Politics & Policy

Closing In

A conversation with Lawrence Kaplan and Bill Kristol on Iraq.

A Q&A by Kathryn Jean Lopez

Lawrence F. Kaplan, senior editor of The New Republic and William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, recently teamed up to write The War Over Iraq: Saddam’s Tyranny and America’s Mission, just released by Encounter Books. NRO used the book’s release as an opportunity to ask the duo (via e-mail) about the impending Iraq war and associated issues.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: At this point, can delaying, getting another resolution, pay off in any conceivable way?

LAWRENCE KAPLAN & WILLIAM KRISTOL: Absolutely not. In fact, the longer the kabuki at the U.N. has gone on, the weaker support for action has become in Europe and here at home. To begin with, drawn-out inspections create the impression that Saddam is somehow being “contained,” when the truth is exactly the reverse. Every time Blix stumbles on a cache of weapons, the Europeans proclaim inspections a smashing success. And every time he finds nothing, they proclaim them a success. Extending the process merely allows Saddam to prepare for the inevitable, distracts our attention from pressing issues elsewhere, and emboldens those like the French, who oppose action without condition and regardless of consequence.

LOPEZ: Is there anyone you can think of (nation, pol, constituency) the Bush administration has not convinced that going into Iraq is necessary who should and can be convinced?

KAPLAN & KRISTOL: Liberals. Not liberals at The Nation or The American Prospect, who can always be counted on to favor tyranny over anything that strengthens American power, however marginally. But liberals who supported the American interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo — humanists, in short. For if ever there was a humanitarian undertaking, it is the liberation of Iraq from a tyrant who has jailed, tortured, gassed, shot, and otherwise murdered tens of thousands of his own citizens.

LOPEZ: Is there anything you wish the Bush administration would say to Americans that it hasn’t? Anything you wish it hadn’t said?

KAPLAN & KRISTOL: Again, the administration has not painted a vivid enough portrait of Saddam’s crimes in his own country. Instead, it has framed the conflict almost entirely in terms of weapons of mass destruction. But the problem isn’t just Iraq’s arsenal — it’s the nature of the man who controls that arsenal. As to what the Bush team might have omitted from its indictment, one could argue that it needn’t have emphasized the doctrine of preemption — at least in Iraq’s case — as much as it did. After all, this is not a preemptive war. Saddam is already in violation of a catalogue of U.N. resolutions. We are merely enforcing them. In retrospect, it probably shouldn’t have gone down the inspections route either. Doing so merely handed the Europeans and the U.N. — neither of them known for their dissatisfaction with Saddam’s rule — a say in the process. The idea, of course, was to mollify them (as well as Colin Powell) and in the process hope that inspectors would stumble across a casus belli. But neither aim has been accomplished.

LOPEZ: There has been exile talk, also suggestions that his Guard take him out, among other things — what do you think happens to Saddam Hussein?

KAPLAN & KRISTOL: Longtime Saddam-watchers such as Amitzia Baram others claim Saddam will never go into exile, and administration officials doubt it too. Perhaps, once the first shot is fired, one of Saddam’s minions will take him out. But that creates a host of additional questions — does the United States still occupy Baghdad?; will Iraq be “de-nazified”?; will one dictatorship merely be replaced by another? The charge here is not merely to topple Saddam. It is to topple his entire regime, and particularly his apparatus of terror.

LOPEZ: How does postwar Iraq look in your estimation? Could Iraq, postwar, realistically become a democracy?

KAPLAN & KRISTOL: Iraq should become a democracy. After all, the president has repeatedly cast the impending war as an effort to bring democracy to a land that for decades has known only dictatorship. Having defeated and then occupied Iraq, democratizing the country should not be too tall an order for the world’s sole superpower. But, then again, there have been some worrying signals during the past few weeks — talk of keeping Saddam’s top ministry officials in place, discord between the State Department and the Iraqi opposition, and charges from Iraq’s leading democrats that the Bush team plans to betray them. Were that to be the case, were this administration to bring to Iraq the failed worldviews of its predecessors, a great opportunity will have been lost. On the other hand, if the Bush team succeeds in democratizing Iraq, it will accomplish a historic feat — for Iraq, which will become the first Arab democracy; for America’s critics abroad, to whom we will demonstrate the compatibility of our ideals and our interests; and for the world, which the Bush team will have made a safer and better place. The coming war against Iraq is so clearly about more than Iraq. It is about what sort of world Americans intend to inhabit — a community of democracies congenial to the United States or a world of dictatorships with no compunction about terrorizing their own citizens and committing aggression against their neighbors. America’s mission begins in Baghdad. But the architects of this war should keep in mind that it does not end there.

LOPEZ: What happens to the U.N. after this?

KAPLAN & KRISTOL: That depends entirely on France. If the French veto a resolution authorizing action, there is a good chance they will consign the Security Council — and, in so doing, the only forum where they wield any real power — to irrelevance. Whether that would be a healthy or unhealthy development is another matter altogether.

LOPEZ: North Korea, Iran? Who’s next after Iraq?

KAPLAN & KRISTOL: This gets us back to the question of how committed the administration is to its own rhetoric. Is the Bush Doctrine and its commitment to regime change and democratization designed merely to justify war against Iraq? Or is it a guide for U.S. foreign policy more broadly? “Who’s next?” implies military action against Iran and Iraq. But there are several steps that could be taken short of war — stricter sanctions, increased political pressure, covert operations. But in each case, the end should be the same as in Iraq — transformation not coexistence.

LOPEZ: How problematic are ex-presidents Carter and Clinton — particularly Carter’s Mirror comments last week?

KAPLAN & KRISTOL: It is problematic when Carter and Clinton burble about how horrible it would be to rid the world of Saddam Hussein. But only in the sense that it demonstrates how morally obtuse even ex-presidents can be. In terms of practical effect, it probably doesn’t matter. They won’t convince anyone who’s not already convinced.

LOPEZ: (Besides, obviously anything in The Standard, New Republic, and National Review) whose reporting do you most rely on for honest, reliable war on terror reporting?

KAPLAN & KRISTOL: The obvious outlets, particularly the Washington Post. A few people (mostly critics) have picked up on this, but the Post editorial page under Fred Hiatt has been a rare voice of sanity in the mainstream press — particularly when compared to the New York Times editorial page, whose writers always seem to think the Tet Offensive is right around the corner. Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland merits special attention. His columns have been spectacular.

LOPEZ: If any one item/argument in your book might be most compelling in convincing someone heretofore unconvinced, what might it be?

KAPLAN & KRISTOL: Probably the book’s “liberal” case for war. We detail Saddam’s crimes against his own people in excruciating — and unsettling — detail. Having immersed ourselves in the record of his depredations, it still comes as a surprise to hear liberal opponents of war act as though they possess heightened moral awareness on the topic. Saddam Hussein is no Ho Chi Minh or Che, you wouldn’t put a poster of him on your dormitory wall. He is a fascist murderer, an enemy of humanity. But of course America has a national as well as a broader interest in ending his totalitarian rule. And that alone makes liberals uncomfortable. Even today the ghosts of Vietnam haunt our commentariat. If that discussion is the most convincing section of our book, probably the most interesting is its history of American policy toward Iraq. At the simplest level, Bush père, Clinton, and Bush have simply reacted to Saddam’s provocations. But, in truth, each administration has brought its own worldview to its dealings with Iraq. This really is a war of ideas. Guided by a narrow realpolitik, the first Bush administration halted its war after securing the vital interest of Kuwait. Guided by a brand of liberalism that recoiled from the sustained assertion of American power, the Clinton team allowed Saddam to escape from the “box” whose confines were mostly imaginary to begin with. Armed with his “distinctly American internationalism,” which sees no contradiction between America’s ideals and interests, the current president will soon topple a tyrant who is an affront to both.


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