Frontpage Magazine: Today, our guest is Dr. Michael Ledeen, a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of the new book The War Against the Terror Masters. Welcome, Dr. Ledeen. It is a pleasure to have you join us.
First, let's talk about the big news: Saddam's capture. Tell us a bit of how and where you heard about it and your initial reaction. What do you think is the significance of this development?
Ledeen: I was on a plane from New York to Tel Aviv when it happened. When I landed I called home and heard the good news. It's very important--I always disagreed with those who said that our failure to get Saddam didn't really matter--above all because it stands as a concrete warning to the other tyrants in the region, and, at the same time, encourages those who wish to be free. It has seriously frightened the likes of Rafsanjani, Khamenei, Assad and Qadaffi, and it has given an infusion of hope to the freedom fighters.
FP: So can we safely say that Qadaffi's new spirit of "co-operation" with the U.S. on WMDs is, in large part, a direct result of the "Saddam effect"? In other words, he has probably been up at night visualizing himself sleeping in a hole in the ground with rats and mice and decided it's all not worth it?
Ledeen: No, I don't think so, since the talks had been going on for many months before Saddam was captured, and indeed I think that Qadaffi has been looking for a way out for many years. Berlusconi reported several months ago that Qadaffi was frightened, very frightened, and the event that intensified his fear was the invasion of Iraq. The first event that focused his mind was obviously when President Reagan bombed Tripoli in 1986.
FP: You have really distinguished yourself in your forceful arguments for "regime change" in Iran and other Mideast rogue states. Tell us a bit about your philosophy in this area. What, for instance, would you advise the U.S. to do right now vis-à-vis Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia?
Ledeen: In almost all my books I have argued that the global mission of the United States is to support freedom and fight tyrants. I think this mission is inescapable, because even when--alas, all too frequently--we shrink from it, the tyrants come after us and force us to do the right thing.
We didn't want to engage in any of the world wars of the last century, but we were dragged in by our tyrannical enemies. Ergo, we should support democratic revolution throughout the Middle East, above all in the countries that support the terror network.
FP: Yes, we must support democratic revolution throughout the Middle East. But in the cases of places like Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran, where the terror network is clearly being fertilized, is there some legitimacy in going in there militarily if "regime change" is taking too long?
Ledeen: There is no general answer to this question, or if there is, I don't know it. You would have to look at each case. On Iran, I suppose the question is whether the West should wait if we believe the mullahs are about to get an atomic bomb.
FP: I would like to ask you a few personal questions about your life if you don't mind. Looking back at your youth, what molded you to become a Conservative?
Ledeen: I lived in Italy for many years, at a time when the Communist Party seemed on the verge of taking power. Watching the Communists up close put an end to any illusions about the Left.
FP: Illusions about the Left? Do you mean that, at one time, as a young man, you had some socialist impulses or interests? Could you talk a bit about these? And how they ultimately came crashing down?
Ledeen: Well, I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in the early sixties, when Wisconsin was the epicenter of the Left. "Studies on the Left" was published in Madison, the great guru of a large part of the New Left, William Appleman Williams, taught there (and we played tennis together a good deal), and the Port Huron Statement that founded SDS was done by Wisconsin students. Many of them were my friends, and I was at the time working on a Master's thesis on Bakunin.
So I was intellectually working through many of those issues. I was opposed to the Vietnam War, indeed I signed a petition against it in 1962, but my opposition wasn't ideological. I agreed with Walter Lippmann that it was a mistake to engage in a land war in Asia. I never cared for the Viet Cong, and was never tempted by communism. My parents were left-wing Republicans. They lived in New Jersey and voted for people like Clifford Case. I think they voted for Eisenhower at a time when I was enamored of Adlai Stevenson, but they didn't like Nixon ever (I was born in Los Angeles and we knew a lot about Nixon that we didn't like) and voted for Kennedy in 1960.
So my own political convictions were, and are, fairly boring. My basic views have remained pretty constant for a long time: I dread mass movements, I hate tyranny, I think small government is preferable to big government even though I believe there are some things government must do, and I believe America must fight for freedom, constantly.
Does that make me a conservative? I dunno. Was Jefferson a conservative? Can one be a conservative and advocate democratic revolution at the same time?
FP: You have been a major player in the shaping of certain American foreign policies, and you were involved in some of the most well-known missions of U.S. diplomacy in the late 20th century. Could you tell us about a few "missions" in which you were involved and that, in retrospect, you are proud of having been a part of?
Ledeen: I was Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for a bit more than a year, when Alexander Haig was Secretary, and my job was really "ambassador at small" (General Walters was ambassador at large, in all respects).
We were having trouble with some of the key players in the Socialist International, especially Willi Brandt, and Haig, in his usual concise way, ordered me to "do something." So I started meeting with Socialist leaders, mostly in Western Europe, to try to find areas of agreement with at least a handful of them, on those questions that were annoying us in Washington.
I was able to develop really good working relations with the likes of Mario Soares, Felipe Gonzales and Bettino Craxi, along with some Israelis and French, and that led to a real change in policy by the West European Bureau of the Socialist International (SI).
The happiest moment came when Brandt denounced me by name, and accused me of having sabotaged SI policy on Central America.
Most of the other happy moments had to do with counter-terrorism, when we were able to work well with many of the same people. The Achille Lauro operation, for example, that led to the capture of some of the murderers of Leon Klinghoffer, would not have been possible without Craxi, with whom I spent most of the night on the telephone working out the arrangements.
At a certain point I had to translate Reagan into Italian during a conversation he had with Craxi, and on two occasions I felt that Reagan would have preferred a slightly different answer, so I did some "creative translation."
The next morning he wrote me a little note to thank me...proving once again that character is the most important quality in a great leader. We would never have been able to issue the arrest warrants without the help of the Israelis, who declassified enormous quantities of sensitive intelligence so that we could take it to a judge in Washington.
All of this convinced me that personal friendship is much more important in international affairs than the intellectuals would have us believe--certainly much more than I believed before getting involved in government--and ever since I have argued strenuously for rewarding real experts in the bureaucracy.
We badly need people who devote decades to a single region, and who grow up with a new generation of leaders, so that we will have these friendships when we need them. I despair at the current practice, which is to move people around from subject to subject and region to region. On Iran, for example, we lack real expertise, and have lacked it for at least twenty-five years. I think we absolutely must have real China experts, young ones, who will get to know young Chinese leaders. And so forth.
FP: Tell us an individual (or some individuals) who played an instrumental role in shaping your intellectual journey/political career. Did you have a mentor of some sort that, in retrospect, you are very grateful to?
Ledeen: I've had several mentors, of whom three were very important for me. The first is Richard D. Heffner, a professor at the New School (where I spent the first semester of my junior year), the editor of the best abridged edition of Tocqueville's "Democracy in America," and the general manager of the first public television station in New York City. I worked for him there the summer after my junior year, and learned a lot about media (he had been one of Edward R. Murrow's fair-haired boys). I wanted to go into public tv, but he insisted I go to graduate school, at least through the Master's. That was a blessing, because he was fired, and I would have been fired along with him.
The second was George L. Mosse, the great historian. He was my major professor at Wisconsin and took me as his research assistant. I worked with him on two fundamental books about National Socialism, and he encouraged me to go to Italy to work on fascism. George was one of the most brilliant, and most tolerant people I have ever known.
The third was Renzo De Felice, the great biographer of Mussolini. Renzo really took me under his wing when I started working in the Fascist archives in Rome, and in those years it was very hard to get the archivists to turn over the most important material unless you had a track record with them. Renzo walked me through the process. A few years later he chose me to be the interviewer for a book called "Interview on Fascism," which was the first serious critique of the Marxist theory of fascism published in post-war Italy. It kicked off a firestorm of condemnation, but in retrospect turned out to have been fundamental in making it possible to treat fascism as an historical phenomenon rather than an ongoing evil.
FP: In looking back at your years in foreign diplomacy, who are some figures that earned your trust and admiration? What American officials do you think did a priceless job in defending and promoting American interests?
Ledeen: The best was Scoop Jackson, and some of his proteges too: Richard Perle and Jim Roche for example. And of course Reagan. Jeane Kirkpatrick did a lot of terrific things.
That said, I don't have many heroes. It's hard to conduct foreign policy in a democracy, and we all come up short most of the time. After living in Italy for a long time, I learned that God placed man on earth so that man would screw up. And so we do.
FP: Could you name an author, or a few authors, who left an indelible mark on your intellectual development?
Ledeen: Lots and lots of them: Walter Lippmann, my childhood hero and still my model for expository writing. Freud and Jung. Elias Canetti and Friedrich Durenmatt. Ray Bradbury, Alfred Bester, J.R. Tolkein and Jonas Huizinga.
FP: What are your own personal future plans? What do you still hope to accomplish?
Ledeen: I'm trying to finish a book on Naples. I would like to play more tournament bridge, and Barbara is very keen to go to Burma.
FP: Let's return to politics now. When we examine the Left's behavior during the Iraq War and in the post 9/11 era in general, we certainly see a frightening pathology at work. What, in your view, is at the root of this horror movie? What do you think explains, for instance, a radical feminist screaming anti-Bush slogans at a rally and siding with enemies who extinguish every feminist right that could possibly exist in their own societies?
Ledeen: It's an Hegelian process. Hegel pointed out that the world changes all the time, and that ideas therefore "age." The Left's ideas no longer explain the world (as they once did) and so they are constantly frustrated and often enraged at their inability to deal with the real problems. They have therefore resorted to character defamation and "the politics of personal destruction" to maintain a grip on the bits and pieces of power they still control.
Finally, the Left has not recovered from the defeat of the Soviet Empire (in which so many of their passions were invested), and they will never forgive those of us who had a role in it.
FP: Tell us how you view, in general, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and what you would advise the Israelis and the U.S. to do.
Ledeen: I don't follow it, as you know. I doubt I have anything much to add to this overpopulated field of pundits.
In general, I don't think it is possible for anyone to do anything meaningful about it until we have defeated the terror masters in Tehran, Damascus and Riyadh, because the terrorism against Israel gets a lot of support from those
In other words, you can't solve it in situ, it's part of a regional war.
Maybe, once we have liberated the Middle East and the peoples have a chance to make their own decisions, it will be easier.
But maybe not. Fascism was enormously popular in Western Europe, after all.
FP: If you were asked to describe Yasser Arafat in one sentence, what would you say?
Ledeen: Really, really ugly.
FP: In terms of our post-9/11 war, let me ask you this: (1) what if Gore had become president instead of Bush (2) What if a Democrat, someone like Howard Dean, beats Bush in 2004 and becomes President?
Ledeen: I'm an historian, and I don't do "what ifs."
Look at Dubya: nobody in his right mind could have predicted the amazing transformation of this man, seemingly overnight, from an ambitious and interesting person to a determined and effective leader. I voted for him
without any great enthusiasm, primarily because I feared that Gore would give the Left a stranglehold on the judiciary, from the Supreme Court down. But Dubya's turned out to be a very impressive man in foreign policy, and he was arguably very poorly prepared for that task.
Try explaining that!
It's hard enough to figure out what has actually happened, without consuming our little grey cells on what might have happened.
The same applies to Dean, although it does seem pretty certain that Dean would be even slower than our current administration to prosecute the war against terrorism. And the courts would be in the hands of the Left for a generation--unless somehow the Republicans retained enough of the Senate and developed sufficient will to filibuster, a tough parlay--which truly terrifies me.
FP: Let us suppose that tomorrow you are brought into Bush's inner circle regarding Iraq and the War on Terror. The President asks you what concrete steps he should take next. What do you say?
Ledeen: Support the democratic revolutionaries in Iran and the Iranian-American broadcasters in California. Now, not tomorrow. That is the key to the entire war, in my opinion. There will never be peace in Iraq so long as the mullahs are in power in Tehran, and their favorite Assad reigns in Damascus.
Then tell the Saudis that they have to shut down the global network of radical schools and mosques, or we will make great trouble for them in the Shi'ite regions of the Kingdom (which happen to be the major oil producing regions as
FP: Thank you Dr. Ledeen for joining Frontpage Interview. We are most grateful for you sharing your wisdom and fascinating life experience with us.
You stated earlier that the Left has never forgiven individuals such as yourself for having played a role in the destruction of the Soviet Empire. I would like to take this opportunity to personally thank you for the role you played in that wonderful and joyous historic development. As a son of Soviet dissidents, I don't need to expand on why I have so much admiration and respect for you. Thank you.
I hope you will come back and visit us again soon. Take care for now.
Ledeen: One of the many great things about being an American is the singular pleasure of watching people--especially young people--from tyrannical countries become invaluable contributors to the United States. So it's my pleasure, Jamie.
I welcome all of our readers to get in touch with me if they have a good idea/contact for a guest for Frontpage Interview. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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