The David Frum Interview
John Hawkins:: To begin with, I’m not sure there is any word in politics that has been more distorted or misused than the word neocon. So, since you’re generally thought to be a prominent neocon, I’m sure you can clear things up for us. In your opinion, what is a neocon?
David Frum:: It beats the hell out of me. Until the last two years, I have not thought of myself or generally been described as a neocon. It used to mean somebody, typically a child or grandchild of the great immigration, who had begun as an FDR/Truman kind of Democrat who was driven to the right by the social breakdown of the 1960s & who had a strong belief in the goodness of America and the goodness of American power in the world. (They also) became a conservative first and a Republican second. That’s what it used to mean. But, that wasn’t my story at all. I didn’t meet that biographical description. I belonged to the wrong generation & I was much more economically libertarian than most of the principle neocons were.
It has come to mean — it’s not just anti-semitic code — anybody who is a hawk. If that’s what it means, then I’m proud to wear the title because I am a hawk. I do believe in the goodness & efficacy of American power.
John Hawkins:: You know, just as a side note, I think it’s funny that neoconservatives were accused of pushing the war in Iraq. (At one point), 90% of the Republican party was for the war in Iraq. It’s just so odd that people associate the war with neoconservatism.
David Frum:: The idea that overthrowing Saddam Hussein sprung out of the minds of a few people in Washington forgets an awful lot of history. In the 2000 election, both candidates spoke openly about the need to deal with Saddam Hussein. Al Gore was actually more emphatic on the topic than George Bush was. In 1998, Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act. Just to show how conspiratorial they were, they put it in the Congressional record. In 1995, the CIA tried to organize a coup against Saddam Hussein and it failed. The coup was secret, but it has been written about in 5 or 6 books that I know of. In 1991, representatives of President George H. W. Bush went on the radio and urged the Iraqi people to rise up against Saddam Hussein. So America’s policy on Saddam has been consistent. What we have been arguing about for years are the methods. First, we tried to encourage a rebellion in Iraq, that didn’t work. Then we tried coups; that didn’t work. Then in 1998, we tried funding Iraqi opposition. That might have worked, but the money never actually got appropriated. Then, ultimately we tried direct military power. The idea that Saddam should go has been the policy of the United States since 1991.
John Hawkins:: Let me ask you another question related to neoconservatism. Neoconservatives are often accused by the left of wanting to create an American empire. So let me ask you point blank: should America be striving to create an empire?
David Frum:: The last chapter of our book is a discussion of this question and we, Richard (Perle) and I, reject the idea. I think what happens is that the left uses the language of imperialism as an accusation. When you’re accused of something by your political enemies, it’s a very natural part of human psychology to pick it up almost out of defiance. It’s the same spirit that led the British army in WW1 to call themselves the “Old Contemptibles” after the Kaiser called them contemptible. I think something of that spirit has entered into people who say, “Ok, it’s an empire”.
But, I think especially with the whole world listening, Americans need to be precise. The last thing America is, is an empire. My counter example is: we very badly needed and expected to have Turkish support in the war on Iraq. The Turks didn’t give it and that put a spanner in some of our planning. Now, imagine if this were the Romans. Imagine if the emperor Trajan were planning an operation in Mesopotamia and the Cappadocians told him he couldn’t use their territory. He would have lined the highways with crucified Cappadocians. That’s what empires do; they do not say, “Oh, we’ll respect what your parliament says and come from another direction”.
The United States is the ultimate guarantor of world order, just the way Britain was before us and who knows, maybe somebody will be after us. But, the world order of which the United States is a guarantor, to use a word that has been even more perverted than neocon, is a liberal order, in which America participates in to preserve the autonomy and individuality of free nations. Now, that doesn’t mean we respect the right of every tinpot dictator to rule his country the way he wants to. I think that the sovereignty of a country like the Netherlands, where the leadership is elected, is a different thing from the sovereignty of a country like Iraq under Saddam, where the sovereignty was stolen. America does and ought to defer to the sovereignty of other nations, especially free nations, and that’s just the opposite of what an empire does.
John Hawkins:: Let me ask you another question: Do you believe we should increase the size of our armed forces? Also, if you did come to the conclusion that we need to enlarge our military, would you support a draft as a method of doing so?
David Frum:: I would strongly oppose a draft for the same reason that the generals oppose a draft and for the same reason that I think the question about the size of the armed forces is the wrong question. Talking about the size of the armed forces is a way to avoid a really tough thinking through about the character and shape of our armed forces. I am not a defense expert and Richard would have many more things to say about these types of issues than I would, but the US military needs to go through the same kind of rethinking that every other institution in American life went through in the tech boom of the 1990s. What can this organization do for itself? What can it contract out? How does it raise the skills of its core employees?
One of the things the military has been guilty of is not using its manpower very well. I don’t know if they’re still doing this, but two years ago, sailors were still painting ships. We should be thinking of our forces as highly skilled warriors and we need to ask what needs to be done in house and what does not. After we’ve completed that process, then we can ask, “Do we have enough of these warriors?” But, let’s do this process first.
One more point to this, the question of whether we have enough forces usually comes up in the context of peacekeeping operations. Maybe we need new kinds of units specially dedicated to this task. Maybe we need a much larger military police force. What we ought to begin with is thinking about the missions and making sure they’re laid out in a rational way. Then later, after we’ve done that work, we can say, “Do we need more manpower or not?” But, it’s not the first question. But, absolutely not a draft because it’s essential to have our military be highly motivated, highly dedicated, highly professional and we will never be able to train draftees enough to make the kind of military we want.
Last thing, one of the things Richard says in our book is that the draft is a way of avoiding questions of, “Where can we substitute machines for people”. Right now, it costs let’s say $65,000 to train, field, and prepare a soldier. Is it really wise to spend $65,000 a year for a sentry when sentry work can be automated? Maybe instead of 10 sentrys at $65,000 a year, we’ll want to buy one set of technological systems that costs $650,000 to do the monitoring of a perimeter around a base. Again, a draft would allow us to evade thinking through how much of what the military does can be done by machines instead of people.
John Hawkins:: Now in the book, you advocate creating a new national ID card. However, most Americans, myself included, are resistant to the idea of having another government issued ID card. What do you say to convince those of us who are skeptical that this is something we need?
David Frum:: First of all, I really, sincerely, share the reluctance of people on this one. I can’t speak for Richard, but for me, this is the most painful item in the book. But, the thing is we do constantly require systems of identification. I was on a plane today; I had to identify myself. Everyone who flies has to identify themselves. The planes require a form of ID and so they use our de facto national ID card, the state issued drivers license. But, the problem is that these licenses turn out to be very easy to falsify and they’re not reliable. But, they function for all purposes like a national ID card and I think since we have one, we should have one that works.
One more point, I don’t know that you’re ever going to be able to enforce immigration laws without it. If you’re going to enforce immigration laws, you need a way for police and employers to instantly validate that whether someone is who they say they are and whether they are entitled to be in the country. The absence of these kinds of documents give employers an excuse (to hire illegals). “Well, I made a good faith to check. They had a Social Security Card and how was I to know that it was forged?” Nothing is easier to get than a fake Social Security Card.
But, the thing that really ticked me off was how many of the 9/11 hijackers had brushes with the law before 9/11. There was again, and again, and again, an opportunity for law enforcement to discover that there was something wrong with these people. Even the ones who were legally in the country had drivers licenses to which they were not entitled. Ziad Jarrah was caught speeding just before 9/11 on his way to do the hijacking. He was a Lebanese here on a tourist VISA who had a Florida drivers license. Now, if you went to Lebanon, you would not get a Lebanese drivers license. So what was he doing with a Florida drivers license? If the police would have had some way to verify his identity, they wouldn’t have spotted him as a hijacker, but they would have questioned him long enough to at least have made him nervous and perhaps somehow derail the operation.
John Hawkins:: What do you say to people who believe that terrorist groups with global reach like Hizbollah aren’t a threat to us?
David Frum:: Hizbollah killed hundreds of Americans in the 1980s and in 1994 blew up the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires which was the deadliest foreign terrorist attack in this hemisphere until 9/11. But, also since it was sponsored by Iran, it was a violation of the Monroe Doctrine. We waged a forty year cold war against Castro for less than that.
John Hawkins:: Here’s another question along those same lines: What do you say to people who claim that containment was working with Iraq and that we should stick with containment in dealing with other terrorist supporting states?
David Frum:: In the case of Iraq, containment was visibly crumbling. The Iraqis had successfully forced the inspectors out of Iraq in 1998 and the sanctions were crumbling. The Iraqis did agree to readmit the inspectors in 2002, but that was clearly going to be true only so long as there were American troops on their borders. Realism tells you that this policy had no future. Many of the most prominent people who advocate containment had been in the nineties advocating the undoing of sanctions. So they’re advocating a policy that they themselves wanted to see the end of.
John Hawkins:: In fact, there was a real push to take part of the sanctions off of Iraq before 9/11 wasn’t there?
David Frum:: There was. What was happening was sort of a perverse struggle. You had the United States at the United Nations asking for more lenient sanctions and France and Russia were opposing our demands for more lenient sanctions because they hoped sanctions would collapse altogether.
John Hawkins:: Now as far as Syria goes, if we had to hit them, I would not expect us to get much more than moral support from a few of our staunchest allies, if that. That being the case, how do you believe we should deal with the Syrians if they continue to support terrorism?
David Frum:: Syria is such an extraordinary weak state that it shouldn’t require a very strong American response to deal with them. In fact, the Syrians spent the first months after 9/11 being entirely frightened until our State Department told them they had nothing to worry about. That strikes me as the worst kind of diplomacy. That would have been a very good moment to go silent and let them worry. We need to let the Syrians understand that the days in which the United States tried to woo the Assad regime are over. That regime has a lot of reasons to be nervous. That is a very small, weak, country and the regime has a very weak hold on power. With the right kind of diplomacy, we could see a lot of results.
John Hawkins:: On to Iran. Iran is the premier terrorist supporting regime in the world, they’re pursuing nuclear weapons, and they’re implacable enemies of the United States. Would you agree that we cannot win the war on terrorism if the current regime in Iran remains in power?
David Frum:: Barring some miraculous change of heart, (no). This regime in Iran feels threatened and it knows that its hold on power is weak. That’s why it is very urgent for them to get the United States out of the region….
John Hawkins:: So how do you think we should deal with them? Most people seem to be suggesting covert aid, not a direct assault, so what do you think?
David Frum:: I agree with that. We do not want to do a direct assault. First off, it isn’t necessary. Second, the Iranian population is now so well disposed to us and we don’t get into a situation where we have to fight them. The United States and Iranian population now have a shared enemy, the government of Iran and it’s important that we not allow the government of Iran to manipulate us into a position where we become the enemy of the Iranian population.
John Hawkins:: Now what happens if, and this is entirely possible, that we believe Iran is on the verge of having a functioning nuclear weapon? Do we then have to move first to stop them no matter what, or…
David Frum:: If it does get close, then America has to do what it has to do. We’ve got a race here, but we have good reason to be optimistic that it will take the Iranian (regime) longer to get a nuclear weapon than it will Iranian population to get rid of their government.
…The Iranians right now have the ability to turn on and off a general Middle-Eastern war. They can start one if they want to and that’s not a good outcome for anybody. One of the most dangerous possibilities on the horizon, if Iran survives, is that Israel will strike at the Iranian reactors. Iran could respond with horrific Hizbollah violence against Israel and we could then have a war between the two strongest Middle-Eastern states — at least — (and they) are not contiguous. So they would be flying operations over Syria, over Iraq, covertly. That is a real mess. We really want to prevent that from happening.
John Hawkins:: As far as having peace in the Middle-East goes, the biggest problem with that is always the struggle between the Palestinians and the Israelis. I understand that you don’t believe the Palestinians should have a state. Is that correct?
David Frum:: That’s not correct.
John Hawkins:: Could you clarify?
David Frum:: Richard and I are for the right kind of Palestinian state. We just don’t think it’s a very important American priority.
John Hawkins:: Why?
David Frum:: The right kind of Palestinian state would be a very good thing for Palestinians and a pretty good thing for Israel, but not a very important thing for the United States at all. It could be a real problem for the United States because a Palestinian state of the kind most people imagine would pretty quickly find itself in conflict with radical elements that reject the treaty with Israel. Because that state would be weak and incompetent, it would find itself under a lot of threat. It would be like the Irish of 1922, only with the rebels being more powerful than the state. …(What happened then was that the) Irish rose up against the Brits in 1921 and they fought a very savage war of Independence against the British. The British and the Irish Republican Army then signed a treaty partitioning Ireland. Ireland then split in two. The radicals then rebelled against the new Irish Republic and there was a civil war in 1922 which the Republic won.
That is probably what would happen in Palestine after peace with Israel. There would be a rebellion against the state, but the state would be weak, and the extremists would likely win — unless the state got American help. Many of the Clinton people who advocate this policy contemplated this from start. The United States would have train the Palestinian army, provide expertise, maybe even support it with troops. In other words, if you create a Palestinian state, one of the things you have to be prepared for is American troops possibly being drawn into the middle of a Palestinian civil war.
John Hawkins:: People have been suggesting that, sticking American or UN troops in there to separate the Israelis and Palestinians…
David Frum:: If you’re concerned about making the United States less unpopular with Palestinians, how can that be the answer? How can getting Americans in a shooting war against Hamas make the US better loved by Palestinians? That to me is illogical. I think this is just a slogan that has not been thought out. There are a series of “if” clauses, “if we do that, then it would help”. But, there isn’t an examination if those “if clauses” are plausible. If we built we the right kind of Palestinian state without too much cost, that would help. Can we do those things? No. Well, what is likely to happen and would those things be helpful?
John Hawkins:: Well let me ask, like you say, it’s not likely that we’re going to see a Democratic Palestine form in the near future. I don’t see the (Palestinian government) shutting down Hamas (anytime soon) either. So how do you think we should handle this over the next few years since we’re not going to see the conditions for a Democratic state form (there)?
David Frum:: Over the very short run, over the next few months, we have to make the Palestinians aware of what is available to them under the right circumstances. “Here’s what you can have if you decide you want it”. I think President Bush has done exactly the right thing.
John Hawkins:: So should we stand off and let the Israelis wall them off and wait for conditions to get right there?
David Frum:: The United States does have to make sure that Israel does not use excessive methods. There are people in the Israeli government who would use excessive methods and the United States government has an interest in curbing them. Just recently, the Israelis announced the route of the wall would change. I assume that’s a response to American pressure.
The most important thing that the United States can do is to just reiterate that the Palestinians could have a guarantee of a state within 18-24 months, tomorrow, if they want it, and here’s what they must do. Just reiterate that and make it clear that it’s the Palestinians choice, they can have what they want, but they have to meet certain conditions.
John Hawkins:: Pakistan is a particularly sticky situation. We have a dictator there who is cooperating with us — for the moment — but given the history of that country, I don’t think anyone would be surprised if Musharraf were to be assassinated tomorrow. If that were to happen, we could very well see Islamic fundamentalists with terrorist connections gain access to a nuclear arsenal. If something were to happen to Musharraf, how do you think we should proceed?
David Frum:: There’s a valuable lesson to be learned in Pakistan. Those of us who think that Democracy is part of the answer have often been taunted for being unrealistic. But, the idea of basing foreign policy on the actuarial chances of Pervez Musharraf, what’s realistic about that? I don’t think it’s very likely that if he were to be killed, fundamentalists would come to power. I think the military remains far and away the most powerful force in Pakistan. The problem is not that the fundamentalists would come to power, it’s that the Pakistani military has been infiltrated by fundamentalist ideas. That’s our problem.
So we need a short run and a long run policy in Pakistan. In the short run, we need better relations with the Pakistani military. Putting all those sanctions on Pakistan for having nuclear weapons was the wrong thing to do. The time to act against nuclear proliferation is before the proliferation occurs, not after. We have to work on reestablishing military links with Pakistan and “rewesternizing” those forces. We have to make Pakistani military officers feel they have better friends in the United States than they do in say Saudi Arabia.
I think in the long-term, we need to look at reforming Pakistan to help make it a more successful society in which the military is not the only functioning institution. That will require helping to build Pakistani economic institutions. The Pakistanis want greater access to the American market. One of the things Richard and I advocate, is letting them have it, but they should also at the same time have to sign a free trade agreement with India. Closer economic ties with India should be a precondition of closer economic ties with the United States.
We also need to take a big interest in the Pakistani educational system. As President Bush has been ramping up our foreign aid, one of the things he should be thinking about is making more money available to pay for the right kind of schools in Pakistan and schools that are available to girls as well.
John Hawkins:: Yeah, to replace those Saudi madrassas, right?
David Frum:: Right. That is doable. Those madrassas teach young kids to teach Urdu or some other Pakistani language and to memorize the Koran in Arabic. There are some people who would do that under any circumstances. But, many of them would say, “If the choice is between memorizing the Koran in a language nobody in Pakistan speaks or getting electrical engineering or air conditioning repair so I can make a living, I’d rather have a trade”. So, if Pakistan had schools that taught trades that allowed people to make a living, I think it would do very well in competition with madrassas.
John Hawkins:: Now, let’s move on to North Korea. How do you think we should be dealing with North Korea. Do you think negotiations have a chance of bearing fruit and if they were to fail, how do you think we should proceed?
David Frum:: Well, we don’t know for a fact that North Korea has nuclear weapons. We surmise it, we have to work on that assumption, but it’s not sure that they do. They’re the opposite of Iran. While Iran is concealing the extent of its nuclear program, North Korea may be inflating it, we just don’t know.
Direct negotiations with North Korea are just a fancy term for going along with blackmail which we must not do. The people we should be negotiating with are the Chinese, who do see the North Koreans as a security problem, who want a closer relationship with South Korea, but who cannot resist the temptation to shift a lot of the costs of sustaining their North Korean client onto the United States, Japan, and South Korea via blackmail. The Chinese need to be made to understand how injurious to their own interests this policy is.
And yes, as truly a last resort, because it has unpredictable consequences, we have to be prepared to hit the North Korean nuclear facilities from the air in extremis. But, of course we wish we had a decisive administration in power in 1994, that was the time to act.
John Hawkins:: Yes, I agree with you (about acting in 1994). On to another subject. Reality dictates that we often have to deal with “friendly” dictators, no matter how loathsome we may find their regimes. In your opinion, how far should we go to encourage Democracy and freedom in these sorts of nations? I’m talking about countries like Uzbekistan, Egypt, and Kuwait….
David Frum:: We don’t have to do everything all at once. We’re allowed to act with prudence and with due appreciation of the difficulty of the situation. But, if 9/11 ought to have taught us anything, it’s that these policies of dealing with so called “friendly” dictators, no matter how tough minded and realistic they seem in the short run, are very, very, costly and injurious in the long run. The dictators create hatred in their own populations and that hatred extends to all of the dictators friends. We are still paying in Greece for our relation with a Greek colonel that ended a quarter of a century ago. We will someday pay a heavy price for our relationship with Mubarak, if we’re not paying it already.
John Hawkins:: I’m sure we will. Without question, we’re not seeing the same level of cooperation today between the US and Europe that we did let’s say 10 to 20 years ago. Why do you think that is and do you see it continuing and perhaps worsening in the future?
David Frum:: People are always nicer to you when they need something from you. Between 1945 – 1991, Europe needed a great deal from us and so they were pretty nice to us. Right now, the Europeans feel they don’t need much from us, so they’re not so nice. Some people say, “this is because the Bush administration was not sensitive enough to their requirements”. There is sort of a tendency in the United States to look at allies as inert objects who never act, but only react to what the United States does. I think that’s just wrong. They have their own motives and their own interests. Their situation has changed, they do not feel threatened by the Soviet Union, they do not need our protection, and so they have a different kind of relationship with us. By the way, some of the countries, like Germany, have old resentments that couldn’t ever be expressed during the Cold War, but are being expressed now.
John Hawkins:: One of those countries expressing resentment of course, is France. I’ve heard that in the book you say France shouldn’t be treated as an ally in the United States. Is that the case?
David Frum:: Judged by France’s own behavior, it’s hard to view them as an ally. People talk about them as an ally, but what have they done that an ally would do? They have their own problems with their Muslim population which they’re terrified of and which they’re badly mishandling. (Also), they have their own ambition to build a kind of European superstate as a counterweight to the United States. That’s partly for reasons of national vanity and partly to protect their not very competitive national economy. This would be a terrible mistake for Europe. We need to rethink the traditional American position of almost unreflective support for unification. We have to understand that the wrong kind of European reunification can create real problems for the United States.
John Hawkins:: Can you tell us a little bit about your new book, “An End To Evil: How to Win the War on Terror“?
David Frum:: Well look, evil, lowercase “e”, is part of human nature. But, particular evils do not last forever. My writing partner, Richard Perle, in the 1980s, insisted against all the conventional wisdom of that time, that we would see the end of the evil of Soviet Communism. He was right. We will see an end to this evil too.
John Hawkins:: Are there any political websites or blogs you could recommend to our readers?
David Frum:: Yours, of course. I like a lot of what are called the warbloggers,Andrew Sullivan,: Little Green Footballs: and I love: National Review Online: and I write for it. There are many others. But, what I try to do is make a point of reading the emerging blogs from Iraq,: Healing Iraq: is one of my favorites. I also take advantage of the opportunity to read European newspapers which I recommend,the Telegraph,: The Times, even the: Guardian: so I can get an idea of what the European left is thinking. Sooner or later, people are going to figure out how to make freeloaders like me pay for all these papers we read, but for the time being nobody has done it and so I think one should take advantage of the opportunity to the fullest.
John Hawkins:: Is there anything else you’d like to say or promote before we finish up?
David Frum:: This has just been exhaustive. I just want to say one thing to you. Ionce quoted: something wonderful that you wrote without knowing (you wrote it). That the United States was the designated driver for the world.: Glenn Reynoldspointed out that the email that had been forwarded to me had a real live author and I’m delighted to be able to talk to him today.
John Hawkins:: Well, I appreciate that and I appreciate you making the correction. You did have my name added in there by the time we were done.
David Frum:: Once I knew there was an identifiable author, I was delighted to have it put in there. It was a: brilliant piece.
John Hawkins:: I really appreciate that, it means a lot coming from you. Thank you for your time.