Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Interview with Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson is one of the most prolific of our contemporary historians. He's written numerous books, big books on big themes. Modern Times, a history of most of the twentieth century, is perhaps his most well-known. Wall Street Journal editor Brian Carney caught up with the 82 year-old scholar in his London home recently where they sat down for an interview. Here's a sample of some of the interesting things Johnson says:
"Of course I worry about America," he says. "The whole world depends on America ultimately, particularly Britain. And also, I love America—a marvelous country. But in a sense I don't worry about America because I think America has such huge strengths—particularly its freedom of thought and expression—that it's going to survive as a top nation for the foreseeable future. And therefore take care of the world."

Pessimists, he points out, have been predicting America's decline "since the 18th century." But whenever things are looking bad, America "suddenly produces these wonderful things—like the tea party movement. That's cheered me up no end. Because it's done more for women in politics than anything else—all the feminists? Nuts! It's brought a lot of very clever and quite young women into mainstream politics and got them elected. A very good little movement, that. I like it." Then he deepens his voice for effect and adds: "And I like that lady—Sarah Palin. She's great. I like the cut of her jib."

The former governor of Alaska, he says, "is in the good tradition of America, which this awful political correctness business goes against." Plus: "She's got courage. That's very important in politics. You can have all the right ideas and the ability to express them. But if you haven't got guts, if you haven't got courage the way Margaret Thatcher had courage—and [Ronald] Reagan, come to think of it. Your last president had courage too—if you haven't got courage, all the other virtues are no good at all. It's the central virtue."
Johnson expatiates on a number of other topics including the turmoil in the Middle East:
In 1848, he explains, "Practically every country in Europe, except England of course . . . had a revolution and overthrew the government, at any rate for a time. So that is something which historically is well-attested and the same thing has happened here in the Middle East."

Here he injects a note of caution: "But I notice it's much more likely that a so-called dictatorship will be overthrown if it's not a real dictatorship. The one in Tunisia wasn't very much. Mubarak didn't run a real dictatorship [in Egypt]. Real dictatorships in that part of the world," such as Libya, are a different story.

As for Moammar Gadhafi, "We'll see if he goes or not. I think he's a real baddie, so we hope he will." The Syrian regime, he adds, "not so long ago in Hama . . . killed 33,000 people because they rose up." Then, "above all," there is Iran. "If we can get rid of that horrible regime in Iran," he says, "that will be a major triumph for the world."
If you enjoyed Johnson's books you'll enjoy the rest of this interview. You can find it here.

Thoughts on Libya

There's growing criticism of the Obama administration, especially from conservatives, for not "doing something" in Libya, but I'm not sure exactly what he should do, and, in fact, I'm not convinced that he should do anything.

There've been calls for imposition of a "no-fly" zone to protect the rebels from Qaddafi's air force, but why should we get involved in that? When we established a no-fly zone in Iraq it was to protect the Kurdish people from being slaughtered from the air by Saddam after we had urged them to rise against him. Having failed to support them in their uprising we at least owed them the protection of air cover. We were also technically still in a state of war with Saddam after the first Persian Gulf war, and his use of his air force violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the cease-fire agreement. Moreover, Saddam was directly targeting women and children, killing them not only with rockets and machine gun fire but also with chemicals (that we had provided him during his decade long war with Iran).

Nothing like that is happening in Libya, at least as far as I've been able to glean from news reports. Qaddafi is using his planes against rebel forces, not to commit genocide, but to defeat the rebels. There are civilian casualties, to be sure, but many of those are coming from infantry and artillary fire. If Qaddafi starts to kill civilians with his ground troops should we then go in with ground troops of our own? If so, then what? What happens after we, at great cost, depose Qaddafi? Do we stay and build a democratic state like we've tried to do in Iraq? Can we afford that burden?

A "no-fly zone" is not antiseptic. If we impose one, hundreds of Libyans will die since we would have to attack their anti-aircraft and radar installations and probably their airfields.

I don't see where we have a justification for getting involved, or what national interest we have at stake in Libya. If Qaddafi turns his guns on his people as Saddam did on the Kurds then we have a humanitarian obligation to do what we can, perhaps, to protect them, but failing that we should just stay out of it and root, if we wish, for the rebels.

Some have suggested that the world's oil supply is at risk and that we should protect the oil fields from sabotage, but we get less than 3% of our oil from Libya. If oil is a concern then let China do something about it. They get a lot more of their petroleum from Libya than we do. Why should we expend blood and treasure to protect China's economy?

This is hard for me to say because I despise Qaddafi who was surely behind the Pan Am 103 bombing, but if we are going to punish Qaddafi for Lockerbie then we should say so and go after Qaddafi directly and not his military. Going after him for Lockerbie, however, would be extremely awkward since we largely absolved him of the crime after he renounced his nuclear weapons ambitions.

All things considered, unless Qaddafi unleashes his arms against the Libyan people, then I don't see what business we have getting into that fight other than, perhaps, in a non-combat support role for other Arab or African countries which may wish to come to the aid of the rebels.

Meanwhile, someone needs to ask the Sean Hannitys of the world, the next time they criticize the Obama administration for dithering on Libya, exactly what they propose he should do.