By Jamie Glazov
January 8, 2007
Frontpage Interview's guest today is John O'Sullivan, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former editor-in-chief of National Review, Policy Review, and the National Interest. He was a special advisor to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at Downing Street from 1986 to1988 and he has held senior editorial positions at the London Times, the London Daily Telegraph, the National Post of Canada, the New York Post, and Irish Television and Radio. He has just published The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister.
FP: John O'Sullivan, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
O'Sullivan: Thanks for inviting me. I read you, so naturally I'm glad to get before the camera.
FP: What inspired you to write this book?
O'Sullivan: I have to admit that the suggestion for the book came from Tom Phillips of Eagle Publishing. Like everyone else, I thought it was a brilliant idea--one of those ideas that strike you as self-evidently necessary as soon as someone else has thought of it. Regnery approached me and I was delighted to accept. I had the advantage over other potential authors that I had worked closely with Lady Thatcher on her memoirs. So I had already done some of the research. But I knew that between the idea and the finished product there would be pitfalls. And, of course, there were.
FP: Expand for us a bit on the three great figures and how each of them changed the course of history.
O'Sullivan: One of the arguments in my book--it's on page one, in fact--is that all three of my subjects were strong, sharp and clearly defined personalities. They were clearly defined both as personalities and as representatives, embodiments even, of the faiths and philosophies they espoused. That led them to be attacked as too extreme. Too Conservative in Mrs. Thatcher's case--well, that's self-explanatory. Too Catholic in the Pope's case--yes, I know it sounds like a joke but this objection to him was a serious one.
A Polish Pope was seen by most churchmen as too rigid, too orthodox and too anti-Communist at a time when the Church was developing its own appeasing Ostpolitik towards the Soviets. And too American in the case of Reagan--which meant that he was fundamentally an optimist about both America and the West and so either ignorant or in denial about such "realities" as limits to growth.
Sharply defined figures are controversial. They very rarely come to power in times of tranquility. Only a grave crisis persuades people to turn to them. Consider how Churchill was outmaneuvered repeatedly by the emollient Stanley Baldwin in the inter-war years. Well, it took the grave crises of the late 1970s--and the mood of despair and "malaise" that they engendered--to persuade people to turn to Reagan, Thatcher and the Pope.
FP: You knew all three of these giants of the twentieth century. Can you tell us a few details of your relationships with them and perhaps share a personal story?
O'Sullivan: I knew and know Lady Thatcher well. I worked closely with her in Downing Street for two years. We got on well then and have become friends since she left office. I met Reagan on five or six occasions--three of them the occasions of substantial conversation. And I have been fortunate in having close friends who worked at high levels in his administration. I was at an audience given by the Pope, but I could not say that I knew him. I tried to make up for that by talking to people who knew him well.
As for personal stories, there's a very funny story in the book about Mrs. Thatcher, a pair of fur-lined boots, and Andropov's funeral. I'll leave it to your readers to look it up. But the really interesting thing about Lady Thatcher is that despite being a towering world-historical figure, she also has the domestic housewifely virtues. When speechwriters were working late with her on a party political speech, the Whitehall rules meant that she was not able to call on the Downing Street staff for drinks, dinner, etc. So she would rustle up a meal herself for us--generally bacon and eggs or shepherd's pie. In general she was an excellent boss--kind and thoughtful in her attitude to those working with her. But she expected senior officials and ministers to know their subjects and she could be very tough, sometimes without realizing it, in her cross-examination of them. On one occasion as the body of a nervous senior advisor was being helped out of the room, she turned to an aide and said: "Why do people take everything I say so seriously?"
One of the occasions when I spent time with Reagan contradicted all we had heard about his not being a details man. At a 1978 Daily Telegraph breakfast in London, Reagan was asked the first question by Bill Deedes, the legendary Fleet Street editor, about--of all subjects--garbage disposal in California. Reagan's eyes lit up as he demonstrated encyclopedic knowledge of garbage disposal and how his administration had reformed the system in California. He went on and on and on. Unfortunately, the eyes of everyone else closed down. It was quite a relief to turn to the topic of nuclear missiles. Another memory of that breakfast is that all the Brit journalists there liked Reagan, but almost no-one thought he would become president.
FP: What lessons did these three great leaders teach us that could serve as guides for us in facing our new pernicious enemy in the terror war?
O'Sullivan: This is a far harder question than you perhaps realize. Of course, in a general sense I can say that they would display courage and realism as they did in the battle with communism. But once you go beyond that level of generality, you risk fathering your own opinions on them. But let me try to answer it as honestly as I can.
They would realize that in the jihadists we are dealing yet again with what Burke called an "armed doctrine." We have to resist and defeat their armed attacks on us by police, intelligence and military methods and also to win the religious and philosophical battles in the mosque and the lecture hall.
Let me deal first with the "armed" half of the armed doctrine as it has emerged in practice. Well, we know that the late Pope was opposed to the invasion of Iraq and that Lady Thatcher has given support to President Bush and Prime Minister Blair over it. Neither position should surprise us. John Paul II always believed that force should be the absolutely last resort even in response to manifest injustice. One of his contributions to political ideas was the concept of "cultural resistance," or ignoring the communist authorities rather than confronting them, which inspired Solidarity and other non-violent revolutions in Eastern Europe. After all, communism was brought down not by war but by ideas, military and economic competition, and a willingness to resist.
Lady Thatcher saw the Afghanistan invasion as very similar to her own waging of the Falklands War--namely, as a legitimate and perhaps necessary response to unprovoked aggression. Her support for the Iraq invasion is on slightly different grounds. It reflects her view that former prime ministers should not second guess national leaders on war and peace when British troops are in the field. Her other thoughts, I suspect, would be very similar to the considerations that I suggest below would influence Reagan.
Reagan, then. I believe he would have seen an invasion of Afghanistan as a necessary response to an attack on America organized by a terrorist group given sanctuary by the Taliban. Just like Thatcher's attitude to the Falklands. He would also have liked the way the war was fought--by a combination of U.S. special forces and local allies--in line with the "Reagan doctrine."
His likely view on Iraq is less clear. Remember that Reagan was cautious and economical in his use of American military force. Many conservatives complained about this at the time. He also saw Iran as both a potential threat to the Middle East and as a potential ally. My guess is that he would have sought every diplomatic avenue to obtain the virtual surrender of Saddam Hussein or at least his neutering as a threat to the Middle East. That diplomacy might have been highly unconventional, involving both Turkey and Iran. If diplomacy failed, Reagan would then have had to face the possibility of the same invasion as George W. Bush. My final guess is that he would have approved the invasion, but only when he had satisfied himself that our forces were sufficient and that we had a clear game plan for what to do after victory. Remember that he doubled the forces in the Grenada invasion because he attributed the failure of Carter's attempt to rescue the Tehran hostages to the fact that there weren't enough helicopters on the spot.
But this is guesswork. Reagan was a surprising politician and he might have surprised us on Iraq. Thatcher too if she was still in charge. She was, for instance, in favor of continuing the First Gulf War to overthrow Saddam Hussein then when it would have been far easier.
FP: Ok, how about the doctrinal side of things?
O’Sullivan: Reagan, Thatcher and the Pope all believed that communism had to be ideologically countered—the "evil empire," "Be not afraid," etc.--and they proved to be right. Their ideological assaults undermined the morale of the communists and encouraged their subject peoples. Doing the same thing in relation to the radical Islamists--exposing their fallacies, separating them from the ordinary moderate Muslims, undermining their own conviction—will be far more difficult because we know less about the ideas in question. But the present Pope has begun this subtle task in his Regensburg speech. There he appealed to Muslims to re-examine their theology and to ask themselves whether a good God would wish His truth to be advanced by violence. He has received a civil and thoughtful response from some moderate Muslims.
But we're at the start of a long road here--and it is not a job for presidents and prime ministers as Tony Blair's recent excursion into Koranic studies shows all too embarrassingly.
FP: Tell us what is embarrassing about Tony Blair's recent excursion into Koranic studies. What is the prime significance here?
O'Sullivan: Prime Ministers and Presidents should probably not get involved in strictly religious arguments unless absolutely necessary. They speak with no authority on such matters. They have to avoid saying anything controversial so as not to offend millions of people. So they spout benevolent-sounding platitudes that offend people anyway because religion is about truth rather than about sentimental benevolence. Mr. Bush's constant refrain that "Islam is a religion of peace" is a good example. It offends many Muslims who know that Islam is more than that and it worries non-Muslims because it seems to gloss over the violence that some Muslims justify on religious grounds.
Sometimes, of course, politicians have to say things with a bearing on religion. Very likely Mr. Bush had to warn prudently against any temptation to violence against Muslims in the aftermath of September 11th. But he should have coupled that warning with a demand that Muslim American leaders issue unqualified condemnations of terrorist violence and make clear their political loyalty to America. Such a demand would have soothed the nervousness of most Americans and given Muslim Americans an incentive to reflect on the distinction between political allegiance and religious commitment--and maybe by those reflections influenced Muslim thought world-wide. When a political leader calls for respect for law and national custom, he is doing his job; when he delves into theology to make his case, he is trespassing dangerously.
Mr. Blair's recent Foreign Affairs article is a case in point. It contains much serious and brave analysis of the radical Islamist threat. But it has two major flaws. First, it has a feel-good section on the history of Islam and the intellectual power of the Koran that sounds like pandering to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. I very much doubt, for instance, that Tony Blair has spent much time reading the Koran. And his stress on the "progressive" nature of Islam will persuade no one, especially the great majority of Muslims who think of their religion as eternally true.
More seriously, his call for "values change"--in effect, the mass conversion of cultures to commonly agreed "global values"--asks too much. "Global values" can only be agreed at a very low level of generality. Different civilizations have very different views on key topics. Attempts by Western liberals like Blair to exploit international bodies to impose their own values on such topics as capital punishment will fail and should fail.
Earlier liberals (and in this context we are all liberals) were more realistic. They adopted the principle of "Live and let live" between different nations and cultures except in such extreme cases as slavery and suttee where the offense to their values was too great to tolerate. And that's another point: they adhered to a harsher version of "tolerance" than that espoused by Blair. He thinks of it as a form of approval; they recognized that tolerance was a stance of disapproval: "I dislike what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it." This is important because the Blair government has made it plain that "global values" would limit criticism of religion or at least of Islam.
I'm not sure what all this has to do with Thatcher, Reagan and John Paul.
FP: Well, maybe one more question that might not have much to do with Thatcher, Reagan and John Paul. And I couldn’t forgive myself for interviewing such a wise mind and not asking it:
What are your thoughts on the Iraq Study Group's recommendations and the execution of Saddam? Where are we headed in Iraq? If President Bush called you and asked you for your advice on what to do, what would you tell him?
O'Sullivan: I am in general critical of the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations on the grounds that they are unrealistic. They give us no reason to think that Syria and Iran would cooperate to produce in Iraq the greater stability the U.S. wants even though such talks are the main novelty in their proposals. I am also critical of the Bush administration, however, because it has micro-managed the Iraq intervention without first agreeing on a common policy supported by all government agencies. I don't think I will accept your invitation to micro-manage Iraq myself, therefore.
Also, I have never been a soldier, which makes me reluctant to lay out detailed military solutions. And I like the old British Army maxim that when you have a man on the spot, you either back him or sack him. We have done neither, though that may be about to change with the appointment of new generals and admirals, such as Lt. General Petraeus, to senior positions in the management of the war. My overall view is that we cannot leave chaos in the country. It would be morally irresponsible, lead to large casualties, and create the anarchic circumstances for terrorism to flourish. If we are to stay for any length of time, however, we need to appoint a general with clear instructions to establish the law and order necessary for any political stability, let alone democracy, to take root.
All this means, I suppose, that you should put me down as a "surge" man. Oddly enough, I support it inter alia for the same reason as the British anti-war critic, Matthew Parris, in the Times. He thinks any surge of additional troops will fail and that it will therefore discredit completely what he sees as the neo-conservative heresy. Its outright failure after a final military injection would deprive the neocons of any excuse. I hope it will succeed and I think it can do so.
It would be a terrible revelation of American weakness if the U.S. Army and its allies, 500,000 troops in all, could not defeat a small terrorist resistance and restore law and order in Baghdad.
But Matthew is right on one point: we need to know for sure if we can do this. If we allow ourselves to be defeated on the home front, as in Vietnam, and abandon our Iraqi allies to the kind of murder and oppression that we did in 1975, then the post-Iraqi debate would drag on as long as the post-Vietnam debate has done. And in the words of Bernard Lewis (I quote from memory) America would have shown itself to be harmless as an enemy and untrustworthy as a friend.
But we should not allow Iraq to be the sole test of statesmanship. I laid down three criteria for President Bush in 2001: Would he restrain the regulatory state? Would he obstruct the rise of an anti-American united Europe? Would he shape a new inclusive American patriotism to prevent the sharpening balkanization of multicultural America? These are all of greater long-term importance than Iraq. Alas, Bush has done badly on all three tests. He is obviously a brave and decisive president. He has shown great courage in his Iraq policy. But he does not seem to have the strategic vision that the three central characters in my book all displayed in several ways.
FP: John O'Sullivan, it was an honor to speak with you.
O'Sullivan: An honor to be invited.
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Jamie Glazov is Frontpage Magazine's managing editor. He holds a Ph.D. in History with a specialty in U.S. and Canadian foreign policy. He edited and wrote the introduction to David Horowitz’s Left Illusions. He is also the co-editor (with David Horowitz) of The Hate America Left and the author of Canadian Policy Toward Khrushchev’s Soviet Union (McGill-Queens University Press, 2002) and 15 Tips on How to be a Good Leftist. To see his previous symposiums, interviews and articles Click Here. Email him at email@example.com.