If Charles Krauthammer were to write a column about himself it would be his most inspiring. Since 1985 Krauthammer has been writing a syndicated column for The Washington Post carried by more than 400 newspapers worldwide and for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary.
Krauthammer’s influential writings have helped shape American foreign policy. The Financial Times named Krauthammer “the most influential commentator in America” and he won the National Magazine Award for Essays and Criticism – the highest award in magazine journalism – for his articles in The New Republic. He’s also a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and to Fox News, where he appears nightly on “Special Report With Bret Baier.”
A physician by training, Krauthammer was born in New York City in 1950 and raised in Montreal. He attended McGill University, Oxford University, and received his M.D. from Harvard. He helped direct planning in psychiatric research for the Carter administration, served as speechwriter to Vice President Walter Mondale and served on the President’s Council on Bioethics. Krauthammer’s latest book,Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics (Crown Forum) has sold over one million copies and was a Number 1 New York Times bestseller.
The Jewish Press met with Krauthammer in his Washington, D.C., office for a conversation on foreign and domestic affairs during which his decisive intelligence was matched by his warmth and graciousness.
The Jewish Press: As turmoil rages in the Middle East, a fragile cease-fire between Israel and Hamas is underway. What do you think Israel’s ultimate endgame should be?
Krauthammer:The important thing about the endgame is to make sure that Hamas reaps nothing. Ultimately Hamas is an obstacle to peace. There are two ways to get rid of it. One is militarily with a very expensive (in blood) occupation, which is what some hardliners in the Israeli cabinet want to do. The other way is to see it fall, from lack of support. I don’t see Hamas maintaining its popularity.
The objectives should be to make sure Hamas loses ground within the Palestinian polity and get to the point where it is going to run out of rockets and patience from the Palestinians. It’s a modest aim but considering that the tunnels have been destroyed, the rockets have been degraded, if you prevent rearmament and make sure there’s no relaxation of the blockade for weaponry then you’ve won. I hope Israel won’t blow it. Israel has undone a lot of victories at the negotiating table, Oslo being the greatest example.
In the wake of Hamas’s PR victory in the Gaza war, do you see anti-Israel sentiment in Europe and America translating into sanctions against Israel and other tangible dangers?
Yes, I do. But you have to draw a distinction between Europe and America. In Europe you’re dealing with raw, ancient, two thousand-year-old anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Zionism and that’s never going to change. They had a fifty-year hiatus after the Holocaust out of shame. That only lasted two generations. What does it say in Exodus? “And a new Pharaoh arose who knew not Joseph.” So these people didn’t know Joseph. And they don’t care. This is the old style.
You’re not going to change public opinion. The media are so biased you can’t get your story through. But what counts is America. The Europeans have the ability to hurt Israel economically, but Israel can’t stop defending itself because the Europeans don’t like it. America is the key battleground, and here I think Israel is holding its own.
A Pew survey conducted at the height of the Gaza war showed that twice as many Americans believed Hamas was responsible for the violence but it also pointed to higher support for Hamas among younger Americans and minorities. How concerned are you that anti-Semitism might become a real threat here in America?
You go to one meeting of Christians United for Israel and that will allay many of your fears. They’re forty to fifty million people – the largest pro-Israel minority on the planet with a very deep affection and affinity way beyond support for another country or a democracy. It’s a substantially important constituency that I think outweighs young people, who vote in smaller numbers and don’t go to the polls on the basis of Israel.
With young people it’s a reflection of ignorance. Older people know just from absorption of their history about Palestinian terror. The good thing is that young people get older and then their views tend to reflect those of the general population. It is disturbing, but I don’t think it will affect Israel’s support in Congress overall, if you add together the enthusiasm of those Christians who are for Israel.
Mahmoud Abbas is pursuing plans to appeal to the international community to set a deadline for Israel to withdraw from lands captured in 1967. How seriously do you think Abbas should be taken as he attempts to reassert his relevance in the context of growing Palestinian support for Hamas?
I’ve never had illusions about Fatah or the PA. In 1993 I was on the White House lawn when they signed Oslo. And everyone lost their head. People were weeping for joy. And I’ve never been so terribly dismayed. I knew this was a fraud from the beginning. And it ended with the second intifada; a thousand Israeli dead.
The fact is that Fatah will never sign a final agreement. And that is the test. Sure, they’ll sign interim agreements. They give away things that are worthless for tangible control of territory, huge amounts of economic support, legitimacy. In the absence of reaching an agreement, however, we’re never going to have peace but a continuing low-level conflict with eruptions in Gaza and elsewhere.
Fatah is pressured now to go to the UN, to the ICC. They’ll try to condemn Israel and get Europe to boycott and push economic sanctions. I have no illusions that Abbas is a man who sincerely wants to end the conflict. He doesn’t. So you have to live with it. Since we’re not going to get a full peace, you choose relative peace over hard warfare for as long as you can. You always may end up with a major war ten, twenty, thirty years from now. But you worry about that then…
There is talk of America combating the threat of ISIS by working with Shiite powers, especially Iran. Do you think this would serve to embolden Iran as it seeks to capitalize on its nuclear ambitions?
It would be a terrible mistake to think this is an opening for an alliance or even a rapprochement with Iran. In the scale of things Iran is a far greater threat. ISIS is a pretend state. It could become one if it’s not stopped but Iran is a major state on the threshold of nuclear weapons, which will be a geopolitical game changer for generations if it goes nuclear. And nothing is worth giving that up, not even a temporary alliance to defeat ISIS.
To deal with ISIS you have to deal with the Kurds, the Iraqi military to the extent that you trust it, and what’s left of the Free Syria army. Maybe the Turks, the Saudis. But you can’t do it with Iran.
Do you think the ISIS executions of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff have alerted the American public to the real and growing threat of Islamic terrorism to the U.S.?
Yes. I think it’s made it visual, visceral, undeniable. Not on the scale of 9/11 but it has kind of some of the emotional resonance of 9/11. Recently Egypt and the UAE attacked Islamists in Libya without even telling the U.S., which used to dominate the Middle East. You didn’t sneeze without checking with Washington. Now it’s sort of largely irrelevant as a result of Obama’s policies.
There’s a feeling in the country that we’ve gone really downhill and this is a symbol of it. Will it wake us up, galvanize us? I think it will make it easier for a leader who’s prepared to lead to make the case. If you get a president who wants to do something, then you get a population aroused and angered by what it saw. The problem is you have a president who doesn’t know what he wants to do or doesn’t want to do anything but is pretending he’s thinking. Without leadership, nothing will happen. You can have ten Foley videos, and it won’t change.
Obama’s seeming apathy and passivity in the face of growing international turmoil has turned some of the most faithful liberal fans into critics. Do you think the media finally feel free to criticize the president?
That’s an interesting question. With Obama the press is very fickle. They are deeply committed to him. They came onboard in ‘08 and it’s hard for them to admit error. But with everything going on in the world it’s hard to deny error. He’s not a very good president. Even the left and the liberal media have to admit it.
But I think their antipathy for conservatives and Republicans will override their disappointment with Obama. So as soon as we approach the elections they will become far more critical of Republicans, perhaps as a way to balance finally being critical of Obama. So I don’t see a change of heart or ideology. They’re disappointed in the man. Maybe it will translate into even more enthusiastic support for the Democratic candidate in 2016 to compensate for having been nasty to a Democratic president.
Do you think a subsequent leader will be able to provide a corrective course after eight years of this administration’s policies?
Yes. I have great faith in America. America always comes back. There’s something almost providential about American history. The founders, a tiny population on this little outpost of civilization, produced the greatest generation of political thinkers in history. When we needed Lincoln a century later, a Lincoln appeared. We were saying the same thing in 1979, and Reagan came along.
People are getting tired of Obama. They know there’s something wrong, something very strange, about the president, so disconnected. And they don’t like the state to which America has been reduced, ridiculed by the Russians, ridiculed by so many in the Middle East, defied, ignored. Under Obama we’ve slipped quite a lot. We’re at a low and could go either way. If we elect an isolationist or someone very passive and confused about foreign policy, as we did with Obama, then it’s over. Then the world will become more chaotic.
So it’ll depend a lot on 2016. There’s nothing inevitable about American decline. Decline is a choice. Obama chose decline and we don’t have to do that. If we want to assert ourselves, believe in our values, protect ourselves, then we have to do it and we should do it. It’s in our hands.
You grew up in a Jewish home and received what you’ve described as a “rigorous Jewish education.” How has your Jewish upbringing influenced your views?
Anybody growing up in a Jewish environment dominated by Jewish culture, religion, and history as I did is immediately endowed with a tragic sense of history. You tend to veer away from utopianism. You tend to be more suspicious of people who come around promising all kinds of wonderful things. You’re closer to the founders’ vision of human nature as flawed and fallen.
I grew up in the sixties when people had these messianic illusions. I was already fairly immune to it at a pretty young age. I was never a radical. So I think having a sense of Jewish history is one of these gifts.
Though collections of previously published political articles are not known to succeed, your book Things That Mattertopped The New York Times bestseller list. How do you explain its success?
I got a call from a Newsweek reporter in December. She said, “My editor wants to know why your book is flying off the shelves.” So I decided to be very humble and self-deprecating and said, “Aw shucks, I really don’t know. You should call other people and find out.” Two weeks later a friend calls and says, “Did you see the Newsweek story on your book? Let me read you the first sentence” ‘Charles Krauthammer’s book Things That Matter is flying off the shelves and nobody has any idea why.’ ” So I’m not doing humble and self-deprecating any more.
It just sold its millionth copy. It’s still on the bestseller list, about 40 weeks in. The initial print run was thirty-two thousand, so this is just totally unexpected. Maybe it’s because this is thirty years.My life’s work is in here. I wrote it because when you write a column it appears in newspapers on Friday, even if it’s 400 newspapers, and by Tuesday it’s wrapping fish. So I’m very happy there’s something that will last. Maybe it’s a reflection of the audience. Whatever the reason, I don’t want to speculate too much. I think I’m going to remain humble and self-deprecating.