Karl Rove opened Friday’s show. Listen to the entire 18 minute conversation or read the transcript. It sounds to me like the seriousness of the current president’s failure may push W into public criticism of those failures –after the elections.
HH: On a day when Ukraine announces it’s wiped out a column of Russian armored vehicles, ISIS continues its rampage, Ferguson is on edge, I am joined by the Architect, Karl Rove. Karl, welcome, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you.
KR: Hugh, thanks for having me on.
HH: Now I normally run the map with you, but I actually wanted to ask you about something different today, and it’s about the fact you served at the side of a president in wartime from 9/11, when did you leave the White House, Karl?
KR: September of 2007.
HH: Okay, so that’s six long years, and we’re about that point in the Obama administration. And it seems like all the wheels are coming off. And I don’t know, could you have ever imagined IS rising under George W. Bush this way?
KR: No, and you know, this is not a recent event. I thought, I find myself in rare agreement with Hillary Clinton. I thought in her interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, she was right on target. President Obama’s failure three years ago to arm the Free Syrian Army, you know, the non to moderate alternative to the Islamists gave ISIS the ability to rise in Syria and now extend its influence into Iraq. And the President’s failure to stand forward when he could have is the reason why we’re seeing unroll what we’re seeing unroll.
HH: Now a week ago today Charles Krauthammer said on this show that the President is, “strategically clueless.” On Monday, former Vice President Cheney said here he doesn’t think the President’s reading his intelligence briefs. Now there’s two issues there. Are we talking about incompetence? Or are we talking about a refusal to do the job you’ve been elected to do? What do you think, Karl Rove?
KR: I frankly think both are right. I wrote several weeks ago in a column in the Wall Street Journal that actually, it was in June. President Obama went out and said in June, in late May and early June, his people went around the White House press corps saying we want to explain our foreign policy. Our view is don’t do stupid stuff, only they used a more earthy word for stuff.
KR: And I wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal in which I said this is, this shows an absence of strategic thinking. The President, this is not a strategy. This is a barnyard epithet. This is something you say on the 6th grade playground. This is not a, this is not a strategy. And so I think Krauthammer is right. I think, however, the Vice President’s right. The president of the United States, the current president of the United States, in my view, is not engaged in what a president needs to be engaged in. Now I don’t know whether he reads his intelligence report. I do hear that he doesn’t, he rarely has the intelligence report delivered to him by the briefers. And what’s interesting about that to me is, is that look, a president can read those things, and that’s fine. But that doesn’t give the president a chance to eyeball the briefers and to ask questions. And the fact that President Obama apparently gets most of his intelligence briefings in writing, and doesn’t bother to bring in the briefers so that he can ask questions and engage in a dialogue shows to me the level of disengagement on this guy.
HH: So Karl, how worried are you about the next two and a half years, because as some people say, and I wrote, he wants to be in his Carter Center phase right now. I don’t see him doing anything. He stayed in Martha’s Vineyard as genocide was threatened in Western Iraq. What’s the risk level for the next 30 months?
KR: I think it’s very high, and more important than that is, is that he has set in motion a whole series of things over the last six years that are now becoming visible, and their import is becoming understandable, and they are going to take the next president a long time to deal with. It’s not just simply the next 30 months. It’s the next decade. What he has done, and you know, I was at a meeting recently, and I was listening to a former high official in the CIA who frankly is a friend of Hillary Clinton’s, and sort of on that side, but a fair actor in all of this. And somebody said how back is it, and he says I think we are in a place where al Qaeda or al Qaeda follow-ons have a greater ability to launch mass casualty events than at any time since 9/11.
HH: Well, I agree with that. I think we have a situation where the industrial base under the control of Islamist radicals is bigger than it’s ever been…
HH: …with more wealth and more passports.
HH: …and more willing accomplices. I mean, Putin is acting you’ve met him, Karl Rove. He’s not acting rationally, but he may be acting as a thug would act when confronted with complete weakness.
KR: Well look, he is a thug. And he’s in some ways a very smart guy. He wrote his paper, his Master’s thesis, at St. Petersburg University on the use of the energy resources of the Soviet Union to influence Western Europe. I mean, this is decades ago he was thinking about this stuff. But he isn’t the brightest bulb in the box. I’ll grant you that. But he does, he is clever on sort of a cunning level, and he reads people. And he reads people for who they are and how he thinks he can get away with things. So he looks at President Obama and says weak. And that’s my point, is once the United States has a reputation for being weak, once the United States has, is seen as being an undependable ally and a feckless adversary, the consequences take years to undo. Ronald Reagan, when he came into office after Jimmy Carter was not able to undo all of the things that Jimmy Carter had created in that respect for years. And you know, this president is going to leave behind to his successor a world that is going to be much more dangerous, and which America’s word is much less respected, and America’s might and military strength and diplomatic and economic strength, is much more difficult to mobilize, and much more difficult to get others to join us.
HH: Karl Rove, how much do you think the President’s decision making is driven by his need to be opposite of whatever George W. Bush did, in other words, that he can’t allow himself to admit that W. was right about the lay of the land in the Middle East and elsewhere?
KR: Well look, I think some of it, some of it, is sort of like if Bush did it, I’m not going to do it. But I think that governed more 2009 and 2010 than I think it does today. I think today, the President is governed more by what is his true vision and view of the world, in part. He views America as not a power for, and an influence for good. He does believe the world is a better place if we withdraw and allow people to settle their own matters in whatever way they intend to settle them. I think that’s actually a big part of it, is that we’re now seeing the real, true Obama. The other part of it, though, is look, I think this president simply is not doing the job that he’s supposed to be doing. I was appalled when I saw a report that said that in all the months that he’s been in office, in two months, I think July of this year, and November of 2012, he in those months talked to a total of 28 foreign leaders in each of those months. Obviously in November of 2012 to accept a lot of congratulatory phone calls, and this year, 28. In most months, he makes either high single digits or low double digit calls. That’s appalling, because what it means is he’s not out there talking to the foreign leaders. He’s not working the phones on behalf of America’s interests. He’s not trying to develop a relationship with these foreign leaders. Heck, he went a year without speaking to Karzai, and nearly a year without speaking to Maliki, and we wonder why we don’t have a good relationship or a manageable relationship with these difficult personalities? It’s because the President doesn’t bother to talk to them.
HH: Yeah, in fact, your boss ushered us in one day after he had just finished a two hour conversation with Maliki via sat com and a videophone, and he told the assembled pundits that he did this routinely as a means of instructing a new democratic leader, small d, on how to do this. And I just don’t think the President does that right now.
KR: No, no, no, not at all. Not at all. In fact, Bush did this every two or three or four weeks for years, and this guy goes almost a year without even bothering to talk to him. And worse, he sends Joe Biden to be his mouthpiece. Now think about this. You’re Maliki. You’re used to dealing with Bush. Bush gets in your chili, gets in your face about things that are going on. It’s not always pleasant, and you can’t bully the guy around. In fact, you know, he’s going to be asking you tough questions. And but at least you’re dealing with the president of the United States. So if you say I need something, and he says you’re going to have it, then you get it. Now they send Joe Biden over there. Can you imagine dealing with Joe Biden as a foreign leader? Name, speaking of foreign leaders, name me one foreign leader that jumps to mind that you think the president of the United States has a good relationship with, personal relationship.
HH: Maybe Cameron? Maybe?
KR: Maybe. I doubt it. You know, there’s nobody in the world. Now why does that matter? Because look, relationships between nations are relationships based upon the relative interests of those nations, their philosophies, their goals, their desires, their interests, but they’re also, to some degree, based on the relationships between leaders. It mattered that Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan had a terrific relationship. It mattered that George W. Bush and Helmut Kohl were able to work together for a smooth transition from when the Berlin Wall fell. These kinds of things matter, and this President, he is smarter than everybody else in the world, and hence feels no necessity of reaching out and developing a rapport. And as a result, the United States suffers.
HH: Now Karl, let me switch the subject to your boss, because I have asked the Vice President, I’ve asked a lot of people, are things so bad that W. is going to actually speak up? And that also goes to whether or not David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal or John Allen, or especially James Mattis, will actually speak up, because IS is a serious threat to the United States. Do you think we are at the point where W. will actually say something in the public square about national security?
KR: Look, I think the former president of the United States was right when he said, and when he left office, that he wanted to give his successor a decent interval. He didn’t want him to be out there, criticizing him, not dancing on the stage. You know, President Bush had to deal with this with President Carter, who would not leave the stage. There is a role for a former president to speak about matters of import to the country. And I’m not going to speak for the former president, but I know he recognizes that there is such a role. And whether he does or not is going to be his decision. But you know, I do think that the country is recognizing the serious differences in the way that this president operates, and the former president operates. That doesn’t mean to say that George W. Bush got everything right, but people are now recognizing there is a value to moral clarity, there is a value to understanding the results of the use of American influence, and there is, most important of all, a vitality, a necessity of having a strategic framework. And Bush had one, which is why Iraq, even President Obama was forced to admit in 2011 when he was withdrawing the U.S. troops from Iraq, that Iraq was in a reasonably good place, a stable, developing democracy, and that was because of the strategic framework and the hard decisions made by his predecessor.
HH: Now I think the short form that Bush won the war, and Obama lost the peace is absolutely true, and it’s going to be undeniable by history. Yesterday, Joe Scarborough said on this show that President Obama’s looking at 30 years of memoirs about his incompetence coming from insiders. Do you agree with that, Karl?
KR: I don’t think it’s going to be a pleasant retirement for him. First of all, I think he’s going to, I think he’s going to have an exaggerated sense of what he’s going to be able to personally materially receive in his retirement. And you know, I think it’s also going to be very unpleasant to hear the verdict of history unroll. I mean, we already saw it. When your secretary of State, when the person who has served you in the top position in your cabinet for four years goes out and says this was a failure responsible for today, for what we see today, and I’ll be tougher on Iranian sanctions, and I’ll be a stronger friend of Israel, and oh, incidentally, while I’m at it, let me just tell you great nations need organizing principles, and don’t do stupid stuff is not an organizing principle. It shows how the arc of history is going to go in a very bad way for Barack Obama.
HH: Now pulling it back to the needs of the country, I mentioned generals that you have all worked with – Petraeus, Mattis, Allen and McChrystal. None of these have said anything into the public space, and for the same reasons that former President Bush might have been reluctant to do so. But as someone who understands the threat posed by terrorism, I’m not talking to you as a political strategist, but as a White House aide who had to be there on 9/11, and go to New York afterwards. Should they step forward and talk about what IS represents and what a nuclear Iran represents?
KR: Well, I do believe again there’s an appropriate role, but they each have to find the way in which they’re willing to talk about it. I also think that it is better, I hate to say this, the calendar is not at a good point for them. If they were to speak out about those things, I think it would be more constructive for the country if they were to do it after November 4 rather than before November 4. I think it would be easier to dismiss what they had to say as politics before November 4, and harder to do so afterwards.
HH: Oh, interesting. Okay, I buy that, and that would probably apply to former President Bush as well. Talk to us about the politics, then, both as the Senate candidates, and I ran over the map with Larry Sabato and with Sean Noble yesterday. It looks very good for Republicans. I think they’re going to get their six plus in the Senate. They’re going to pick up seats in the House. But talk to us, though, about how they ought to be talking about these sets of issues, and how the presidential wannabes ought to be talking about these sets of issues.
KR: Well, I do think that candidates, well first of all, let’s step back even further. Think about this. The new Fox Poll, the President’s approval, now maybe I’m going to be a little bit off on these numbers, I think the question of handling of the Iraq, how do you, do you approve or disapprove of the President’s handling of Iraq is like 37/60, 37 approve, 60 oppose. On the other hand, do you approve or disapprove of the air strikes in Iraq, it is the opposite. It flips. It is 65% favor the air strikes in Iraq, 30%, 31% oppose them. Now this says to me that the condition that we faced in the Bush years is still present today, that is to say if you say to the American people we are going to use America’s might and power on behalf of a specific purpose, because of the following reasons, that the American people have a tendency to support the action of a president. I mean, this president has done a lousy job of explaining why we have F-16’s being launched from, ironically enough, the George H. W. Bush, striking targets in Northern and Northwest Iraq. He’s just has done a lousy job of it. You cannot tell me that it makes sense, oh, we launched those because we’ve got personnel in Irbil.
KR: If that was the reason, remove them from Irbil. If you’re worried about their security, then get them out of there. Oh, we’re doing this because of humanitarian things, and no, no, no, you’re doing this to degrade a terrorist organization that is worse than any that we have seen, and has a power and a strength and a professionalism that makes every other terrorist apparatus look smaller and less dangerous by comparison. And the President ought to be out there talking about this in moral terms, and in practical terms about what it means for the interest of the United States.
HH: Last question, Karl Rove. In a sweeping interview that David Remnick did with him in January, President Obama referred to IS as the jayvees putting on Kobe’s jersey, issuing, really, one of the most fundamental misapprehensions of reality that I think has come out in direct quotes from the Oval Office ever. Do you think that is solvable? Can he wake up to this before it’s the kind of wake up that the country got sadly on 9/11?
KR: I hope so. I’m not confident that he will, and you saw the reaction from people inside the intelligence community. I heard it back then. We saw it recently when the outgoing head of the Defense Intelligence Agency basically blasted the President, very unusual…
HH: Michael Flynn, yeah.
KR: Yeah, Michael Flynn, and blasted the President, and blasted the people around the President. I don’t understand why the President said that. I just, it is beyond me. It goes back to the question that you raised earlier, is Krauthammer right, we lack a strategy, or is Cheney right that he doesn’t do his work, he doesn’t read his intelligence briefings. And I think unfortunately, it’s both. And we saw it there. The President had a lack of understanding about the threat represented by ISIS, and we now know he was ignoring specific counsel from the intelligence community that this was a dangerous group gaining strength and influence, and representing a real threat to America’s interests.
HH: Karl Rove, always bracing. www.rove.com, and follow him on Twitter, @KarlRove. I hope when you see your former boss that you nudge him towards the public stage, maybe after November rather than before it, but sometime soon. Karl, thank you, always a pleasure.
KR: Thank you, Hugh.
End of interview.