Middle East Quarterly
Charles Krauthammer: America's "Great Success Story"
Charles Krauthammer is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post and essayist for Time magazine. He began his career as a hospital psychiatrist, a science advisor to the U.S. government, and a campaign speech writer for Vice President Walter Mondale. For seven years, 1981-88, he was an essayist and editor at The New Republic. He published Cutting Edges, a collection of his essays, in 1985. In 1987, he won the Pulitzer Prize. Daniel Pipes conducted this interview with him by telephone on October 6, 1994, just before Saddam Husayn sent troops to the border with Kuwait and an agreement was reached on a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan.
The Peace Process Negotiations
MEQ: Let's start with the Arab-Israeli peace process: Is it a success?
Charles Krauthammer: Well, let me offer my optimistic view, which I have on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. To succeed, the Israel-PLO agreement has to pull Palestinians into a process that ends in coexistence. My impression is that Palestinian politics are gradually being domesticated by the agreement. I'm optimistic when I look at events very closely and see how things are going from one stage to another in fairly reasonable succession.
People say Arafat is now the mayor of Gaza. While you don't yet see a translation of that into structural terms - institutions being established - there's a sense that the Palestinians are being drawn into, as the Israelis intended, the incrementalism of the process. If that continues, it's possible that you end up with normal relations between two normal people living side by side.
A lot of things, of course, could disrupt this outcome, most obviously the rise of Hamas and other fundamentalist Muslim groups. If they prevail, they would overthrow the whole process and reject the premise of incrementalism.
It's just too early in the process to say, but I'm not a total pessimist. I don't rule out the possibility that this existential conflict could be domesticated. That said, nobody can know today whether the process is going to work or not.
MEQ: But today is Thursday, so what's your pessimistic reading?
Krauthammer: It emphasizes the longer historical view. Look not at events in Gaza and Jericho but at the structure of the Arab world as a whole. There you do not find a very encouraging history of constructing civil society and democratic institutions - precisely what a PLO entity needs. Further, you don't find that Arab public opinion accepts, even superficially, what has to be the basis of coexistence, namely the reality of Israel.
I sense that Arafat operates on the assumption he's taking now what he can get and will change the rules as he goes along should Israel become weaker and the correlation of forces change. His renunciation of the ultimate goal of destroying Israel appears tactical; when the time comes, after Israel has done enough withdrawing and disarming, psychological and physical, he will up the ante.
To which the counterargument goes: well, the Palestinians may have these dreams, but Israel's reality and strength will prevent any of those dreams from coming to fruition, and you'll end up with a balance of forces that will work - perhaps.
MEQ: What about the Jordanian track?
Krauthammer: Psychologically, it is very important for Israel, for the peace with Jordan will likely be warmer than the one with Egypt. Israel has suffered great but largely unacknowledged psychological damage from the coldness of the peace, which contrasted so profoundly with the promise of Sadat's obvious hope for a warmer peace. Also, Israel's a small place. The denial of Sinai had a claustrophobic effect on Israel, so to be able to travel to Petra or to cross from Eilat to Aqaba will be very important for the Israelis.
On the other hand, talk of forming a Benelux-style entity strikes me as kind of silly. Economic inequalities between Israel and Jordan, as well as their different stages of development, makes it not that great a proposition. It might even hurt Israel, which would have to compete with cheaper labor and cheaper agriculture.
Further, Jordan offers an opening to the Persian Gulf states, where Israel could get real economic benefits.
MEQ: And Syria?
Krauthammer: Extremely problematic. Again, you can look at it in two ways. Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres believe that once Israel makes a deal with Syria the Arab-Israeli conflict is over. When the last great citadel of Arab nationalism and rejectionism comes to terms, Lebanon will fall into place, as will Jordan, the Gulf states, and North Africa. More than that, it marks a total change in the psychological and political realities of the area. Israel becomes a state like any other.
Were this scenario accurate, and were it were to remain accurate, then the Israelis should do almost anything to get a deal with Syria. And that's what they're prepared to do. They're about to make the ultimate national security sacrifice for that dream.
But there are dangers. The Arab world is so unstable and the currents in it so violent that it's very hard to imagine that a deal will last. This is not Western Europe, with stable societies, established institutions, regularized transitions of power, and the like. Were Israel surrounded by states like that, the Rabin-Peres analysis would make sense. But Syria could change, and probably will change. Fundamentalist Muslims will probably soon topple the government in Algeria, perhaps the one in Egypt, and who knows what will happen in Jordan and elsewhere. That would overthrow the peace process and would leave Israel bereft of the Golan Heights, a critical component of its national security.
This analysis leads me to conclude that it's too risky to go for the all-for-everything deal with Syria that the Israelis are now contemplating. Something incremental, perhaps nonbelligerency in return for territorial concessions, would be far more sensible. That would not have the potential of catastrophic national security consequences for Israel.
It's too risky to go for the all-for-everything deal with Syria that the Israelis are now contemplating. Something incremental, perhaps nonbelligerency in return for territorial concessions, would be far more sensible.
American Interests in the Arab-Israeli Conflict
MEQ: What are the stakes in the peace process for the United States? How are our national interests involved?
Krauthammer: In 1948, when President Truman took the fateful step of recognizing Israel and being committed to its survival, he created a dilemma. As the Arabists have insistently reminded us, the United States has two sets of allies in a very important region, and they've been at each other's throats for fifty years. We have an enduring foreign policy problem in an extremely vital area: allies of ours have gone to war against each other at least four times. Ending their conflict would be a great benefit for the United States.
It's like the conflict between Greece and Turkey, except that that one is not as hot nor the allies as vital. Ending that problem would advance American interests. The Arab-Israeli conflict is the Greece-Turkey conflict squared.
This explains our deep interest in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict; note that it's quite apart from the issue of Soviet expansionism. It's independent of all other considerations.
This explains why American officials support and encourage the all-for-everything deal between Israel and Syria: it promises to end our problem quickly, finally, and rather cheaply. That also explains why we have a secretary of state whose second home is Damascus.
MEQ: How about a Palestinian state, is that a problem for the United States?
Krauthammer: The issue of a Palestinian state was closed on September 13, 1993. You cannot read the Declaration of Principles without seeing a Palestinian state implicit to it. For all the protestations by the Labor Party people, they surely knew what they were doing at the time. There can't be a process that includes empowerment and autonomy, then negotiation of a final status, with anything other than a Palestinian state.
The issue of a Palestinian state was closed on September 13, 1993. You cannot read the Declaration of Principles without seeing a Palestinian state implicit to it.
MEQ: By that logic, Menachem Begin effectively accepted a Palestinian state back in December 1977, when he first proposed autonomy for the Palestinians.
Krauthammer: Exactly right.
MEQ: Has a Palestinian state been inevitable since that time?
Krauthammer: It clearly has been. The line between autonomy and sovereignty simply cannot be drawn. Yes, you can do it in the context of the Russian Federation, which is full of autonomous zones and secessionists who want full sovereignty. But 150 million Russians surround these islands of minor ethnicities, so that's a different situation. There you might find autonomy, an intermediate step, frozen in place indefinitely. But how can Israel freeze a people whom they do not overwhelm demographically - quite the contrary, the Palestinians are closely connected to an Arab heartland that outnumbers them by forty or fifty times? This seems to me untenable.
I'm not very happy about a Palestinian state, for there are great dangers associated with it, but there is a certain inevitability to it. Still, one can accept its inevitability without accepting that it be fully sovereign. A flag and a United Nations seat are inevitable, but not an army of any size, much less an air force. That's what Israel will be negotiating with the PLO in the final status talks - the modalities of sovereignty rather than sovereignty itself. But here I'm back to my Tuesday and Thursday pessimism.
MEQ: How much of a threat do you see fundamentalist Islam posing to American interests? Can we live with it, or will it necessarily harm Americans and American interests?
Krauthammer: Both. We can live with it because we have to live with it, just as we had to live with Soviet communism for seventy years. At the same time, it will hurt American interests because it defines itself culturally as anti-Western and politically as anti-American. The spread of fundamentalist Islam will create great problems for the United States, though not on the scale of communism. Several factors make it less dangerous.
The spread of fundamentalist Islam will create great problems for the United States.
First, it's not headquartered in a great power. Secondly, its adherents don't have nuclear arms, at least not yet. But even when they do, they don't have superpower potential.
Thirdly, communism always had sympathetic Westerners who amounted to a fifth column, including communist parties and intellectuals. Its appeal made it a double threat, internal and external. In the old days, communist parties were on the verge of getting parliamentary majorities in some European countries. That threat doesn't exist with Islam. The fundamentalists have nothing like that demographic or political import, even in Europe. The Muslim population in America is not much fundamentalist, nor radicalized. Rather, it accepts American religious pluralism and lives, like other religions, in a quite harmonious and pluralistic way.
Of all the ideologies remaining in the world in the debris of the collapsed Soviet empire, fundamentalist Islam is the only one that, at least in our lifetime, appears to pose a serious problem to the West. It's the only expressly anti-Western ideology of any importance in the world and it means to destroy the Western position, Western institutions, Western culture, wherever it can. This occurred in Iran, and will happen again in Algeria. Should fundamentalists take power in Egypt, there will be profound geopolitical consequences. A region very important to us will be destabilized, with many problems resulting. Once that happens, we'll be asking ourselves why we weren't worrying about this years ago. We should have been, and we're not.
MEQ: Do you see a policy emerging? You said we're not worried, but high-level American officials have made a number of statements on this subject.
Krauthammer: Statements, yes. But I'm concerned about the notion of looking for moderates. That is a replay of what we tried in Iran. That's not to say that in the Iran of 1979 there were no moderates, but it has been clear in the many revolutions going back to 1789 that moderates have a way of getting pushed aside as the revolution spins itself out. They certainly disappeared from Iran rather quickly and they're likely to do the same elsewhere. We can't afford to hang a policy on such a weak reed, if I may mix a metaphor.
There's something in the Western psyche, especially the Western liberal, pluralistic psyche, that finds it impossible to believe that radical ideologues mean what they say. We didn't believe communists or fascists, and in the early days we found it impossible to believe the Khomeinists. Yet these are people who do believe what they say. Attempts to moderate their behavior invariably fail; these are exercises in our heads. We need a policy of strong opposition to the fundamentalists and of strong support for those Muslims who stand up to them.
I'm pleased that in Egypt our policy is not wobbly. But what if the Egyptian regime becomes weaker, will we not begin to wobble?
MEQ: There does seem to be inconsistency in our policy toward the fundamentalist opposition movements in Algeria and Egypt. We are tough in Egypt, standing right by the government. In Algeria, we seek dialogue with the opposition.
Krauthammer: One reason has to do with the government's position being rather stronger in Egypt. The real test of our policy comes when it's not an easy call. Egypt is an easy call because the right side appears to be winning.
MEQ: The French have almost an opposite policy, tough in Algeria and not so in Egypt. Could policy be related to interests, with Western states tough where much is at stake, not so where there is not?
Krauthammer: Yes, we are tough where we have our interests, and they where they have theirs. The French clearly have a powerful interest in Algeria because . . . you might say it's their Haiti and Cuba combined, and they don't have a Guantanamo to put people (though they did recently pack some fundamentalists off to Gabon). The French also have a way of being perverse.
MEQ: What about the alliance that the Vatican formed with the fundamentalists at the Cairo population conference in September?
Krauthammer: Oh, that was overdrawn. I really wouldn't call it an alliance. It was more of a coincidence than anything else. The Vatican is unmovable on the issue of abortion and population control - and it deserves some credit, in a world where people are all too flexible, for believing in something. The Muslim states jumped on the Vatican bandwagon for opportunistic reasons. The pope took very strong cultural and moral stands and just happened to have unsavory allies. And when you're outnumbered about 150 to one, you'll take whichever allies you can find.
MEQ: So it's not a precursor of religious alliances.
Krauthammer: If anything, it's a postcursor, because the Vatican has been very cagey in its relations with Israel over the years and has always been a laggard. I mean, it recognized Israel after Yasir Arafat, to give you an idea of how much of a leading indicator it's been on this issue. But I wouldn't see Cairo in that context.
MEQ: Turning to the Persian Gulf, how does the Kuwait war look nearly four years later?
Krauthammer: We made a fundamental mistake by stopping too early. I was deeply disappointed on the night that Bush announced 100-hour war. We are where we are, unfortunately, because of a loss of nerve at one point after a brilliant six months of policy on the part of George Bush, one of the most extraordinary acts of national mobilization ever effected in the United States.
But I am pleased that having made that fundamental error, both the Bush and the Clinton people afterwards have made the best of what they could - hanging on in Kurdistan and being very tough on sanctions in the face of French and Russian weakness and mischief making.
I don't know how long we can hang on, but we have no choice but to hang on longer than Saddam. That's the imperative that follows the Gulf War. When you fight a war, you really have an imperative to win it, especially when you've won it on the battlefield, and the only way to win it in some sense now is to keep the clamps on Saddam until either Allah or some other force takes care of him.
MEQ: Isn't it working out pretty well for us now? Saddam is not a serious threat to his neighbors, nor can his neighbors really take Iraq apart.
Krauthammer: Let me look at the two parts of that question. The first is, yes, but it's only done by an exertion of constant pressure. We've reduced Iraq to a bleeding wound that can be held in place by pressure on the artery, and we're applying it. As long as we're applying it, things remain stable and in place. But it requires constant exertion. The problem is, can you keep up that exertion indefinitely? In the United States we can do that, but we do have international problems, and if the embargo breaks down because of others violating it, we really have no recourse.
MEQ: But, ultimately, how can they violate it in serious ways? The key commodity is oil exported by ship. That is something U.S. forces can prevent unilaterally, if need be, for Iraqi oil comes out of just a few places and we could prevent ships from loading up.
Krauthammer: I don't see us sinking a French tanker, or a Russian tanker, if that's what it comes to.
MEQ: But the French and Russians won't take delivery of Iraq oil until the sanctions are lifted. Perhaps your fear is not sanctions violations but their being lifted by the Security Council.
Krauthammer: Correct, I mean losing it at the U.N. An oil runner or two is not going to make any difference; holding on in the U.N. is the challenge. That will require constant pressure.
Now, the second part of your question - isn't this better than had we gone all the way, destroyed the government, fractured the country, maybe leading to its partition? During the war with Iraq, a friend of mine said that this might be a good outcome, for it would show the world that the penalty for aggression in the post-cold war world is death, disappearance. That might have been a salutary result. I feel about Iraq the way that François Mauriac felt about Germany after World War II, loving the country so much he was glad there were two of them.
But the worry that Iraq's partition would complicate our position in the Middle East stayed our hand. For a smaller and weaker state (Kuwait, for example) creates a vacuum that larger states are tempted to fill. Still, that would have been preferable to a radical state totally devoted to the overthrow of the existing order, as is now the case.
MEQ: Do you subscribe to the notion of Middle East exceptionalism, that democracy is a great system everywhere but the Middle East, because it brings the wrong people to power there?
Krauthammer: I admit to being puzzled. Why, of all the regions of the world, is this one the most immune to the virus of democracy?
MEQ: Well, it's not so much why it's not happening as, is it a good idea for it to happen? Are we likely to get, as in Algeria, the wrong people?
Krauthammer: I draw a distinction between democracy and plebiscitary authoritarianism - one man, one vote, one time. That's essentially what would have developed in Algeria. Or, you know, the sort of Islamic republic where you have, within the constraints of a very limiting ideology, a certain amount of choice. That's not what I call democracy, no more than I call restoring Jean-Bertrand Aristide to Haiti a reestablishment of democracy - a ridiculous idea.
Democracy means the rule of law, pluralism, the peaceful transfer of power - all that goes by the name civil society. Civil society seems to be very stunted in the Arab world. It would be a great mistake on our part to support plebiscitary authoritarianism, to invite totalitarians and others with no interest in democracy to seize power.
As a believer in democracy, I have no more problem with the Algerian military overthrowing the results of the 1992 elections than I would have had with aborting Germany's elections in 1933. You cannot have a democracy in which the major party does not believe in democracy. To paraphrase Justice Robert Jackson, the Constitution is not a suicide pact.
I have no more problem with the Algerian military overthrowing the results of the 1992 elections than I would have had with aborting Germany's elections in 1933.
Incidentally, I would apply this same standard to the United States. In the 1930s and at other times, there were raging debates about the rights of communists and fascists to participate in a democratic system. I say, as long as they're irrelevant and have no chance of achieving power, sure, let them do anything they want; but as soon as they become a threat, suppress the hell out of them. A democracy has to protect itself.
Unfortunately, that's the position Arab world is in. We ought to be nurturing not elections per se but a context of democratic institutions, civil society, democratically oriented political parties, etc. That's the kind of work that the National Endowment for Democracy, the AFL-CIO, and others have done in other parts of the world where they nurture democratic seeds. That should be our democracy policy in the Arab world too. Simply endorsing elections makes no sense at all.
Clinton Administration Policy
MEQ: What about the current American policy? It's been said that the Middle East is the success story of the Clinton administration's foreign policy. Do you agree?
Krauthammer: I agree wholeheartedly, but I must confess that, given what I've said about the rest of its foreign policy, it's not terribly high praise.
MEQ: More specifically, what has the Clinton administration done right?
Krauthammer: Three very good things. First, a lot of it has to do with restraint. There's a great temptation for Bigfoot to go in and to impose itself. But it has not. The PLO-Israel agreement in Oslo, for example, was done without the United States. That takes nothing away from the Clinton administration. Further, it handled the results of Oslo very well. It did not rush in to solve disputes between Israel and the PLO. It truly adopted a policy of letting the two parties involved make a success of the negotiations, all the while resisting the temptation to interpose itself. It allowed the parties to sort out the core issues for themselves.
Second, the administration has done the job a superpower is supposed to do in a problem like the Arab-Israeli conflict, that is, police the periphery. By this, I'm referring to our dual containment policy in the Persian Gulf directed against Iraq and Iran. The sheriff has got the two disputing parties (Israel and its immediate neighbors) in the saloon bargaining and he is patrolling the street to make sure that the outside bad guys don't come roaring into town and blow up the whole place. Dual containment has been very important not just in itself but also to the peace process. We've acted in a way that gives the core parties (Israel, the Palestinians, Egypt, the Jordanians) a sense that the region around them is not going to explode.
Third, it's an absolute sine qua non for successful negotiations that Israel have confidence that it's being supported in the negotiations, for it is the only party expected to make real, concrete, on-the-ground national security concessions. That requires a sense that its great supporter is with it, and not pressuring it to make concessions so that a deal can be wrapped up. By reassuring the Israelis on this point and developing a very harmonious relationship with the Labor Party government, the administration has done just this. That's a very important point that other administrations have forgotten. The Bush administration pressured Israel very strongly and so could not have expected Israel to make concessions at the same time. It simply can't happen.
MEQ: Any criticisms?
Krauthammer: The slight wobbliness in Algeria; and the over-enthusiasm for a Syrian agreement, the course of which has gotten slightly mixed up with Warren Christopher's personal future. He has a great stake in this for his career and I worry when a confusion develops between the success of a negotiation and one's own standing. I prefer a little less U.S. involvement and more of the Sadat model, where, until the great breakthrough of Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, Israel and Egypt were mostly on their own. Only afterwards did the U.S. come in heavily, especially to help work out details. Had the U.S. tried to be the catalyst for the trip to Jerusalem, that event might never have happened.
MEQ: The same presumably applies to the Palestinian-Israeli contacts in Norway.
Krauthammer: Precisely. By trying to force to fruition something that may not be ripe between Israel and Syria, we may be pushing a process artificially that may not be sustainable.
Democrats and Republicans
MEQ: Now you're praising the Clinton administration and critical of George Bush. Is there any discernible Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal policy in the Middle East?
Krauthammer: To some extent, yes. Jews are a very important part of the Democratic constituency, so they're more involved in its politics, so you would expect a more sympathetic view of Israel to come from a Democratic administration, simply by nature of its structure, than a Republican one. Ronald Reagan transcended that because he had a personal affinity with Israel and with Jews he knew in California, making him very much like a Democrat in this respect. This matters because U.S. policy in the Middle East is largely a function of the experience and the personality of the president.
On the other hand, Democrats have a less hard-headed view of foreign policy. They're more apt to swoon in the face of promises of a breakthrough or a utopian vision like the one held out for the Israel-Syrian deal. In the end, these tendencies balance themselves out.
Lobbies in Washington
MEQ: You referred to American Jews active on behalf of Israel. They are hardly the only domestic group working for Middle Eastern causes. Other significant lobbies include the Armenian, the Greek, the Lebanese, and the Saudi. In fact, the Middle East probably inspires a very disproportionate share of foreign affairs lobbying activity. Is this something positive - Americans actively engaged in foreign policy; or negative - vested interests obstructing the objective pursuit of national interests? Is U.S. policy the better or worse for this democratic element in foreign policy?
Krauthammer: I would say, look at the Middle East over the last fifty years and you'll see that we've done rather well. It's a great success story. Who would have predicted in 1947 that we would today have such a strong position in the Middle East? We've had some luck, to be sure, including the implosion of the Soviet Union, but we had basically won the great game way before that. With the exception of a few rogue states, the major countries in the Middle East are all friendly to the United States and sympathetic to our aims.
Interestingly, the one major mistake was in 1956-57, when Dwight Eisenhower forced the Israelis to return Sinai to Gamal Abdel Nasser. Even Eisenhower, I'm told, rued this step in his later years. Here was an act of force majeur by a president acting in defiance of public opinion, and instead acting according to a principle that he proclaimed on his own. So in some odd way, democracy works the way it's supposed to. Jostling factions have somehow led to a foreign policy in the Middle East that has had amazing success.
MEQ: So democracy can work in foreign as well as domestic policy?
Krauthammer: I can't tell you the mechanism, how we went from here to there, but we're there. And looking at the region from a distance, it's basically now in the American sphere of influence.
That's quite an achievement.