“The wrong people are winning over there,” commentator Pat Buchanan said on Monday when asked his view of the weekend’s terrorist attacks in Israel. “I don’t think you can have a Sharon agreement with Yasser Arafat now.” In this in-depth conversation, the one-time presidential candidate goes on to discuss Arafat’s failings as a leader, President Bush’s dilemma in the Mideast (his mission is “somewhat hopeless”), Clinton’s near success and the controversy surrounding Buchanan’s views of the United States’ role in World War II.
Having spent much of 2001 working on a book — “The Death of the West: How Mass Immigration, Depopulation and a Dying Faith Are Killing Our Culture and Country” — that will hit bookstores in December, Buchanan planned on easing back into TV and newspaper commentary after his January 2002 book tour. Following the Sept. 11 attacks, however, previously ignored matters such as immigration, foreign policy and the role of the U.S. in the world — all signature Buchanan issues — returned to the forefront of American political discourse.
Suddenly there was Buchanan on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News Channel; after penning a couple of Op-Ed pieces for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times, he relaunched his weekly column for Creators Syndicate, months ahead of schedule.
After I got the Reform Party nomination, my doctor called me at the convention and told me that I had to go in for surgery right after my convention speech. So they took out my gall bladder. Then I had to go back a week later. I had an errant gall stone. It took four to five weeks, I was in and out of the hospital. And that was half the campaign. Then I didn’t get the money, the $12 million, until late [because of a legal tussle over the federal matching funds due to Reform Party infighting]. And we spent most of that trying to defend our ballot position. I guess the short answer is I failed. It certainly didn’t work out as we hoped. But having failed, I’m glad we didn’t take down Bush with us.
Though I read somewhere that just as Nader took votes from Gore, there may have been several states you might have cost Bush.
Yeah, I cost Bush four, maybe. (Laughs) But I saved him in the fifth!
Ah, yes, Florida. All those Palm Beach County voters who mistakenly cast their ballots for you. The butterfly ballot.
I’ve got to get one of those, and get it autographed for posterity.
We haven’t heard from you for a while and then, boom, you’re back. Why did you return to your column ahead of schedule?
The book is going to be published in January, so I’ve been working on that, and Creators Syndicate suggested we restart the column around that time. I thought I’d wait until after the book tour, let a decent interval go by between then and the election. But these issues got so hot. And people started asking my opinion, so we thought it best to start right away.
I was just rereading “A Republic, Not an Empire” …
It’s not as controversial as people said! (Laughs)
… and many of the issues you discussed in that book are relevant to today’s debate. You even have a scenario where associates of Osama bin Laden explode a nuclear device in the port of Seattle.
That’s the method they’re going to use. It’s not going to come by ballistic missile. It will be a Ryder truck or a merchant ship when it comes.
In a way, you almost anticipated Sept. 11.
Well, I said that something cataclysmic would happen. You can’t keep going around the world night-sticking one villain after another without expecting something to happen to us. Did I anticipate exactly this? Of course not; no one did. I assumed it would be a major attack of one kind or another. There had been attempted attacks before. The Japanese cult that was going to put a lethal weapon at Disneyworld, or the group that was going to blow up the World Trade Center [in 1993].
But clearly you thought it would be bin Laden and al-Qaida, as you wrote in your book.
I anticipated bin Laden’s group since he was responsible for the events in Africa — [the 1998 embassy bombings] in Kenya and Tanzania. I assumed it would be one of these terrorist groups in countries where the U.S. intervened militarily — from the Arabic and Islamic world. You take a look at all the places the U.S. has been intervening since the end of the Cold War, and it’s all the same places where terrorism is coming out of. Even with Oklahoma City, immediately there was the suspicion that it was Islamic terrorism.
How do you think Bush is doing with the war on terrorism?
Overall, very well. Sure, you could flyspeck it. But I really commend him. He’s handled himself very well. He’s showed patience and perseverance. He’s fought a just war in an honorable fashion. I think Americans have performed magnificently. But I think he’s headed for a crossroads. And either course he takes is going to be very problematic for him.
You’re referring to which countries he goes after once the campaign in Afghanistan has concluded. Whether we engage Iraq, for instance. Where do you see Bush going?
What I’d guess he’s going to do is to use military strikes against secondary targets. In Somalia and places like that. Then I think he’ll go to the U.N. and try to get weapons inspectors rather than invade. I just read [Robert] Kagan in the Washington Post; the neo-cons are clearly afraid that he’ll do that. But I don’t think in his heart he’s confident about a ground war in Iraq. His father is not, and his father is a big influence on him.
Also I think he’s going to run into a buzz saw in the Middle East. And when he does, he’ll take a look and realize why he didn’t want to get involved in the first place. Though he’s made these pledges to the Saudis and Egyptians to do what he can there. So I think this is probably the apogee of the Bush presidency. There will be very, very powerful forces it will be tough for him to resist either place he goes. If he moves against Iraq he’ll dynamite his antiterrorism coalition in the Middle East and Europe. And given the fact that it will take six to nine months to build up the forces, the pressure will be intolerable on him not to do it.
On the other hand, if he tries to strong-arm Ariel Sharon he’s going to dynamite his domestic coalition. The neo-cons and even conservatives and the Israeli lobby and Congress and the Democratic Party will, I think, just make it impossible for him to force concessions on the Israelis to do what they need to do to get peace from the Palestinians. So, I predict he will back away from it. Or just play it out, go for interim agreements. I don’t think Sharon is going to deal with Arafat. I don’t think he trusts him. I think he thinks a Palestinian state will be a base camp of a war of liberation.
What are your thoughts about the suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa over the weekend, and Israel’s military response on Monday?
I think that the Hamas terrorists — I don’t know whether it was a reprisal for the killing of their leader or if they were trying to dynamite the U.S.-led peace process — but either way I think they succeeded. I don’t think you can have a Sharon agreement with Yasser Arafat now. It’s a disaster in the Middle East. The wrong people are winning over there. I can understand what took place — with the Israelis responding to the appalling atrocities, I can understand why they would want to retaliate — but in the last analysis if you want peace you need a Palestinian state. Ultimately, it’s “No Palestine, no peace.” But that idea, of a Palestinian state, has receded farther than ever. The president’s mission over there is somewhat hopeless.
Surely, though, the president is right when he says that Israel has a right to defend itself.
Yes, but in the longer haul, unless you stop this cycle of reprisals and assassinations and atrocities and terror on all sides, the U.S. — which is lined up behind Israel because of our aid to them … the U.S. needs to take an independent stance to make a just, honorable workable solution that does not take Israel’s side 100 percent, and does not take the side of the Palestinians 100 percent.
Which seemed to be what the administration was trying to accomplish, what Colin Powell was trying to do a couple of weeks ago with his speech in Louisville, Ky.
The administration was trying to do this, but clearly after the horrific massacres, most Americans look at that and say, “The Israelis really oughta pound them.” Bush is not in a position to tell Sharon, “We know how horrible the thing was, but you ought to use restraint.” So we’re being dragged into this. We’re not leading this — we’re following it.
No American president has the ability to stand up to force the players there, to use America’s leverage. And I think we have less leverage now than we did before, after the atrocities over the weekend.
The Hamas terrorism clearly put Arafat in the unenviable position of appearing at best impotent, at worst complicit.
I don’t think Arafat is responsible. I don’t think he wanted this. But I don’t think he can stop it any more than Sharon can stop it. It’s a tragedy for him. It blows any chance of him as the first president of a Palestinian state, it blows any chance for a renewal of the Oslo process, it blows any chance for any land-for-peace [agreement]. He’s the big loser. Arafat doesn’t want these acts of terror — he wants to get back to the negotiating table. But the Israelis who say that Arafat can’t control Hamas, I think have a point.
Have you seen that translation of the letter that Arafat sent to the family of the Hamas suicide bomber from the Tel Aviv disco, where he praises the bomber’s “heroic martyrdom” and “noble soul”? Twenty-one Israelis, most of them teenagers, were killed in that attack, which Arafat publicly condemned.
I didn’t see that, no.
You’ve written that you understand why Israel is reluctant to deal with Arafat, that “with this latest intifada marked by massacres of children at pizza parlors, Israelis no longer believe security can be found cheek-by-jowl with an Arafat-led Palestinian state. Who can blame them?”
A good friend of mine, Allan Rifkin, a Jewish fella, says that if he were Israeli he would have voted for [Yitzhak] Rabin, then he would have voted for [Ehud] Barak and then he would have voted for Sharon. I said I would have done the same thing. Look, I understand it. They’re blowing up buses. Imagine how we’d react down here if they were blowing up buses or shooting up pizza parlors down the road in Mclean [Va.].
Most Israelis support a Palestinian state.
That’s right; 59 percent of Israelis believe you’ve got to have it. Though I think they probably have a different idea of what it has to be. To get the Arabs to sign on and recognize Israel, you’ve got to have something along the lines of what Clinton was putting together and what Barak offered Arafat at Camp David and Taba.
Why didn’t Arafat take the deal?
There are a couple reasons why. One, Arafat is not a strong leader. He had not prepared his people for it, and he warned Clinton that the Palestinians were not prepared for it. He said, “If I take that, you’ll be coming to my funeral because I’ll be assassinated.” There were other things they wanted, the right of return and other things.
Did you ever see the movie “Michael Collins”? With that big fella?
Yeah, this was like that movie. Collins went to Churchill and the Brits and he came back with an Irish free state without six northern provinces. And he was assassinated. I think Arafat thought the same thing would happen to him.
But I also think Arafat made a horrible mistake, not going back and saying to his people, “This is the most generous offer we’ve ever been offered, and though I don’t agree with everything in it, Barak’s a partner in peace and this is something we should negotiate rapidly.” And not reject it outright. I thought Clinton made a mistake calling it a failure. He’d gotten 90 percent there, where no one else had, and he called it a failure. Then Sharon goes marching around at the Temple Mount and the intifada goes off. But [Clinton] was very close to a historic success, even though he didn’t succeed. There’s blame all around on that, though the least of all to blame is Barak.
And he lost his job.
Well, Rabin lost his life. So did Sadat.
You’ve expressed concern that Israel wants the U.S. to fight Hamas and Hezbollah. You obviously don’t consider them to be direct threats to the U.S.
No, I don’t consider them to be direct threats to the U.S. They are terrorist groups, clearly, as was Fatah. But have they committed terrorist attacks on the U.S.? No. So I don’t consider them direct threats to the U.S.
Though Hezbollah killed all those American Marines in Lebanon. And Yasser Arafat’s Fatah group killed Americans, too.
Yep, he did. Cleo Noel [a U.S. ambassador killed in 1973 in Sudan by Palestinian terrorists] and Adolph Dubs [also a U.S. ambassador, killed in 1973 in Afghanistan when police stormed a room where he was being held by terrorists] were directly killed by Fatah. And there’s some evidence that Arafat himself ordered the murders.
Yet you think he should head up the Palestinian state.
The point is, if you want peace between Israel and Palestine you’ve got to deal with Arafat. Now, I would not have done like Clinton did, inviting him to the White House all those times. But if you want peace you’ve got to deal with your enemies. Do I agree with those who are unenthusiastic about the character of Mr. Arafat? Yes.
You’ve got to give Clinton credit there for trying to use his final months trying to stitch together a deal. And Camp David is close to what I think is the only possible just honorable solution. And it could have brought an honorable peace. But I’m not optimistic anymore. I was when Rabin was in charge. But after this second intifada there’s just so much hatred on both sides.
Bush had removed himself from the Middle East process, as you would no doubt applaud, but now he’s reengaged. Powell gave a strong speech two weeks ago urging both sides to make concessions. It was so strong, in fact, that 89 senators signed a letter to Powell urging him to not pressure Israel to refrain from retaliating against Palestinian violence. And Bush just sent Assistant Secretary of State William Burns and retired Gen. Anthony Zinni on a peace mission to the region. Where do you see this Mideast peace effort going?
My guess is that both Bush and Powell have gotten themselves in front on this, sending Gen. Zinni to the region; they’ll soon wake up and come back. The only way this is doable is to lean very heavily on Sharon, to use the leverage of American aid. But those 89 signatures tell me that’s not doable. The problem is that Ariel Sharon receives $3 billion in American aid, so he’s now the custodian for the American reputation in the Islamic and Arab world. And that’s a problem for the U.S. And I don’t think the president’s going to solve that problem.
In fact, you’ve proposed that the U.S. pull out completely from the region and no longer give Israel or Egypt the billions in foreign aid both countries receive. The Buchanan doctrine you describe in “A Republic Not an Empire” — would it be fair to characterize it as a policy where the U.S. would never get involved in military conflicts abroad unless vital U.S. interests were at stake?
That’s a simple but fair characterization.
Well, elaborate on it.
Unless American honor, vital interests or citizens were at risk or have been attacked, U.S. policy should be to stay out of war.
But you supported the Vietnam War.
I supported the Vietnam War as I supported the entire Cold War. I supported every single military action taken during the Cold War except for the intervention into Lebanon [in the early 1980s]. I didn’t see the purpose of sending U.S. troops into a civil war among the Syrians, Lebanese, the Israelis and all the militias there. It had nothing to do with our interests. It had nothing to do with the Cold War. And sure enough, the Marines were soon blown up there.
And the reason I opposed that was that I had been to Israel in ’82 or ’83. And the Israelis were going to take us to Beirut and at the last minute they canceled the trip. They said it wasn’t safe. And I wondered, if it’s not safe for us how is it going to be safe for our troops?
I favored every other action in the Cold War related to conflict. My conviction was that during the Cold War war had been declared upon the U.S. by the Soviet Empire. We followed the right policy in the Cold War. When we watched Czechoslovakia go under, we did not try rollback. We had a much more conservative policy — deterrence and drawing a red line, telling them not to cross it. But now we seem to be following the British Empire; we’re running around on these moral crusades.
I completely support what we’re doing in Afghanistan, by the way. It’s being morally done in a just way. I back the president in what we’re doing. But I urge him to be cautious in Phase 2.
That fits with the Buchanan doctrine in that clearly vital interests are at stake, being that we were attacked on our own land.
Exactly. And if we find that Saddam Hussein is behind this attack and had a hand in the massacre of Americans, I’m in favor of going in and killing him — after we figure out a way to do it. But only if Iraq had a hand in this thing. In every argument I’ve seen the Iraqis don’t have nuclear weapons. So I question the wisdom of an all-out attack on Iraq. The military is a half-million smaller than the one we had before. It would dynamite our coalition. We would have no support — we couldn’t use Saudi bases.
When the Cold War was over [we should have] become a normal country, and returned to the foreign policy that had served so many presidents in such good stead. And that’s a foreign policy where the U.S. retains superior military weaponry on land, sea, air and space, and we stay out of wars in which American vital interests are not engaged. It also means dissolving Cold War alliances, pulling up the trip wires we have all over the world, bringing home troops from places like Korea and Bavaria where they’re no longer needed. Let those governments be responsible for their own defense. Let the U.S. become an arsenal for those countries but not their protector.
I wrote this in the front of my book, this is the way all empires end — whether Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian, British, French, Japanese. They’re all finished because they got themselves overextended. I’m working on a book right now on how empires perish. From 1914 to 1944, Britain went from the superpower of its day to living off American food stamps. The decisions taken in those two World Wars are subject to question.
You were criticized for supposedly arguing in that book that the U.S. fought on the wrong side in World War II, but that’s not at all what you wrote, is it?
No, I didn’t. Though our allies — Stalin — left something to be desired. But we had no choice. And once Nazi Germany declared war upon us, you don’t get to pick and choose your allies. And the Russian army was magnificent, if brutal.
What was the larger argument you were trying to make with that book? You didn’t seem to think that the U.S. did the right thing by fighting Germany, that we should have let Germany and Russia fight each other.
My view was that the U.S. policy support for Britain and Russia, short of war, was the correct one, and once Hitler declared war on us we had no choice but to fight. But the mistake of both the isolationists and FDR was leaving America disarmed in the world as it changed dramatically from the 1920s.
And I do argue this — and of course this is kind of a complex argument — that not only was the 1938 Munich Pact a mistake but so were the war guarantees. And every historian I’ve found agrees that when Chamberlain gave war guarantees to Poland on March 31, 1939, he was in a panic after Hitler had taken the rump of the Czech Republic. He was in a panic so he gave the war guarantee, but he had no intention of honoring it, and they did not have the additional forces to do it. So he had put himself between the Russians and Hitler’s Germany. And every historian I know agrees, including George Kennan, with whom I talked about that.
The core argument in the book is that the ideal thing for Britain and France to have done is that in 1936 they should have acted in the Rhineland. But they didn’t. They couldn’t act in Austria because it happened too quickly. And then when the Sudetanland fell they couldn’t act. I argued that either you fight early or you fight late.
One of the things that bothered critics of the book is that you didn’t seem to spend much time discussing the notion that the U.S. should have fought the Nazis because they were killing Gypsies, Slavs, Jews.
You’re mistaken. Look, this is about the diplomatic run up to World War II. In reading and doing the analysis of the period between Munich, in late September 1938, and the war guarantees of March 1939, the only event that was of any significance morally was Kristallnacht. And I have gone through Churchill’s six-volume memoirs and he doesn’t even mention it. If we’re arguing issues that were at stake during the run-up to war, those you mention simply were not in consideration. Poland was a deeply anti-Semitic regime; this had nothing to do with that. And the camps did not start running until 1942, after Britain had gone to war.
Hitler’s destruction of the Jews by taking them to the camps happened after all my pre-World War II chapters end. And if we’re talking about the considerations of the Isolationists — FDR, Churchill, Chamberlain — you can’t even find it mentioned by any of them. Read Churchill’s first volume — “The Gathering Storm.” It doesn’t even come up.
Obviously you feel that your book was misrepresented in the media and by your Republican opponents. Why do you think that is?
My wife said that the whole thing can be summed up in two words: “Reform Party.” If I had not been running for the Reform Party nomination, this would have been an academic argument like they hold in Britain all the time. We would not have had the accusations we received. It was politically motivated. I was astonished at the controversy over the book. Astonished. I sat down and reread it. I wondered, Is there something in the chapter I have not seen? I couldn’t believe the intensity.
Let’s turn back to today’s battles. In an October column, you called for the establishment of a military tribunal to deal with terrorists. A few weeks later, President Bush issued the executive order to do so.
Exactly. And he used the German example, too.
Did anyone in the White House contact you? How did you find out about it?
I picked up the paper and saw it.
Do you feel vindicated at all?
Well, yes. And as a matter of fact I’m going to do a piece defending it. I think it’s the right decision. It’s the right thing; it’s the necessary thing, if people think it through. Everybody’s talking about “Let’s have civilian trials.” [New York Times columnist William] Safire even said we should have had civilian trials of those Germans! What I would say to him is, suppose instead of six Germans it were 60. And suppose the Japanese had landed and filled the country with thousands of saboteurs and spies. The idea that we would be able to give them all civilian trials is an absurd one. If we’re at war — and we are — and if the war is being fought on American ground — and it is; we know that because we’re still digging up our friends at the World Trade Center site — then a military tribunal is certainly justified.
As a conservative, though, surely you have concerns about individual rights and big government.
Am I concerned about it? I’m far more concerned about the threat of terrorism in this country than I am about that. I don’t think this country is going to allow the civil rights, the constitutional rights of our citizens to be abridged. If the government tried, there would be a firestorm of protest no government would be able to overcome.
You know, the American government is not as strong as it used to be. Not at all. It’s not as strong as it was under Eisenhower, for instance. Eisenhower ordered every illegal immigrant deported. And you know what it was called? “Operation Wetback.” No American president would have the courage to do that today.
You like Ike.
I’m starting to reevaluate him, and the more I do the more I appreciate him. His Cold War policy, for instance. He, in fact, drew a line. When I was a kid there was a huge protest because he didn’t do anything about the Hungarians being butchered. Ike said, “Look — they’re on the other side of the line. We deplore it. It’s ugly, it’s horrible. But we cannot risk all-out war with the Soviet Union over this.” A lot of people condemned Ike. Conservatives thought he was “do-nothing.” But if you look at it historically, I think he was right. Same thing with Truman; he was right to use the airlift out of Berlin rather than sending a military column.
You’ve got to look at the tremendous success of the Cold War. We did not have one nuclear exchange with the Soviets. It lasted 40 years, and we lost maybe 100,000 soldiers in the two relatively minor hot wars. But would it have been better to have a nuclear war? I’m rereading A.J.P. Taylor’s book “The Origins of the Second World War.” And he wrote that to become a great power you’ve got to be able to fight a great war, but the only way to stay a great power is to stay out of great wars.
Another bit of advice you offer in “A Republic, Not an Empire,” which President Bush seems to be taking, is a rethinking of the U.S. relationship with Russia — perhaps even considering an alliance.
Yes, there, too, I think we’re doing the right thing, though we started off on the wrong foot. I would not favor an alliance with Russia, however.
Russia is going to lose the Russian Far East — Vladivostok and Khabarovsk. They were taken from China in 1858 and 1860. Back in 1969, when I was at the Nixon White House, there was an engagement between the Russians and the Chinese at the Ussuri and Amur rivers that go around Manchuria like a gloved hand. There were battles around those rivers; it was the Russians sounding us out on what might happen if they used nuclear weapons against the Chinese. And those battles were portents of what’s going to come.
But there’s a problem. Look at the population statistics of Russia now. Their populations is dying rapidly. Putin predicted they’d be down to 123 million by 2015. Using some U.N. numbers, I’ve got [that figure] projected to 114 million by 2050. That means that by the end of this century the Russian population will be down to 80 million people. They can’t hold an area twice the size of the United States. China, their people, [are] already moving in there like we did with Texas. So there is the probability of a Russian-Chinese war. And the United States can’t get involved in that. So I would think entente with Russians — but not an alliance. And we should not bring them into NATO. We don’t want to be in that war.
Back to this war. What’s next in Afghanistan?
I think our role is principally to help the anti-Taliban forces to finish them off. To run down, using Afghan assistance, all elements of al-Qaida. To get bin Laden. And then to get American troops entirely out, to bring in Islamic troops — Turks, Bangladeshis. We should provide some economic and humanitarian aid, but we should not have any troop presence there.
Why are you so eager to get them out so quickly?
I don’t think we ought to have them there. We’ve made these commitments to the Paks about the Kasmir thing. Plus commitments to the Uzbeks and Tajiks. I mean, there are four nuclear powers over there and no vital interests to the U.S. in that area of the world to justify [our] presence.
Do you think that Pakistan believes we would intervene on their behalf against India?
We’re not going to protect them in any war, nor should we. We should try to work something out, then we can say that we regret that we failed and stay out of it.
Back to Eisenhower’s “Operation Wetback.” One of your signature issues has been limiting legal immigration, taking a firmer line in preventing illegal immigrants from Mexico from entering the U.S. Do you think the tide has turned in support of your view on the matter?
I think we should limit the number of legal immigrants to 250,000 a year, rolled back from the 900,000 who come in legally. But as for the “Buchanan fence,” it’s already been built. It’s on the San Diego border, though the fence only extends into the desert. So, near Douglas, Ariz., there’s a mass of illegal aliens. Look, we need a moratorium on legal immigration and we need to halt illegal immigration. We need to begin the systematic deportation of people who are here illegally in the U.S., beginning with those from terrorist countries and those with felony convictions.
But you also express doubt that such reform will happen. Why?
There’s a gigantic vested interest in open borders. It comes from the Wall Street Journal, it comes from big business. And now it comes from big labor who sees all kinds of union members in future restaurant workers. And from churches who see immigrants filling up their empty pews. And all the folks who put the idea of the economy ahead of their country.
It does not come from the American people, a vast majority of whom want legal immigration restricted to a low level and illegal immigration stopped. But just like NAFTA we have this virtual democracy where the opinions of the American people simply do not count in the making of policy. Instead it’s the dictates of the Supreme Court and the corporations. Politicians realize that the attention span of the people is short. So the business round-table walks in, and they say, “This is it, this is what we want for this session of Congress,” and they get it.
Is that what you think about the House version of the economic stimulus package?
You know, I haven’t paid much attention to that. I understand they’re retroactively eliminating corporate taxes. We could probably do without it.”
Buchanan in ’04?
Yeah, if the Republicans draft me. (Laughs) I don’t have any intention of doing it again.
Are you going back to TV?
I might start talking with [cable channels] after the book tour. But I don’t have any expectations. I tell you, before Sept. 11 when all anyone was talking about was Gary Condit, I thought it was just an awful, awful mess. It was demeaning to cable TV; it was just awful. You couldn’t put on the TV without finding where Anne Marie [Smith] was parked that night.
How’s your show on CNN?
It was canceled.
I’m sorry I asked! (Laughs) I guess the blood bath continues over there.