Bill Kristol: ‘Weekly Standard’ Editor

William Kristol is the founder and editor of the neoconservative political magazine The Weekly Standard.  He spoke with the Harvard Political Review during his visit to the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University.
Harvard Political Review: There have been a lot of swings in foreign policy over the past ten years. President Bush was criticized for being too militaristic while President Obama has drawn criticism for not being strong enough. What do you see as the optimal way for the United States to avoid potentially unnecessary conflicts while still demonstrating resolve and defending our allies and interests?
William Kristol: I’m more worried about the weakness than the strength. I don’t think there have been unnecessary conflicts that we have been engaged in, so I would basically be on the Bush side of that divide. In any democracy, you’re going to have back and forth, and I suppose you’re going to overdo it one way or the other.
I think that one the big stories after 9/11 is how little we overdid it on what one might call the “militaristic side.” If you think about World War II and the Japanese internment, or the McCarthy era, there was really nothing like that [after 9/11]. We fought the war in Afghanistan with total bipartisan support, we fought a war against al-Qaeda in general that had and has large bipartisan support, and we fought a war in Iraq that had bipartisan support when they voted for it and during the first year or two. Then we didn’t find the weapons of course, and it was a tough war, but at the end of the day I think we ended up OK at the end of 2008.
I would argue that President Obama has overreacted, overcorrected, and drawn the wrong lessons from the Bush experience, and now I think we see the price of that around the world, where people don’t think we’re strong and its not a good situation.
HPR: Many Americans indicate that they are less interested in engaging with the world, engaging with our allies, and, when necessary, projecting more force against our enemies. What do you see as the future of neoconservatism as increasing numbers of Republicans take a libertarian approach to foreign policy?
WK: I think we’ll have to persuade more people, but I don’t think the atmosphere is actually that strong. I think when the rubber hits the road, a lot of the people who talk now about how we should stay out of things and should be more careful—should there be a real threat, a real choice of strength or retreat—certainly most conservatives and Republicans would be on the side of strength, and I would say most Americans would as well, so I think it’s a little overstated.
Liberals, who sort of indulge the war weariness, indulge the world weariness of the American public. When President Obama says that “nation building begins at home,” [liberals] should think a little more seriously if they care about international development, foreign aid, and humanitarian assistance around the world. How are they going to make that case when the public has been told that we should just take care of ourselves? But, having said that, I think on the whole the American public understands after 9/11 that the world is a dangerous place and you can’t just turn your back on threats and potential threats.
HPR: So were there to be some dramatic incident tomorrow, do you think the American people would rally?
WK: Yes I do, but even if there weren’t, I was thinking about the case of Iran. If President Obama went on TV tomorrow and said “The negotiations have broken down, we can’t allow the Iranians to develop nuclear weapons, so we have launched bombing attacks and have troops ready to go if necessary to take care of certain things on the ground,” I think you would have maybe 80 percent support from the American public. I think the public is less averse to foreign responsibilities than we sometimes think. I do think it takes leadership.
HPR: On the subject of Iran, do you think a deal is possible, and if not, is a military option going to work?
WK: I think there won’t be a deal, though I think the Obama Administration would very much like one. I just don’t think they could come to a serious agreement. I honestly don’t know whether the military option, if we used the military option, would have the ability to seriously set back the Iranian program more than Israel would, but I think military force would set back the program significantly. I don’t know that the Iranian people would rally to the Iranian government if the public saw them as provoking military action.
HPR: So if the nuclear negotiations failed dramatically, and the Iranians storm out and then the United States has to respond—
WK: Will President Obama use force against Iran? I’m a little doubtful. I would hope he would if necessary, but I’ve got to say that I’m a little doubtful.
This interview has been edited and condensed. 
Image credit: Gage Skidmore (Flickr)

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