Charles Krauthammer Transcript

Table of Contents

I: The Reagan Doctrine 00:15 – 24:45
II: The Unipolar Moment 24:45 – 40:19
III: Decline is a Choice 40:19 – 54:37
IV: The Sixties and Quebec 54:37 – 1:06:40
V: Political Philosophy and Medicine 1:06:40 – 1:21:51
VI: On Judaism and Israel 1:21:51 – 1:43:54

I: The Reagan Doctrine (00:15 – 24:45)

KRISTOL: Welcome to CONVERSATIONS. I’m Bill Kristol, and I’m very pleased to have with me today my friend, Charles Krauthammer. Charles, thanks for taking the time to do this.

KRAUTHAMMER: Happy to be here.

KRISTOL: So we first met, I think when I came to Washington 1985, you’d been here a few years, and you had just written a terrific piece that became a very important piece on the Reagan Doctrine, I think, both explaining it and defending it. But I remember someone saying to me, “That Charles Krauthammer guy he wrote that terrific piece, but he came here as a speechwriter for Walter Mondale.”

KRAUTHAMMER: That’s right. And people asked me, “How do you go from Walter Mondale to Fox News?” And the answer I gave them, and the answer I’ll give you is I was young once. But I’m recovered from my youth. No, it’s true.

“The Reagan Doctrine” is an interesting thing. I remember we were sitting around, I was working at The New Republic in those days, which was sort of famously liberal, but had a pretty aggressive anti-Soviet hardline foreign policy side, which is what attracted me to it.

And I did a lot of writing in foreign policy. And I remember saying in one of the editorial meetings, “There’s something very peculiar going on.” For most of our lives there were guerilla movements around the world, and they were invariably national liberation, and they were Communist or Soviet-supported, or Chinese-supported, Vietnam, Cuba. I mean, that was the norm.

And then I said, there’s an interesting counter-development, we have anti-communist guerillas in Nicaragua, Angola, Afghanistan – of course, this was the Mujahedeen, and we’re backing it – I wonder what it means? And one of the people at the meetings said, “Well, you ought to write that.” I wasn’t actually thinking of doing it. So I put that together.

And I basically came to the conclusion is what had happened, the Soviets had overextended their empire, and they were getting what the West had gotten with its overextended empire decades before a reaction, they got a rebellion, they got resistance. And the Soviets were now beginning to feel it, and the genius of Reagan, although I don’t think they had a plan in doing this is he instinctively realized that one of the ways to go after the Soviets was indirect, and that is you go after their proxies, you go after their allies, you go after their clients, or even in Afghanistan you go after them directly.

So that’s what I called the Reagan Doctrine, it was sort of the opposite of the Brezhnev Doctrine, which was whatever we control we keep. And Reagan was saying, no you don’t.

KRISTOL: I want to come back, not let you get away that easily from your migration from Walter Mondale Democrats who were Reagan defenders, let’s just stay on the Reagan issue, it was so interesting. Did you have a feeling, you were there during those years, you were very involved, especially in foreign policy debates, writing, and on television, and everything.

When did you have the sense, or did you have the sense at the beginning that Reagan was right? Was there a moment where you thought, “A, he’s generally right in his view of the world, but B, that it could actually succeed”?

KRAUTHAMMER: I thought he was right just about from the beginning. And what happened to me, I wrote about this in the introduction of my book, what happened to me was I still sort of remained a Democrat, still remained a liberal, a Great Society Democrat even through much of the 80s, but I had always been part of that, what people don’t remember actually existed, the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, which existed in the 70s, it was rather important.

They went by various names, the Coalition for the Democratic Majority, people like Paul Nitze, Pat Moynihan –

KRISTOL: Scoop Jackson.

KRAUTHAMMER: Scoop Jackson, of course, was sort of my, my hero of the group. Scoop was famously liberal on domestic affairs, and really, really tough on – So that’s sort of where I was positioned, and when I found, and my deep disappointment was there’s something about being in power that makes you a little more reasonable if you’re an ideologue than you would otherwise.

And the fact, the Clinton years were not distinguished, but surely after Afghanistan, Carter got pretty hard lined, he canceled the Olympics, they did the oil embargo, he began arming the Mujahedeen, he basically for whatever reason the policy has solidified, and people don’t remember he’s the one who decided to put nuclear missiles, American Pershing and cruise missiles in Europe, in Germany to counteract the Soviet advance in the late 70s.

Now as soon as the Democrats lost power, they lost their heads. They lost all sense of responsibility. They began to back the nuclear freeze, which would have effectively have cancelled the deployment, given the Soviet’s victory, not that that was their intent, but they were sort of naive, and anti-everything, and in a panic over nuclear war.

And over Reagan’s succession, they assumed he was a mad man, would start a World War, they backed objectively terrible policies. So for me the turning point, if there was one, was the huge argument over the freeze.

KRISTOL: Yeah I remember. That was what, ’83?

KRAUTHAMMER: It was earlier, it was sort of ’82, even ’81. And if you ever go back to the presidential election of ’84, the two contenders on the Democratic side Mondale and Hart were contending with each other to say who had been the first to support the freeze and oppose the deployments. But that to me was such an open-and-shut issue. I studied for – I sort of immersed myself in the literature of deterrence.

This was so slam-dunk what Reagan was doing with the support of Thatcher, of course, and Helmut Kohl. I think he was the Chancellor at the time.

KRISTOL: Yeah, I think so.

KRAUTHAMMER: The three of them stood up to huge demonstrations, people don’t remember the biggest demonstration in American history was in New York City in the middle of the – a million people came out in the street to oppose the deployments, and to support the freeze.

That to me was a turning point, because it meant to me that the Democrats totally had lost their sense that this was a Cold War, this was a war worth winning, and thinking strategically instead of either emotionally or reflexively, nukes are bad so I will oppose nukes, which is sort of mindless.

Beginning with the freeze, where I ended up very strongly on the side of Reagan. In fact, I remember NPR covered the rally, the million-man rally, and they had to put me on the air to interview because there was nobody else that they could find who would oppose the rally.


KRAUTHAMMER: That’s how much this hysteria, remember the end of the world?

KRISTOL: Wasn’t there some movie, ABC TV special? I can’t remember.


KRISTOL: That’s right.

KRAUTHAMMER: About a nuclear attack on Lawrence, Kansas, and what they did throughout the country, they provided grief counselors for the people who were so upset by the movie, it never happened, of course. But to tell you how much the country lost its mind, and that to me was the beginning.

And then on every strategic issue after that, opposing the Soviets in Central America, the Reagan Doctrine, the defense budget, hard line on disarmament, offering the zero option, it’s a complicated issue. But essentially it was Reagan saying, OK, we’re going to put our missiles in Europe, we offer you a deal, you take yours out of Eastern Europe, which is what started this, and we will remove ours, which eventually, it was considered by the Left a fake offer, a phony offer. A way to deflect things.

In fact, it was a serious offer, and in the end about six years later the Soviet accepted it, and it was the abolition of a whole class of short-range nuclear missiles, which incidentally I would just add, Putin has now violated the Soviet, Russian – excuse me, Soviets are gone, they’re not really gone.


KRAUTHAMMER: The Russians are now redeploying them, and we have to think about a way to counter it, but that’s the story of my change on foreign policy, and I refuse to accept responsibility. The cliché is I did not leave the Democrats, the Party left me. That is true on foreign affairs.

On domestic, I left them later on, but on consideration on how to deal with threats around the world. I don’t think I really changed, it’s the Democrats who sort of lost their heads in the early 80s, and I had nowhere to go.

KRISTOL: Yeah, that’s interesting, because a lot of people put the kind of neoconservative pivot, and it was for an older generation, I suppose in the late-60s, certainly throughout the 70s, I think you’re right, Reagan in power, and the Democrats going off the cliff out of power really were –

KRAUTHAMMER: It was the out of power, because the antiwar rhetoric, they were still the party of McGovern in the mid-70s, Carter had a very soft line the early years, you know “inordinate fear of communism,” kind of wobbly, then Afghanistan happened, which without a doubt is a hinge point in his diplomacy, and his arming of the Mujahedeen was a crucial development in the Cold War.

At that point they were still in power, they realized we got to do something, they’re on the march, remember we had Iran, we had Nicaragua, we had Afghanistan, even Grenada, this is the annus mirabilis for the Soviets, 1979. They were on the march, everywhere we were in retreat, Carter sort of said, “OK, we’re going to stop them.” But the minute they were out of power they completely fell apart.

KRISTOL: And when did you have the sense, just to stick on the 80s, because I got here at ’85, and we got to know each other, and we were both as far as domestic policy mostly, but we all had similar views, and I think on foreign policy, I certainly did not expect to win the Cold War ten years after what seemed to be the Soviet’s peak in 1979. Reagan seems to have been the only person who actually thought that was possible. When did you realize that could be happening? I think you were a little earlier than most on that.

KRAUTHAMMER: No, I wasn’t.


KRAUTHAMMER: I was the last one.

KRISTOL: Yeah right.

KRAUTHAMMER: The day after the Berlin Wall came down I thought, “Oh maybe this is going to happen.”


KRAUTHAMMER: I mean, that was the most unexpected event in our lifetimes. And I don’t know one person in my acquaintance, because I didn’t know Reagan, personally, who thought that we would live to see the end of the Soviet empire.


KRAUTHAMMER: I assumed it was like the sun rising in the east, you get used to it, we live with it, we have to manage it. I don’t think there is anybody who thought. We lived through a time of Biblical wonder.

The idea that the greatest empire, land empire on earth would collapse without a shot fired, and just give up, and disappear – of course, Putin is a little upset about this, this explains a lot of what’s going on a quarter of a century later – but that, to me, was the most unexpected event.

And it was sort of shocking in the sense that we wake up one morning, literally Christmas Day 1991, there is no Soviet empire, and I remember using the word Biblical, because this stuff is not supposed to happen in your lifetime, in the absence of a World War, for example. But you’re right, it is basically a decade between the apogee of the Soviet empire, and then their rapid disintegration.

And the fact is they did it, I mean, if you look back sort of historically in the very long view, it was a system that could not sustain itself in the end, had exhausted itself. In the early years, even systems that don’t work can succeed on energy, mobilization, optimism, and force, oppression. But there’s a sort of élan in these ideologies, then, you know, Hitlerism never had a chance to reach that stage.

But it was still in its apogee even when it was defeated, the defense of Berlin, when it was hopeless and it was over is astonishing. But with the Soviets it was hollowed because the elites knew that it was a fraud and a deception. There was nothing left to fight for, there wasn’t a believer anywhere in the world. So they reached their apogee, in part because of the Vietnam defeatism on our part, and withdrawal on the part of the West. So it was sort of a historical accident, and then they were so overstretched the system is so sort of literally inhuman, and illogical that it collapses sort of all at once.

That none of us expected. I think the only person who did was Pat Moynihan. I remember him writing and arguing in the 80s, because he took a softer line on the Soviets, and I thought, you know, “Here’s our hero from 70s.” But he would argue that these guys are going to collapse, the CIA is overestimating their power, we just have to manage this, and he was right.

KRISTOL: Yeah, though authoritarian regimes can hang on a long time without the élan, if not pushed and challenged, I think there the Reagan defense build-up, the army of the freedom fighters around the world was so important.

KRAUTHAMMER: They were overstretched. Reagan understood it. He challenged them at the periphery, he challenged them on the arms race, he challenged them with that strategic defense initiative. He challenged them ideologically, and you put all those together, and they realized the gig is up.

KRISTOL: Now, to stay on Reagan for a minute, you met him though a few times, I think.

KRAUTHAMMER: I did, I did.

KRISTOL: What was he like? For younger people today he’s like, you know, Franklin Roosevelt, even Teddy Roosevelt for us when you think about it. It’s been quite a while since he was president.

KRAUTHAMMER: It is, it is funny when you meet younger people, he is to me like FDR, the legendary president, he won the Second World War, or Churchill. I was asked to have lunch with him shortly after I wrote “The Reagan Doctrine.” I guess they got curious, who is this young whippersnapper who is able to give us our own doctrine?

KRISTOL: I mean, people should just understand, this was not, Reagan was reelected, he was doing his foreign policy. There were fierce debates about it, but there wasn’t actually, the phrase didn’t exist, I believe, until your piece.

KRAUTHAMMER: It didn’t exist.

KRISTOL: People, I guess, were writing articles about what’s Reagan up to?

KRAUTHAMMER: No, no, but it was more than just the phrase.


KRAUTHAMMER: The idea, this idea that historically guerilla movements are anti-Western –

KRISTOL: That was the key.

KRAUTHAMMER: That was the key. I just sort of, I noticed kind of a pattern, and I was thinking about why this might be, and so I thought, “This is what we’re doing,” and then I thought, “Well, whether or not,” – I have to admit this, so I’ll do it here.

I didn’t – I wrote “The Reagan Doctrine” trying to push them into pursuing the Reagan Doctrine.


KRAUTHAMMER: I wrote it as, well, this is already existing, and I think it did. But I don’t know that they were conscious of it, or they had this plan, or anybody had said, “Hey, there’s a change in human events here. The story of revolution is now a flip story. So let’s pursue this.” Reagan was doing what instinctively would make sense. The Soviets are in Nicaragua, they’re supporting him, there’s a guerilla movement we’re going to support it.

Of course, Afghanistan started with Carter, there was Angola, there were other places, but so I wrote this with the intent of creating it, and Reagan never used the phrase, George Shultz did, and Kagan was his top aide, Robbie Kagan.


KRAUTHAMMER: Was his top aide and speechwriter – he was even younger than the rest of us.


KRAUTHAMMER: He would call me and say, “This is an interesting idea.” Shultz went around using the phrase because Shultz was a believer in the policy, and the idea of calling something a doctrine is that it sort of appeals to the people in charge, it flatters them –

KRISTOL: Coherence, grand.

KRAUTHAMMER: Yeah, a coherent strategy. So I would think it would kind of trap them into wanting to continue it. So, in a sense it was advocacy as well as identification.

KRISTOL: That’s good.

KRAUTHAMMER: But the interesting thing is I had done this once before. I had created a concept in 1978 when I was a psychiatrist, I was doing the research on manic depressive disease, how often it happens, who it happens to, sort of the epidemiology, but in my research, I came across these odd cases where people would become manic, the high part of manic depressive disease without any psychological cause, but with certain diseases, and nobody had ever written about this.

So I began to think maybe there’s a form of manic depressive disease, just the upside, and caused by illness or drugs. So I collected all the cases I did, I gave it a name, I created the criteria of when you have it, and when you don’t. I published it in the Archives of General Psychiatry, and it lives to this day, every year people report 15 or so cases of this thing. But it’s the power of naming, it’s like the Bible talking about you name the animals, you control.

So I created, I identified a syndrome, but in fact, I created it so people began to look for it. So, I always had this idea that when you name something, and you create it, and you give it a coherence, a sort of phenomena, well, then you’ve actually, you sort of created the pressure to finding more cases, and to perpetuating it. So this was my second creation. A little bit different field.

KRISTOL: So you had written that piece, and the White House, Secretary Shultz was interested and actually spoke about it, but the White House was presumably –

KRAUTHAMMER: They never used the phrase.

KRISTOL: – pleased, but they invited you over to see the President or – ?

KRAUTHAMMER: They came. They invited me to lunch with Meg Greenfield, who was the Editorial Page Editor of the Washington Post and David Brinkley – and I still have a picture of it – with a couple of his aides. We ate in the lunchroom right next to the Oval Office. I’m sure you’ve eaten there often.

KRISTOL: Not often, but a couple of times.

KRAUTHAMMER: So you know the room. And I remember, because I had never been up close with him – so this is sort of 1985 – and I decide this is a place where I want to probe him on Nicaragua, see where he’s going. He deflects all of my questions, and finally I ask him once more, and he gives me a very long tale about staying in the guest house of the Marcos, and in the middle of the night seeing there’s a gigantic spider on the ceiling, and spending the rest of the night trying to figure out how to protect Nancy from him without waking her and scaring her.

This took maybe 15 minutes. He told it very well. I mean, he was great. But at the end of that I realized he’s not going to tell me anything about anything. And but the interesting thing is I took Meg, I drove her back to the Washington Post, and I said, the first thing I said to her in the car is, “I don’t get it. This is the most successful president of my lifetime, but he presents himself as a very simple man who is sort out of it. What’s going on?”

It took me years to realize that that’s how he preferred to present himself. And it was really a function of his strength. He had no need to show himself to be smart. He knew he had no need to tell me anything about, he didn’t care or know who I was. A writer for the Post and for Time magazine, and he just wanted to tell stories, deflect me, and charm me.

And it was part of his persona that he was so self possessed, so sort of sure of who he was that he never had to show himself to be the smartest guy in the room, which is sort of an affliction of presidents and contenders, and senators, and a lot of journalists too, as I know very well myself. And that was his great strength. You know there was a Saturday Night Live skit once that showed him playing really dumb in the Oval Office, remember? And then as soon as the press leaves, he gives 18 orders in a row, boom, boom, boom, boom to his staff. I mean, like an Eisenhower-sharp general.

Then the press returns and he plays the bumbling old man. And that’s what I realized was his great strength. He didn’t have to show anybody anything. And he played dumb. There was one experience in my life that reminded me of that. I occasionally would hang out with my dad, who was a real estate developer in Montreal. I’d go after school, and I’d hang out in his office.

I was once in his office, and he’s negotiating with two guys over a land deal somewhere, and I’m thinking to myself, “You can’t let them talk to you that way, or you know, where is the rebuttal?” I mean, he goes through the whole thing. And so when it’s over I said, “Dad, I mean, why didn’t you just respond in this way?” And he said, “No, I prefer that they think that I’m rather simple. It gives me a huge advantage.” And in fact, the deal we worked out was extremely favorable.

He was so self-possessed, that’s why I couldn’t be a businessman. I said to him, just sort of personal pride I would have jumped all over these morons. He said, “Yeah, that’s why you’re not going to be a businessman.” And that was genius, Reagan’s genius also. So what impressed me is that there was no need to impress. And I never saw, I saw him at a couple of other dinners, spent some time with him, he was always the same.

KRISTOL: Yeah, it really is amazing. That’s a good point about businessmen, too, because it is the problem with our walks of life, which is you do well by impressing.


KRISTOL: But you forget in every other – where there’s a bottom line, whether it’s financial, or in Reagan’s case winning an election, or succeeding in your policies that’s a very different bottom line, and sometimes it’s not wise to be the smartest guy in the room, or the cleverest formulation, or the –

KRAUTHAMMER: And it’s wise to be underestimated, that was part of Reagan’s great political talent.

KRISTOL: Since you mentioned underestimated, I’ll ask you about George W. Bush, the other President, I suppose, you maybe spent some time, I think he was fan of yours, and had you over occasionally, what was your sense of him?

KRAUTHAMMER: My sense of him was that he had tremendous inner strength, and he had some ideas that he wanted to pursue. And he was, I don’t know about how he personally reacted to the criticism, but he had tremendous courage to carry himself through. He was open, he would listen, I would be in meetings, I mean, you were in some of them, he’d take journalists in.

And he didn’t often bristle, even though he got asked some pretty tough questions sometimes, but what impressed me was not what came out of the personal meetings, it’s very hard to get anything at that level if you’re a journalist.


KRAUTHAMMER: Because there’s a line to be crossed, I’m not an advisor. But, you know, this big, the thing that history will remember him best for is ordering the surge, and persevering in the surge, which was the increase in American troops, a new strategy in a failing Iraq War, at a time when everybody in the establishment, in Washington, in his party was telling him this is a disaster, you can’t do it. The Democrats pretended it wasn’t working even after it had worked.

We subsequently learned that Hillary Clinton had admitted that she had, when she said it wasn’t working she knew it was. Obama implied that perhaps he was saying it, too. But the way he stuck with the decision at the low point of his Presidency, because he believed it was right, and that I think was his strength. He had this sort of moral compass.

Now, he made mistakes, and I think part of it was his commitment to this idea of democratization, which Iraq was not a very fertile soil. But he did leave in the end having mostly achieved his objectives. So in that sense I admire him, and I admire what we he did at the end especially.

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