Bill Kristol is the founder and editor of the political magazine The Weekly Standard. He is a co-founded the Project for the New American Century (PNAC).
Are U.S. sanctions working as a deterrent in Iran?
U.S. sanctions are weakening the Iranian economy, perhaps weakening the Iranian regime’s hold over the country; that’s a little harder to tell. There’s no evidence, unfortunately, that U.S. sanctions, or anyone else’s sanctions — the international community’s sanctions — have slowed the Iranian regime’s quest for nuclear weapons
Why does Israel view Iran as an existential threat?
The Iranian regime has threatened to destroy Israel. The Iranian regime has killed a lot of people. I think Israel is wise to regard as an existential threat a regime that is dedicated to the destruction of the state of Israel, a regime that is pursuing nuclear weapons despite the opposition of the entire international community and despite paying real economic cost for it, and some diplomatic cost as well. A regime that has sponsored terrorism and killed a lot of Jews and Israelis — and of course may others — abroad. So Iran is an existential threat to Israel and a threat to many others as well, incidentally.
In your opinion, how would Iran respond to a preemptive strike on their nuclear capability?
I don’t know, but you know there is evidence in history that if the Iranian regime is viewed by the Iranian people as having been foolish and reckless, and having invited a strike on its nuclear capabilities, after sanctions which have weakened the economy and isolated the regime, I think it could weaken the regime. Or you could argue that a strike against the nuclear facilities would strengthen the regime; there would be a nationalist outpour. History has some examples both ways. But I don’t actually buy the argument that it’s obvious that a strike on Iranian nuclear capabilities would strengthen the Iranian regime and radicalize the population. It could just as easily weaken the regime, and cause the Iranian people say once and for all, “What are we doing with this regime? It has isolated used. It’s brought upon us destructive, economically damaging sanctions, and now it’s caused a military strike against our nuclear capability. Why are we tolerating this regime anymore?” The Iranian people want to get rid of this regime, anyway it seems, for 2009. So you could argue that a strike on the nuclear capabilities could help those who want to change the regime in Iran. Or the regime could exploit it and perhaps use it to gin up nationalist sentiments and maybe help strengthen it, it’s just hard to tell ahead of time. But again, it doesn’t really matter, honestly. If it is the judgment that the world cannot commit this regime in Iran to get nuclear weapons; that it is a game changer, that it is incredibly dangerous, that it will lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, that it’s an unstable regime in any case, that it is the last people in the world that we want to get nuclear weapons. If that’s the judgment, all these other calculations, “Gee would a strike help or hurt the regime?” That’s all secondary. If you’ve got to do it, you’ve got to do it.
And someone argued that a nuclear armed Iran is inevitable, eventually. How would you respond?
Well, people argued that nuclear armed other regimes were inevitable, and it turns out that other countries moved away from nuclear weapons. An Iran that is democratic and moderate and willing to live in peace with all of its neighbors, including Israel; that regime having nuclear weapons, maybe that would be like India having nuclear weapons. Maybe it will be like Pakistan having nuclear weapons, which is pretty bad. But even so, this Iranian regime with nuclear weapons, I think really is unacceptable. And I don’t think this is some kind of conservative point of view, or American point of view, or Israeli point of view. It is just a fact that American presidents of both parties have said it is unacceptable. Leaders from many countries in Europe have said it is unacceptable for this regime to get nuclear weapons; socialist leaders, democratic-capitalist leaders. The Arab states in the Middle East don’t want this regime to have nuclear weapons. Obviously the Jewish state doesn’t want them too either. I don’t think this is actually a very close call on the merits. Now, can we stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons? Well only if we have the resolution to do it and are willing to use force ultimately, I think.
You’ve touched on this for Israel, but what are the implications for the region and the world; the implications of Iran having nuclear weapons?
I think if Iran has nuclear weapons, there will be a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, others will get nuclear weapons; and the most unstable area in the world will be a place that’s having a fierce, probably, nuclear arms race. That is a terrifying thought. I do think Iran getting nuclear weapons would be a game changer unlike any we have seen in decades.
India getting nuclear weapons was not a great thing, but didn’t fundamentally endanger the world’s peace. Pakistan getting nuclear weapons is really worrisome, but so far it has been sort of containable. North Korea having nuclear weapons is bad but they are pretty much surrounded and constrained except for the proliferation problems they have caused. But Iran getting nuclear weapons is just a whole different kettle of fish; with their terror connections, with their commitment to destroy Israel, with their commitment to a very radical version of Islamism. So I think really this is not like other instances, all the analogies — If we’ve lived with India, we lived with Russia having nuclear weapons — I don’t really think it is a sound argument for thinking that we can live comfortably with an Iranian nuclear weapon. I think if Iran gets nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons will be used somewhere in the world within five to ten years.
And what policy options do we have at this point to avoid that?
Well, we can continue to pressure Iran; but at some point I think we will have to use force to stop Iran, or to set back the Iranian nuclear program. It’s not a permanent solution, but it does buy us time to use other diplomatic, and economic, and political means to try to get a different kind of regime in Iran.
How has our military assistance benefited Egypt over the years?
I’m not sure, honestly. One hopes that it has benefitted the society as a whole, a lot of it has obviously disappeared into the pockets of various military big wigs and other big wigs in Egypt and a lot of it has probably gone abroad into Swiss bank accounts. So it’s hard for me to tell. I think you could argue though, that it has been a peace, a cold peace, with Egypt for an awful long time. Egypt has generally been, if not a constructive player in the region, certainly not a destructive player in the region. And if that costs us a certain amount of money each year, maybe it’s been a good investment. It’s hard to judge.
Would you say overall the Camp David Accords have been a positive force, and if we’d like to continue that relationship?
Obviously, I think we are happy that Israel and Egypt has been at peace, even if it has been a cold peace. And we’re happy that Egypt moved from being a Soviet ally to an American ally; that was more of a Cold War issue, but it’s a big issue. It’s a big country. It’s a powerful country in that part of the world. But the better our relations are with that country, the better for us, and I think really better for the region. Now there is a limit to how much we can control our relationship with Egypt with the government that’s there, we will have to see what they decide.
So do you think that’s under threat now then, thirty years of understanding, with the Arab Spring?
I mean, the Arab spring is a very complicated development. I’m a whole bit heartened by it and supportive of it, and thought the U.S. government should be supportive of it. But like all things it can go any which way; it is not guaranteed that it will turn out well, parts of it will turn out badly. It is very important that more of it turns out well; less of it turns out badly. So for me the lesson of the Arab Spring is U.S. strength and U.S. involvement. I think an Arab Spring that happens with a strong U.S.; not just sitting on the sides lines, but helping with the forces of liberty and decency in the region; intervening politically, economically, diplomatically, at times perhaps militarily to try and make sure that things don’t go too far off the rails — that is an Arab Spring that is hopeful. An Arab Spring that happens with us just kind of, not even leading from behind but following from behind, just sort of standing back and saying, “Gee, we can’t really influence things much.” That is an Arab Spring that can go very dangerously. I’m not saying that we can control everything, maybe things will go badly even if we are in the middle of it. But, I sure like the chance of the Arab Spring better with a strong and engaged U.S., than a weak and withdrawn U.S.
Have we, to a degree, gotten our money’s worth? Has our investment in Egypt paid off in that; have they furthered our policy objectives in the region?
I don’t know. I think in general, at least from Camp David until this year, I would defend in general the U.S. policy towards Egypt. I think having no Israeli-Arab wars to speak of, not having major Israeli-Arab conflicts, having an Egypt that has been reasonably peaceful and reasonably constructive in the region has been good for us and good for the region.
How much influence does Egypt have in the region?
I don’t know. It depends what happens in Egypt. It could become a total mess, or it could become a flourishing country. If it becomes a more successful democracy that the more Islamic that we would probably like is still tolerant, and free basically, and at peace with its neighbors; that could be a very, very good thing for the Middle East.
What’s your take on Muhammad Morsi?
I don’t know anything more than what I’ve read in the papers. One has to be worried about having a president from the Muslim Brotherhood; but on the other hand maybe there will be pressures on him to be reasonably responsible.
As far as U.S. policy towards Egypt; if you were advising U.S. policy makers today, what direction would you say we should take?
I think we need to be clear about what we can accept and what we regard as unacceptable in terms of U.S. interests in Egypt itself, and the region. And I think there should be consequences for actions. We have a limited leverage, but we do have some leverage over Egypt. They want to succeed, the Morsi government wants to succeed, they want economic development. I think we can’t micromanage the situation, but we can make clear that we will be more forthcoming if they pursue responsible policies abroad and at home than if they don’t.
Should China take human rights and corruption into consideration more in their dealings in Africa?
I think China is going to see China’s interests, and this regime in China is not very sensitive to human rights or corruption or liberty or democracy or anything else. I meant that’s why I am a skeptic about this Chinese regime and its willingness to be a constructive force in the international community. That’s why I think we need to be careful in our dealings with China and strong in our dealings with China, and why we shouldn’t step back and let China have unimpeded ability to become awfully powerful and influential in large parts of the world.
With our [U.S.] sensitivities to human rights issues, is there a way we can remain competitive in Africa?
Look, sometimes if being a decent nation and a nation that tries to respect human rights, and that follows a commercial disadvantage, it is a price I would be willing to pay.
Is the U.S. too focused on aid and democracy promotion, and not trade and investment, in Africa?
I think there is a lot of evidence that ultimately for economic growth, trade and investment are probably more important than foreign aid. And so I would be very much in favor of encouraging trade and investment as much as we can. But the best way to encourage trade and investment is probably to promote the sort of stable and popularly based regimes in Africa or anywhere else. So I think there’s not a competition, really, between trade and investment on the one hand, and aid and democracy promotion on the other; an intelligent foreign policy would do both. But ultimately we want these countries to be decent countries, we want them to be successful countries; that is in our interest. I mean look at India, India is one of the huge success stories of the last thirty to forty years. They deserve most of the credit for it, but we helped probably by creating a stable defense situation, a stable foreign policy situation in Asia, and an open trade and investment regime where India could end up exploiting their comparative advantages very well. Sometimes politicians complain about outsourcing jobs to India, but that has been a good thing for India and ultimately I think a good thing for the rest of us as well. So the India model is what I would recommend to Africa and elsewhere. Pursue basically free market policies and try to be at peace with your neighbors, try to establish strong trading relationships around the world, be a democracy and you can you can go from — India was in really bad shape thirty-forty years ago — being what seems to be a real basket case to being a real up and coming economy and power. I think that could happen. I think other countries could follow in India’s path.