Garry Kasparov II Transcript

Table of Contents

I: America, Post-Cold War 0:15 – 25:20
II: Russia, Post-Cold War 25:20 – 39:05
III: Vladimir Putin’s Russia 39:05 – 1:10:28
IV: Thoughts on America 1:10:28 – 1:20:08

I: America, Post-Cold War (0:15 – 25:20)

KRISTOL: Welcome back to CONVERSATIONS, I’m Bill Kristol, and I’m thrilled to be joined today by Garry Kasparov – Kasparov, sorry, my Russian is not very good – great chess champion, democratic activist, and thoughtful and perceptive analyst, also, of Russian politics and American politics and world politics.

So last time we ended with – that was a happy ending – but the world doesn’t always, doesn’t stop with happy endings. History did not end.

KASPAROV: Always goes in seasons. That’s why I called my last book Winter Is Coming to warn people we are entering another dangerous period.

KRISTOL: It’s a wonderful book, and I want to get to that, and I want to talk about what’s happened in the last 25 years.

One of the most striking things – you mention this in your book, and you’ve written this elsewhere also – talking about Vladimir Putin, and you say, well, people say – it’s often said he plays chess, he’s very clever, and we in the West are just playing checkers. You say that’s bad analogy, that’s not the right way to think about Putin.

KASPAROV: It is really bad, and I was almost annoyed hearing that Putin plays chess.

KRISTOL: This is not just because you play chess, right?

KASPAROV: And Obama or other leaders of the free world they play checkers. I thought I had to defend the integrity of my game because chess is not a game for dictators for numerous reasons. One, it’s transparent. It’s all information hundred percent available so you know exactly what you have, you know exactly what your opponent has. You don’t know what he or she is thinking, but you definitely know what kind of resources your opponent can use to hurt you, to damage your position.

Also, chess is very much a strategic game so you have to think long-term. Dictators don’t think long-term. Dictators, especially who are in power for so long as Putin is, they have to work on the survival mode. Because it’s all about today, maybe tomorrow morning. Everything that helps us survive is good. Because the moment the dictator thinks long-term, he’ll definitely miss guys from his own entourage hitting him in his own back.

The game that defines dictators much better is poker because it’s about bluffs. It doesn’t matter whether you have a strong hand or weak hand. You can have a weak hand, but if you’re comfortable bluffing, raising stakes, and if you can read your opponent.

And let’s not forget Putin is not a military dictator. He’s not the military general, he’s a KGB guy. And we have to give him credit, he’s quite a shrewd KGB guy who can read his opponent. He proved it many times dealing with Bush 43, with other foreign leaders, that he could actually find a way of building communication and getting what he wanted.

And playing poker means that you have to read your opponent, and today, Putin knows that no matter what kind of hand he has, the opposition – whether it’s Obama or European leaders – they’ll fold the cards. Syria was a classical example – this moment of Obama’s infamous “redline,” what Putin had? A pair of 5. But he acted as if he had a royal flush. And Obama, he went with a full house and just folded the cards.

So it’s very important to understand that this is the dictators always operate short-term, and democracies must operate long-term because it’s not about one individual who’s currently running the country, whether it’s president or prime minister. It’s about the success of the country. It’s about the success of the system. It’s about pressing, you know, all advantages and their strategic, lasting institutions that could make the difference even when the president or prime minister is no longer in the office.

KRISTOL: Let’s just go right to that since that’s so interesting. What about the problem for the United States that we are more set up to play checkers or chess maybe, but not poker? Do you think it’s a problem for Western democracies in combating someone like Putin? He has this intrinsic advantage?

KASPAROV: Putin hasn’t come out of the blue, you know? It’s not just Putin. That’s why again in my book Winter is Coming, I emphasize why Vladimir Putin and enemies of the free world must be stopped. Because Putin, you may call him bosses of bosses, Capo dei Capi, he’s like a spider in the center of this web. Because Putin helps other bad guys, other thugs, dictators, and terrorists to sort of feel free to attack the free world.

Because they all know that unless they attack the free world, unless they attack the United States as the leader of the free world, they will have no credibility with their own people because neither Putin nor Iranian mullahs, nor Al Qaeda, Islamic State or other dictators around the globe, they have nothing to offer but confrontation. They have to present themselves of the protectors of their own people against the world evil. And of course, they have to attack the free world that produces everything that, by the way, they use quite effectively against us. They cannot compete in innovations, they cannot compete in ideas, in productivity. But they can compete in something quite different because for us, each human life is unique.

For them, killing a thousand people, hundreds of thousands of people, a million is a demonstration of strengths. So we should realize that they have no allergy for blood. And they will keep pressing their advantage, and it’s not that we have grown – that our enemies have grown stronger. It’s our resolve that has grown weaker.

KRISTOL: And the resolve is consistent with not becoming like Putin, right?

KASPAROV: Since going back to the collapse of the Soviet Union, that was an absolutely unique moment in world history, and the United States was, at that time, was a lone superpower, and it could do literally everything. So that was the moment to start thinking long-term, creating new institutions, the same way as Winston Churchill, Harry Truman conceived and built institutions after Fulton’s speech. Thinking long-term. Because the entire infrastructure that helped America and the free world to win the Cold War was built in late 40s. In ’91, ’92, America had to think long-term again, but we had an administration, the Clinton Administration, that was in party mode.

KRISTOL: Let’s go through those administrations since for Americans that’s so interesting. What went wrong? What could we do that we didn’t do? First President Bush?

KASPAROV: The first President Bush was uncomfortable with big changes because he grew up at the Cold War time, and he was quite scared about consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union and collapse of the Communist system. Probably he didn’t have enough imagination to see America changing the world dramatically. So making dramatic impact. I can hardly imagine him just saying “Evil Empire” in the early 80s because we all remember that Bush, among others, criticized Reagan for being so bold, so aggressive because nobody could have imagined that one day there would be no Soviet Union. So suddenly, Bush was presiding over one of the most grandiose moments in history, and he tried to play it safe.

I think the biggest mistake he made that actually led to many mistakes later on, it was the First Gulf War. It had to take on Saddam. To remove Saddam. That could – but in ’91, ’92 America, I think, was in the position to actually fix these problems. I think ’91, ’92, later on with Clinton in the office, there were two years, like window of opportunity when the United States could come up with new ideas, like rebuilding the United Nations.

KRISTOL: Come back to Saddam for a minute because I very much – I was in that administration, and I won’t say that I saw that much in the future. But I thought to myself, I had the instinct that you could not let the guy wage an aggressive world and kill people and burn the oil fields in Kuwait and then you go back to the status quo ante. He pays no price. He’s ruling the same – I mean, he lost some people, he lost some wealth, but basically he’s still in power with the same nation and the same borders that he had before. That seems to be a terrible signal. I don’t think – I think it had consequences. Don’t you think Milosevic saw that, in Europe, and said, “Well, okay, you can launch an aggressive war, and you don’t get deposed. You don’t end up in jail or dead.”

KASPAROV: Absolutely. America wasn’t ready to actually to exercise withdrawal. It was American leadership that helped the free world to survive against Communist onslaught and eventually to win the Cold War, but American leadership was required to start thinking long-term. 10, 20, 25, 30 years ahead by rebuilding the wall. By actually demonstrating it’s not just the end of history, liberal democracy has won. To show the vision of the future. I think that’s the lack of vision and the fact that the Clinton Administration was very much concerned about domestic affairs and enjoyed life because there were no threats.

People used to think that the Clinton Administration was wonderful, successful. I mean I have totally opposite view because you should not look – let me use a chess metaphor. You should not look at just the final position. When Clinton left the office, America was still a superpower, but remember what happened when he entered the office. What happened from 1992 to the year 2000? In 1992, nobody argues, America was all-powerful and could do many great things. We don’t want to spend too much time arguing about it. I believe that rebuilding the United Nations and coming up with something more like a league of democracies and imposing these values, forcing other countries just to accept that it’s not just lip service, they have just to follow the rules and regulations, and respect human rights.

Now, in 2000, when Clinton – technically 2001 – but Al Qaeda was ready to strike. Putin was already in the office. When you look at the world map, you realize that this eight years, they were just the worst years because so many opportunities were missed. I don’t want to mention the fact that Osama Bin Laden could have been killed a couple of times, at least a couple of times. I think it was a kind of negligence because America was so powerful, and again, maybe it’s human complacency. Maybe you say it’s inevitable because nobody cared because “it’s the economy, stupid,” because nobody was thinking about global consequence.

And, you know many bubbles were created at that time, would have been the housing bubble and some of the financials bubbles. They were building up because people wanted to relax.

KRISTOL: And then George W. Bush, if we could just walk through the US Presidents.

KASPAROV: During my book tour, I’ve been saying this is the year of US foreign policy that was so consistent during the Cold War, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan. Yes, there were differences but it was in a range because all presidents, Republicans and Democrats, they realized they had an existential enemy and they had just to work just to protect the United States and the free world. And they knew that it was their duty. Listening to the debates, for instance – I like very much the Kennedy and Nixon debates, you just understand there were two great Americans disagreeing on means but agreeing on goals.

So what’s happened since ’92, it’s where the administrations that changed quite dramatically, the foreign policy, and it was working more like pendulum, swinging from one side to the other. Clinton did very little, W did too much, Obama has been doing nothing. It sent a message – sent numerous messages across the world. While people knew in the 50s and 60s and 70s and 80s that America was there, America was consistent. Even if you have a change in the Oval Office, one party replaces another, you could rely on the United States. America was behind American allies.

Today? It’s probably, it’s a springtime to be an American enemy because this administration gives up everything to the enemies and betrays allies. And going back to George W. administration, it’s very popular to criticize Bush today, Bush 43. Especially for the Iraq invasion, and I’ve heard many voices, even within the Republican Party, it’s just floating with the popular trend.

First of all, I have to say as somebody who was born and raised in a Communist country, I cannot criticize any action that led to the destruction of dictatorship. I think his people had wrong expectations. When they saw the collapse of Saddam’s dictatorship after American invasion of Iraq and then the collapse of a few other dictatorships during the Arab Spring, they had expectations that next day, it would be a democracy. It’s wrong.

It was very naive because dictators succeeds the staying in power for so many years, not because he’s a nice guy, just helps his people to get out of poverty, but because he’s brutal, he’s cruel. He succeeds in destroying opposition, first political opposition and then freedom of press and remaining horizontal ties in the society. All the NGOs, anything that could represent not just a threat to him, but it’s any sort of the slightest dissent. It’s kind of a political desert. What do you expect in a desert after 10, 20, 30 – in the case of Gaddafi, 42 years of dictatorship?

The end of dictatorship means there’s a chance, and there was a chance in Iraq. Then, we could talk about mistakes made by Bush Administration, but again, we should not forget that while Clinton started his presidency with America being all-powerful, Bush started his presidency with 9/11. Do we want to get out of his presidency as a success or failure? We should look at the 9/11 effect throughout his presidency. America was not attacked during Bush presidency. Yes, American soldiers fought wars outside of the United States, but again, they protected America. It was a war, but I think it’s after the collapse of Berlin Wall and the Cold War, people just lost the sense of borders. It’s a digital world.

They don’t understand that wars can be fought way outside of the borders, and  in this extent, to this – if we look at the terrorist threat to the United States, Bush Administration was a success, though of course again, I think he failed to see the dangers of Vladimir Putin. He also couldn’t rally European allies behind him. It was not most efficient policy, but again, compared to what’s happened after him, I think we should probably give him sort of A-.

KRISTOL: If you step back and just think of the most fundamental question, if you were a radical Islamist, a terrorist, someone who wanted to kill Westerns and have jihad succeed and maybe found a caliphate, you felt you were losing, I do believe, by November 2008. For all the mistakes of the Bush presidency, after the Surge, you were on the retreat, you controlled nothing, really.

There were things we could all criticize about things Bush should have done in his second term and didn’t do, perhaps, and ways in which Rumsfeld didn’t properly understand that you have to have a lot more troops in Iraq and force order and provide security. But I do think that if you compare that to the beginning of the Bush Presidency, we were at last in the right direction and that certainly doesn’t feel to be the case now.

KASPAROV: Absolutely. We live in a world where perception often beats reality. And I think it’s the aura of the Iraq War and also the War in Afghanistan. It’s created an image. Again, a perception, in the minds of millions and millions of Americans and, of course, people outside of the United States, that they just don’t understand that there were benefits of these wars and one of them was that the radical Islamists, they were not defeated, but they were not as capable to attack the free world as they were in year 2000, at the end of Clinton’s second term.

KRISTOL: If you look at Syria, staying out of war turned out to be a very good recipe for radical Islamists to recruit people in Europe and everywhere. Right?

KASPAROV: Since you mentioned Syria and the current crises, I will probably use a chess metaphor. You could make a wrong move. You could even have a wrong plan, but the world thing you can do is, “Oh, I made the mistake six moves ago, so how can I go back? And just to rectify the mistake and maybe just to sort of change the direction.”

This is the best way to lose the game. Because you don’t go back. Even if you made a mistake, you have to stick with what you have now on the board and to move forward just using your resources and just trying to come up with the best plan of what is available. So, even if we disagree about the Iraq invasion in 2003 and the consequent moves made by Bush 43 Administration, the decision of Obama Administration to retreat, especially announcing it, this is the worst you can do. At noon, at that day, that month, we are out.

By sending the signal to the radical Islamists, to the forces that were about just to recover and prepare again for attacks against the free world, that was a recipe for disaster. It created a vacuum. It’s not a surprise that we live in a world today that is a much more dangerous place than in 2008. It helped Vladimir Putin to regain his confidence and because after his attack against the Republic of Georgia in 2008 in August, he was basically rewarded by Obama/Clinton “reset” policy instead of paying a price for taking territory of neighboring country.

And of course, you know, it helped terrorist groups to regroup and, of course, it helped Iran to gain so much power. You know, I can hardly imagine the Shah would dream about total control of Iraq and basically spreading the Shia influence across the nation and becoming the dominant power that it dwarfs out the Arabian Gulf monarchies in the region.

KRISTOL: A country that in 2009 had serious threats to the regime from the Iranian people, I think, in part inspired – everyone makes fun of it now – inspired by the elections, the free elections in Iraq and the sense that “Gee, we can elect our leaders” –

KASPAROV: That’s another chess rule. You press your advantage. If you have a promising position, if you have an initiative, you have to press. You have to try to convert it into some kind of decisive factors that will help you win the game. If you do nothing, if you retreat, so the initiative goes to your opponent and then you’ll be on the defensive. That’s what happens.

KRISTOL: I suppose if it’s poker, not chess, there’s even the psychological effect of retreat and of being, and of showing an unwillingness to fight is even greater. In chess, if it’s a tournament, you lose won game, and it’s a fresh start. Poker is more cumulative, you might say.

KASPAROV: Also, the reason I think poker analogy is much more sophisticated because when I’m talking about equal military powers, equal in strength. Iran, come on? Assad. Even Russian today it’s a pale shadow of what was Soviet Union, especially under Stalin.

Opposing Stalin in 1948, opposing Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis, confronting Evil Empire in the early 80s. It was very different. And hearing Putin is so dangerous, you know, we cannot comfort him because some terrible things could happen. Come on. Let’s look back and understand what kind of challenges other American presidents had to deal with during the Cold War.

It’s more about psychology because when you look at this for instance, Iranian deal. How on Earth can you imagine that Iran would get everything, probably even more, than they could dream in their wildest dreams while, you know, just America kept giving in on every demand? Even before Iran could actually have the demand on the table, I think Kerry was ready to accept it.

KRISTOL: I want to come back, I want you to explain what happened in Russia. That’s obviously something you were so close to, but you should write an article, not to obsess about the poker and chess thing, but I think you should write an article for Foreign Affairs magazine, some prestigious magazine that’s read by the foreign policy establishment, called “It’s Poker, Not Chess”. It could be a famous article. It could be assigned, be like George Kennan, it will be assigned for decades to come.

It’s a very real insight. I do think also your point about the Cold War was more like chess in a way – two big, somewhat even powers, fairly stable chess board, you might say. You could imagine, “They do this in Berlin, and we do this here.”

KASPAROV: Since ’91, it was more of poker because again, it’s America, even today is much more powerful than all the enemies combined. It’s probably the first time after the collapse of the Soviet Union that the forces of freedom, the free world, had overwhelming military and economic advantage. And also politically, it dominated the field because even the worst dictatorships now they’re trying to pretend that they have elections.

Not pressing it’s advantages looks quite odd because it again create this vacuum, and also I think it affects ordinary people in these countries. Whether it’s Iran, Arab countries, Russia, because they used to look at America as a beacon of freedom and the country that stood firm defending the free world. And now it’s quite odd because America is there, but America is not there. The whole stories about current political climate here and elections, they’re for the eroding reputation of the United States, and I think the damage caused by this administration to the prestige of the country, and especially to the prestige of the presidency, this damage could take years to recover and rebuild.

It’s easy to lose your reputation, it’s easy to lose your friends, to lose their confidence, than to regain it.

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