanistan, I guess Iraq is the first test case for the Bush Doctrine, in a way.
There have been other cases; some of them more quiet, but certainly the biggest and most conspicuous, and probably most important of the early cases.
Do you feel that the administration failed in its effort to plan for the future of Iraq after military victory?
When you're dealing with wars in unpredictable circumstances, it's too easy to say that when you make a mal-prediction that you somehow failed. Robert E. Lee had a wonderful line. He was once asked, "Why did the South lose the war?" And he replied, "Oh, simple. All my best generals were writing for the newspapers."
There are all kinds of people who tell you, after the fact, the Pentagon did an elaborate preparation for humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq, an elaborate preparations for refugees, for hunger, for the breakdown of basic infrastructure. Had there been a water shortage, they were ready; were there a food shortage, they were ready; if houses had been destroyed and the people needed tents, they were ready. What they were not ready for was that Saddam Hussein had organized his campaign of sabotage, which looked like looting, but which we now can see was quite deliberately organized with an idea to cripple key institutions. They didn't anticipate that. So that yeah, that was a failure. Is it something that was obvious to smart people in advance? It was not. It was not.
When you look back at the history of any of America's wars, that you will find all through them all kinds of people in the newspaper saying, "Well, you should have anticipated that the Germans would be over here or that the Japanese would do that." But wars are a constant process of making mistakes, terrible mistakes with terrible consequences, and then scrambling to rectify them on the way to victory. One of the things that happens at the distance of half a century is that it all blurs into one of these "History Channel" specials, and you think it was just smooth sailing. It wasn't then; it isn't now.
One of the problems with the Iraq war was the divisions within the government itself.
Absolutely. It was very hard. For example, everyone understood in theory that we ought to have some kind of provisional government ready to go, to put an Iraqi face on the liberation of Iraq. But we could not resolve the question of who it was to be, and that was a problem that we should have resolved. The State Department and the CIA had their candidates, who were drawn largely from the Ba'athist milieu of the military, people who are in-country, who had recognizable names, which were also completely compromised by their associations to Saddam Hussein, who had rather sinister ambitions for the future of Iraq; versus the people in the Defense Department and in the White House, and some external intellectuals, who are sympathetic to the Iraqi National Congress, which was made up of exiles -- largely, mostly Shiites.
An important part of the story, too, is the sinister influence of Saudi Arabia, which is absolutely horrified at the idea that you could have a government anywhere in the Arab world in which Shiites play an important part, because they have large Shiite minorities inside Saudi Arabia who are very badly oppressed. If this idea that Shiites have a right to be consulted ever catches on, there's no telling, from the Saudi point of view, where it will lead.
You fault in your Bush book the theories of modernization, the steps that one has to go through to achieve democracy, and markets, and so on. And you make that as a criticism, because you argue that it immobilizes parts of the government: you can't do anything anywhere. Is that still the case? I mean, I'm trying to understand. You've made the case for action. You've made the case for trying to bring about transformation in this part of the region. But how it works its way through the system that's on the ground is another issue?
In the country?
Yes, in the country, yes. Now we're in a situation where the Shiites, basically, are calling for democracy, in essence.
Well, we are going to be doing a lot of experiments and we're going to make a lot of mistakes. If we'd had our druthers, probably, we would all be talking about different things. But the fact is that this problem of Islamic extremism was one that the United States ignored for a long time. And we lost a lot of time. Now it's thrust upon us, and we have to make the best resolution of it that we can.
We have a series of ideas, but we have to approach them with a humble spirit and a spirit of experimentation. If we interact, for example, we have an opportunity to make a success; it may also prove to be a failure. But at a minimum, at a minimum, we are going to do a couple of things. One is, we are going to give the lie to the claim that the United States wanted Saddam Hussein and people like him in power, which is a lie that was widely believed in the Arab world. We have demonstrated that powerful dictators in the Arab world are not as powerful as they look. No one is beyond the reach of American power. That's a big impact on Kadaffi. It may have an impact on the Iranians. We have brought to the full light the atrocities that occurred in these societies. It's one thing to say, "Yeah, probably are a lot of terrible things happen." People say that very casually. "Nobody is more opposed to Saddam Hussein than I am. I know about all the terrible things he did." But really, do you feel it? Do you sense it? In the Arab world, in particular, where the media engages in excuse-making, do they feel it? Well, it's now brought to their attention. People can say, "My son, my husband, my brother, my daughter, my wife," and they can say it in their own media.
We've done something else, which is strategic and important, and ought to please the so-called realists, which is we have by bringing the second-largest oil producer, or potential oil producer in the Middle East back into the world community, we have loosened a little bit the Saudi grip on the American throat. Their ability to threaten the United States is much weaker.
Now, this agenda in An End to Evil is quite ambitious, and it is written in such a way that suggests to me that it's not clear that it will be adopted by the Bush administration or any administration. But let's walk through that. Abroad, you think that we need to rethink our relations with, for example, the Saudis and other Middle Eastern leaders. Talk about that.
What we need is to have a much clearer idea that we should not be content with half measures; that many of the governments in the Middle East have become very expert in trying to figure out how much they need to give the United States to get away with the other things they do. They've taken the measure of the United States in the past, and they administer little favors one by one to buy tolerance.
Well, after 9/11, the United States is entitled -- and all this, maybe, should have happened a lot sooner -- to demand nothing less than total cooperation. That's what that "with us or against us" message is about. We are not going to take a little dribble of intelligence from Syrian intelligence in return for allowing the Syrian regime to stay in power and continue to do the things it's doing. We're not going to do that deal with the Saudis. We're not even going to do that deal with the Egyptians. If you want to be regarded as our friends, you have to be completely on board on the anti-terrorism cause. No reservations. So that's part of it.
What we also have to understand is that the political failure and the economic failure of these societies present a challenge and threat to us. The Egyptian unemployment rates are breeding grounds for these frustrated young men who then become the foot soldiers of al Qaeda. Ditto for the boredom and the listlessness of Saudi society. It is not a matter of indifference to us that the Saudi regime has shut down every possible way of expressing dissent except through the mosque. That's important to us.
And you want to play hardball, because at one point in your book you suggest that a lot of the Saudi oil is in Shiite territory or is, at least, where the [Shiite] population is a third of the people there, and that the U.S. should point that out to the Saudis with obvious implications.
Yes. I think the United States is entitled and is right to be stern.
We don't have one answer for every problem. There are a lot of problems where the correct approach is the soft approach, and a lot of times we have to woo and placate. But just as it's wrong to say the answer is always force, it is wrong to say the answer is never force. Sometimes force, or the threat of it, is necessary. Diplomacy, in my view, is not the art of smoothing relations. Diplomacy is the art of getting your way to through words. Sometimes the right words are "please, please, please." And sometimes the right words are "do it again and we'll knock your teeth out."
In the case of the Pakistanis, for example, you're more inclined not to ...
They're getting the soft approach, the Pakistanis. But Pakistan is a hugely troublesome state. It's a state that is troublesome not because the government is making corrupt deals with bad people, but because the government and state are so weak that the processes of order are breaking down. They've got highly capable people in Pakistan who can build modern weapons. But at the same time, they have a country in which an extraordinary proportion are illiterate, especially women. We need to find ways to stabilize Pakistan. People will say, "Oh, that's impossible." India -- If you look what has happened to India since 1947, that society has to a great extent worked. Right now, the people in charge of India are not a very attractive bunch, but it is partly Pakistani extremism that has brought Hindu extremists to greater power in India. If one could de-escalate this relationship -- and there are ways to do it -- you would find more moderate voices rising before India, and more prosperity to Pakistan.
So, practically, what does this mean? Pakistan badly wants a free trade agreement with the United States. It should have it, but it should be required as part of the process of getting it to negotiate a free trade agreement with India. And that's happening now. That has begun. Then we get into some technical measures. Pakistani and Indian nuclear arsenal should be accepted as a fact. The United States' pounding on the barn door after the horse has gone out is not useful. Since it's a fact, they need training and American advice to make sure their weapons are under strict control, that they can only be fired by proper authority; that they are all accounted for; they can't be smuggled away. That's going to be require some technical assistance. We need to encourage, as well, education in Pakistan. This is an idea that was very much promoted by Hillary Clinton, and I can't believe I like it, but I do. One of the things that happened, because it's so difficult to persuade Pakistanis to educate their daughters, they have programs in local schools that say, "If your daughter attends school for five days, on the fifth day we'll send her home with a can of cooking oil." And that's had some impact. Ideas like that offer a lot of promise.
Now, you also feel it necessary to shake up the bureaucracy in Washington, because the FBI, the CIA, and others, the State Department, are configured and behave in ways that might have been more appropriate in the Cold War. Talk a little about that.
Well, these institutions were created to solve past problems. But anyone who's worked for a large institution knows that mere success does not necessarily change a bureaucracy's mission. So, the CIA is equipped to do certain things. Those aren't the things we need it to do now, but it keeps doing them. The Pentagon, even worse. The State Department is a creature from an age in which the main job of American foreign policy was seen as managing a relationship between highly functioning states. Well, we've now got problems with the states that are not so functional.
The State Department's own extraordinary internal bureaucracy, such an awesome ... I mean, people who work in Washington have often had the experience of going to what they call an interagency meeting -- it should send people to sleep but it's important -- where there will be somebody from Defense, somebody from CIA, somebody from the White House, and four people from State. State couldn't make up its mind beforehand what State thought! And because they have these bureaus -- they have bureaus that are divided by region, and that overlaid on top of bureaus that are overlaid by function, and they all have to sign off on everything. A friend of mine who worked in the State Department gave me this example. He's a junior State Department official, and if he wants to send a cable -- that's what they still call it, by the way, they still call them cables. It's really an email, but if he wants to send a message asking, "What was that joke that the Austrian ambassador told the French ambassador at the conference in Italy?" -- that message has to be approved by three separate desk officers. Anyone of them has the right to say, "No, you shouldn't ask that question. It will embarrass people." It is a sclerotic, a sclerotic bureaucracy.
Finally, I guess one has to ask the question, how will this war against terrorism, if it's pursued as aggressively as you and Richard Perle are suggesting, how will it affect us as a people? Will we have to change some of our ways at home in order to meet this challenge?
We always have to change our ways every time we face a new problem, but we do not have to change our essential values. One of the things that people who don't want to fight the war will often say is that important American values of privacy and liberty are going to have to be compromised. They are not. But there are going to have to be, as there were in 1940s, as there were in the 1910s, there are going to have to be changes made to bring us up to speed with new problems. For example, one of the things the Patriot Act [changes] is that it used to be that you had to get a search warrant for every telephone somebody owned if you wanted to wiretap them. Each number had to have its own warrant. Well, that was very appropriate for the days when people had one phone. It doesn't make sense now.
Will Americans have to accept less freedom? They will not. We are very concerned with the preservation of American freedom. That's what this war is about. But we shouldn't be hysterical about it either, and we shouldn't see every change the way the country is governed as the first step on the slippery slope to tyranny.
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