Q & A from Der Spiegel (Deutschland/Germany)
10/26/2009 07:04 PM
Interview with Dr. Charles Krauthammer
SPIEGEL: Mr. Krauthammer, did the Nobel Commitee in Oslo honor or doom the Obama presidency by awarding him the Peace Prize?
Charles Krauthammer:It is so comical. Absurd. Any prize that goes to Kellogg and Briand, Le Duc Tho and Arafat, and Rigoberta Menchú, and ends up with Obama, tells you all you need to know. For Obama it’s not very good because it reaffirms the stereotypes about him as the empty celebrity.
SPIEGEL:Why does it?
Krauthammer:He is a man of perpetual promise. There used to be a cruel joke that said Brazil is the country of the future, and always will be; Obama is the Brazil of today’s politicians. He has obviously achieved nothing. And in the American context, to be the hero of five Norwegian leftists, is not exactly politically positive.
SPIEGEL:It hardly makes sense to blame him for losing the Olympic bid in one week, and then for winning the Nobel Prize the next.
Krauthammer:He should have simply said: “This is very nice, I appreciate the gesture, but I haven’t achieved what I want to achieve.” But he is not the kind of man that does that.
SPIEGEL:Should he have turned down the prize?
Krauthammer:He would never turn that down. The presidency is all about him. Just think about the speech he gave in Berlin. There is something so preposterous about a presidential candidate speaking in Berlin. And it was replete with all these universalist clichés, which is basically what he’s been giving us for nine months.
SPIEGEL:Why do Europeans react so positively to him?
Krauthammer:Because Europe, for very understandable reasons, has been chaffing for 60 years under the protection, but also the subtle or not so subtle domination of America. Europeans like to see the big guy cut down to size, it’s a natural reaction. You know, Europe ran the world for 400 or 500 years until the civilizational suicide of the two World Wars. And then America emerged as the world hegemon, with no competition and unchallenged. The irony is America is the only hegemonic power that never sought hegemony, unlike, for example, Napoleonic France. Americans are not intrinsically imperial, but we ended up dominant by default: Europe disappeared after the Second World War, the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, so here we are. Of course Europeans like to see the hegemon diminished, and Obama is the perfect man to do that.
SPIEGEL:Maybe Europeans want to just see a different America, one they can admire again.
Krauthammer: Admire? Look at Obama’s speech at the UN General Assembly: “No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation.” Take the first half of that sentence: No nation can dominate another. There is no eight year old who would say that — it’s so absurd. And the second half? That is adolescent utopianism. Obama talks in platitudes, but offers a vision to the world of America diminished or constrained, and willing to share leadership in a way that no other presidency and no other great power would. Could you imagine if the Russians were hegemonic, or the Chinese, or the Germans — that they would speak like this?
SPIEGEL:Is America’s power not already diminished?
Krauthammer:Relative to what?
SPIEGEL: To emerging powers.
Krauthammer: The Chinese are rising, the Indians have a very long way to go. But I’m old enough to remember the late 1980s, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” by Paul Kennedy and the prevailing view that America was in decline and Japan was the rising power. The fashion now is that the Chinese will overtake the United States. As with the great Japan panic, there are all kinds of reasons why that will not happen.
Look, eventually American hegemony will fade. In time, yes. But now? Economically we now have serious problems, creating huge amounts of debt that we cannot afford and that could bring down the dollar and even cause hyperinflation. But nothing is inevitable. If we make the right choices, if we keep our economic house in order, we can avert an economic collapse. We can choose to decline or to stay strong.
SPIEGEL:Do you really believe that Obama deliberately wants to weaken the US?
Krauthammer:The liberal vision of America is that it should be less arrogant, less unilateral, more internationalist. In Obama’s view, America would subsume itself under a fuzzy internationalism in which the international community, which I think is a fiction, governs itself through the UN.
Krauthammer: Worse than that: an absurdity. I can’t even imagine serious people would believe it, but I think Obama does. There is a way America will decline — if we choose first to wreck our economy and then to constrain our freedom of action through subordinating ourselves to international institutions which are 90 percent worthless and 10 percent harmful.
SPIEGEL:And there is not even 1 percent that is constructive?
Krauthammer: No. The UN is worse than disaster. The UN creates conflicts. Look at the disgraceful UN Human Rights Council: It transmits norms which are harmful, anti-liberty, and anti-Semitic among other things. The world would be better off in its absence.
SPIEGEL:And Obama is, in your eyes, …
Krauthammer:He’s becoming ordinary. In the course of his presidency, Obama has gone from an almost magical charismatic figure to an ordinary politician. Ordinary. Average. His approval ratings are roughly equal to what the last five presidents’ were at the same time in their first term. Other people have already said he’s done and finished because his health care plans ran into trouble; but I say they’re wrong. He’s going to come back, he will pass something on health care, there’s no question. He will have a blip, be somewhat rehabilitated politically, but he won’t be able to pass anything on climate change. He will not be the great transformer he imagines himself to be. A president like others — with successes and failures.
SPIEGEL: Every incoming president to the White House has to confront reality and disappoint voters.
Krauthammer: True. But what made Obama unique was that he was the ultimate charismatic politician — the most unknown stranger ever to achieve the presidency in the United States. No one knew who he was, he came out of nowhere, he had this incredible persona that floated him above the fray, destroyed Hillary, took over the Democratic Party and became president. This is truly unprecedented: A young unknown with no history, no paper trail, no well-known associates, self-created.
There was tremendous goodwill, even I was thrilled on Election Day, even though I had voted against him and argued against him.
SPIEGEL:What moved you that day?
Krauthammer: It’s redemptive for a country that began in the sin of slavery to see the day, I didn’t think I would live to see the day, when a black president would be elected.
Now he was not my candidate. I would have preferred the first black president to have been somebody ideologically congenial to me, say, Colin Powell (whom I encouraged to run in 2000) or Condoleezza Rice. But I felt truly proud to be an American as I saw him sworn in. I remain proud of this historic achievement.
SPIEGEL:What major mistakes has Obama made?
Krauthammer:I don’t know whether I should call it a mistake, but it turns out he is a left-liberal, not center-right the way Bill Clinton was. The analogy I give is that in America we play the game between the 40-yard lines, in Europe you go all the way from goal line to goal line. You have communist parties, you have fascist parties, we don’t have that, we have very centrist parties.
So Obama wants to push us to the 30-yard line, which for America is pretty far. Right after he was elected, he gave an address to Congress and promised to basically remake the basic pillars of American society — education , energy and health care. All this would move America toward a social democratic European-style state. It is outside of the norm of America.
SPIEGEL:Yet, he had promised these reforms during the campaign.
Krauthammer: Hardly. He’s now pushing a cap-and-trade energy reform. During the campaign he said that would cause skyrocketing utility rates. On healthcare, the reason he’s had such resistance is because he promised reform, not a radical remaking of the whole system.
SPIEGEL:So he didn’t see the massive resistance coming?
Krauthammer: Obama misread his mandate. He was elected six weeks after a financial collapse unlike any seen in 60 years; after eight years of a presidency which had tired the country; in the middle of two wars that made the country opposed to the Republican government that involved us in the wars; and against a completely inept opponent, John McCain. Nevertheless, Obama still only won by 7 points. But he thought it was a great sweeping mandate and he could implement his social democratic agenda.
SPIEGEL:Part of the problem when it comes to health care is the lack of solidarity in the American way of thinking. Can a president change a country?
Krauthammer:Yes. Franklin D. Roosevelt did it. Back then, we didn’t have a welfare state, we didn’t have old age pensions, we didn’t have unemployment insurance. This country was the Wild West until FDR. Yes, you can change the spirit of America.
SPIEGEL:If Obama is so radical, why is the left wing of the Democratic Party so unhappy with him?
Krauthammer:They are disillusioned because he has ignored some of their social agenda, such as gay rights; continued some of the Bush policies he had once denounced, such as the detention without trial for terrorists; and on his large agenda for education and energy, where he has had no success.
SPIEGEL:How could Obama still win Republican support for healthcare reform?
Krauthammer:He should finally realize that we need to reform our insane malpractice system. The US is spending between $60 and $200 billion a year on protection against lawsuits. I used to be a doctor, I know how much is wasted on defensive medicine. Everybody I practiced with spends hours and enormous amounts of money on wasted tests, diagnostic and procedures — all to avoid lawsuits. The Democrats will not touch it. When Howard Dean was asked why, he said honestly and explicitly that Democrats don’t want to antagonize the trial lawyers who donate huge amounts of money to the Democrats.
SPIEGEL:What would be your solution?
Krauthammer: I would make Americans pay half a percent tax on their health insurance and create a pool to socialize the cost of medical errors. That would save hundreds of billions of dollars that could be used to insure the uninsured. And second, I would abolish the absurd prohibition against buying health insurance in another state — that reduces competition and keeps health insurance rates artificially high.
SPIEGEL:But you also need to cut back on healthcare expenses.
Krauthammer:It is absolutely crazy that in America employees receive health insurance from their employers — and at the same time a tax break for this from the federal government. It’s a $250 billion a year loophole in the government’s budget. If you taxed healthcare benefits, you would have enough revenue for the government to give back to the individual to purchase their own insurance. If you did those two reforms alone, you would have the basis for affordable health insurance in America.
What the Democrats seem to be aiming for, however, is something somewhat different: the government gets control of the healthcare system by proxy; you heavily regulate the insurance companies, you subsidize the uninsured. That kind of reform would also work, but less efficiently — and because of its unsustainable costs, we would, in the end, have to go to a system of rationing, the way the British do, the way the Canadians do, there is no other way. Obama can’t say any of that, the word rationing is too unpopular.
SPIEGEL:Mr. Krauthammer, can a Nobel Peace Prize winner send more troops to Afghanistan?
:Sure, I don’t see why not. The prize could have two contrary effects. It could give him an incentive to send more troops to show his own people that he is not an instrument of five Norwegian leftists. Or it can work the other way where in order not to lose the popularity he obviously feels from Europe, he would be less inclined. I think whatever impulses come out of those considerations neutralize each other. The prize will have zero effect on his decision.
‘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.