Interview with Charles Krauthammer 'Obama Is Average'
Part 2: 'What the Obama Administration Pretends Is Realism Is Naïve Nonsense'
SPIEGEL: You have called him a "young Hamlet" over his hesitation about making a decision on Afghanistan. However, he's just carefully considering the options after Bush shot so often from the hip.
Krauthammer: No. The strategy he's revising is not the Bush strategy, it's the Obama strategy. On March 27, he stood there with a background of flags, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on one side and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on the other, and said: "Today, I'm announcing a comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan." So don't tell me this is revising eight years of Bush, he's not. For all these weeks and months he's been revising his own strategy, and that's okay, you're allowed to do that. But if you're president and you're commander-in-chief, and your guys are getting shot and killed in the field, and you think "maybe the strategy I myself announced with great fanfare six months ago needs to be revised," do it in quiet. Don't show the world that you're utterly at sea and have no idea what to do! Your European allies already are skittish and reluctant, and wondering whether they ought to go ahead. It's your own strategy, if it's not working, then you revise it and fix it. You just don't demoralize your allies.
SPIEGEL: Is Afghanistan still a war of necessity, still a strategic interest?
Krauthammer: The phrase "war of necessity and war of choice" is a phrase that came out of a different context. Milan Kundera once wrote, "a small country is a country that can disappear and knows it." He was thinking of prewar Czechoslovakia. Israel is a country that can disappear and knows it. America, Germany, France, Britain, are not countries that can disappear. They can be defeated but they cannot disappear. For the great powers, and especially for the world superpower, very few wars are wars of necessity. In theory, America could adopt a foreign policy of isolationism and survive. We could fight nowhere, withdraw from everywhere -- South Korea, Germany, Japan, NATO, the United Nations -- if we so chose. From that perspective, every war since World War II has been a war of choice.
So using those categories -- wars of necessity, wars of choice -- is unhelpful in thinking through contemporary American intervention. In Afghanistan the question is: Do the dangers of leaving exceed the dangers of staying.
SPIEGEL: General Stanley McCrystal is asking for more troops. Is that really the right strategy?
Krauthammer: General Stanley McCrystal is the world expert on counterterrorism. For five years he ran the most successful counterterrorism operation probably in the history of the world: His guys went after the bad guys in Iraq, they ran special ops, they used the Predators and they killed thousands of jihadists that we don't even know about, it was all under the radar. And now this same general tells Obama that the counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan will fail, you have to do counterinsurgency, population protection. That would seem an extremely persuasive case that counterterrorism would not work.
SPIEGEL: You famously coined the term "Reagan Doctrine" to describe Ronald Reagan's foreign policy. What is the "Obama Doctrine?"
Krauthammer: I would say his vision of the world appears to me to be so naïve that I am not even sure he's able to develop a doctrine. He has a view of the world as regulated by self-enforcing international norms, where the peace is kept by some kind of vague international consensus, something called the international community, which to me is a fiction, acting through obviously inadequate and worthless international agencies. I wouldn't elevate that kind of thinking to a doctrine because I have too much respect for the word doctrine.
SPIEGEL: Are you saying that diplomacy always fails?
Krauthammer: No, foolishness does. Perhaps when he gets nowhere on Iran, nowhere with North Korea, when he gets nothing from the Russians in return for what he did to the Poles and the Czechs, gets nowhere in the Middle East peace talks -- maybe at that point he'll begin to rethink whether the world really runs by international norms, consensus, and sweetness and light, or whether it rests on the foundation of American and Western power that, in the final analysis, guarantees peace.
SPIEGEL: That is the cynical approach.
Krauthammer: The realist approach. Henry Kissinger once said that peace can be achieved only one of two ways: hegemony or balance of power. Now that is real realism. What the Obama administration pretends is realism is naïve nonsense.
SPIEGEL: How do you solve problems like climate change if international institutions are failing?
Krauthammer: It's not the institution that does it, it's the confluence of interests. Where there is a confluence of interests among nations, as, for example the swine flu or polio, you can get well functioning international institutions like the World Health Organization. And you can act. Climate change is different, because the science remains hypothetical and the potential costs staggering.
SPIEGEL: You think it's a speculative theory?
Krauthammer: My own view is that there is man-made warming. On several occasions I have written that I don't think you can pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere indefinitely and not have a reaction. But there are great scientists such as Freeman Dyson, one of the greatest physicists of the last hundred years, who has studied the question, who believes quite the opposite. The reason transnational action is so difficult is because the major problem with climate change is, A, that there is no consensus, and, B, that the economic cost is simply staggering. Reversing it completely might mean undoing the modern industrial economy.
I'm not against international institutions that would try to tackle it. But the way to go, at least in the short run, is to go to nuclear power. It's amazing to me that people who are so alarmed about global warming are so reluctant to adopt the obvious short-term solution -- the bridge until the day when we have affordable renewable energy -- of nuclear power. It seems to me intellectually dishonest. Nuclear is obviously not the final answer because it produces its own waste -- but you have a choice. There's no free lunch. If you want an industrial economy, you need energy. If you want energy, it will produce pollution. You can have it in two forms. You can have it dissipated in the atmosphere -- like carbon dioxide -- which then you cannot recover, or you can have the waste concentrated in one small space like nuclear. That is far easier to deal with. The idea that you can be able to create renewable energy at a price anywhere near the current price for oil or gas or coal is a fantasy.
SPIEGEL: Do you basically think Obama is going to be a one-term president?
Krauthammer: No, I think he has a very good chance of being reelected. For two reasons. First, there's no real candidate on the other side, and you can't beat something with nothing. Secondly, it'll depend on the economy -- and just from American history, in the normal economic cycles, presidents who have their recessions at the beginning of their first term get reelected (Reagan, Clinton, the second Bush), and presidents who have them at the end of their first term don't (Carter, the first Bush). Obama will lose a lot of seats in next year's Congressional election, but the economy should be on the upswing in 2012.
SPIEGEL: Is the conservative movement in the United States in decline?
Krauthammer: When George W. Bush won in 2004, there was lots of stuff written that about the end of liberalism and the death of the Democratic Party. Look where we are now.
SPIEGEL: A Democrat is back in the White House, the party also controls Congress.
Krauthammer: Exactly. We see the usual overreading of history whenever one side loses. Look, there are cycles in American politics. US cycles are even more pronounced because we Americans have a totally entrepreneurial presidential system. We don't have parliamentary opposition parties with a shadow prime minister and shadow cabinets. Every four years, the opposition reinvents itself. We have no idea who will be the Republican nominee in 2012. The party structures are very fluid. We have a history of political parties being thrown out of the White House after two terms -- as has happened every single time with only one exception (Ronald Reagan) since World War II. The idea that one party is done in the US is silly. The Republicans got killed in 2006 and 2008, but they will be back.
SPIEGEL: The party lacks a strong, intelligent leader.
Krauthammer: Yes. And if the Republicans don't have one by 2012, they'll lose and they'll have to wait till 2016. It could take eight years to develop. You know, people say -- the White House was pushing this idea -- that the radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh is the leader of the opposition because there's no other leader. Well, ask yourself, in 2001 and 2002 and 2003, who was the leader of the Democratic Party? There was none. We don't have a parliamentary system in which opposition leaders are designated.
SPIEGEL: Some people say you're that leader.
Krauthammer: I'm just getting to an age where a lot of my contemporaries are retiring or dying. So I'm on default a voice of authority. I don't attribute very much to that.
SPIEGEL: Who will be the next leader of the Republican Party?
Krauthammer: Some presidential candidates from last year will return in 2012. Sarah Palin is not a serious contender, but somebody like Mitt Romney will be. He is a serious guy, he understands the economy. There will also be some young people many haven't yet heard about, such as Rep. Paul Ryan or Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Or outsiders like the mastermind behind the surge in Iraq, General David Petraeus, who might retire from the military and run for President on the Republican ticket.
SPIEGEL: Many people, however, currently think the Republicans are the party of "no."
Krauthammer: That perception is a serious problem for them.
SPIEGEL: At the end of Bush's second term, he granted you a long interview. Afterwards, you wrote that history would judge Bush kindly. Why?
Krauthammer: Basically I think Bush will have the same historical rehabilitation that Harry Truman did.
SPIEGEL: And why is that?
Krauthammer: Truman left in the middle of an unpopular war, to use your phrase, a war of choice. Truman didn't have to go into South Korea. And he was reviled and ridiculed for the stalemate that resulted. Now, he's seen as one of the great presidents of the 20th century.
I think Bush actually handled the Iraq War better than Truman handled the Korean War. For one thing, the number of losses is about one-tenth. Secondly, he made the right decision with the surge. Thirdly, if Iraq turns out well, meaning becomes a country fairly self-sufficient and fairly friendly to the West, it will have a more important effect on the West than having a non-communist South Korea. The Middle East is strategically a far more important region.
Bush's worst mistake was the conduct of the Iraq war in the middle years -- 2004-2006 -- and the attempt to win on the cheap, with a light footprint.
On the other hand, I think he did exactly the right thing after 9/11. Look at the Patriot Act, which revolutionized how we deal with domestic terrorism, passed within six weeks of 9/11 in the fury of the moment. Testimony to how well Bush got it right is that Democrats, who now control Congress and had been highly critical of it, are now after eight years reauthorizing it with almost no significant changes.
Afghanistan is more problematic. Our success in overthrowing the Taliban in 100 days was remarkable. It's one of the great military achievements of all time. On the other hand, holding Afghanistan is a lot harder than taking it, and to this day we are not sure how to do it. But the initial success in 2001-2002 did decimate and scatter al-Qaida. It is no accident that we have not suffered a second attack -- something no one who lived in Washington on Sept. 11 thought possible.
I'm sure he will be rehabilitated in the long term.
Clare Booth Luce once said that every president is remembered for one thing, and that's what Bush will be remembered for. He kept us safe.
SPIEGEL: Is it too early to foresee what Obama will be remembered for?
Krauthammer: It is quite early. It could be his election.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Krauthammer, we thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Klaus Brinkbäumer and Gregor-Peter Schmitz.
- Part 1: 'Obama Is Average'
- Part 2: 'What the Obama Administration Pretends Is Realism Is Naïve Nonsense'