This article first appeared on June 28, 2005.
Until he stepped down on January 24, after writing over 3,000 biweekly op-ed columns at the New York Times, William Safire 'had to have an opinion on everything.' Now, he reflects wryly, he is obligated to be definitive only on language - his 'scholarly recreation' - on which he continues to write a column in the New York Times Magazine.
His hotel room already reflected his post-Times interests, with books on brain development and on how technology implants could change what it means to be human. His last column was called 'Never Retire,' advice he seems intent on keeping himself.
Still, in an easygoing conversation on the sun-dappled balcony of his King David Hotel room during his visit to Israel earlier this month, Safire was clearly disinclined to let old habits die, and sallied categorically forth on everything from the virtues of disengagement to the inability of tyrannies to ultimately resist pressure for basic freedoms, from Jewish guilt and humor to the identity not merely of the next leader of the free world but even of the vice president.
Safire, who is clearly proud of his reporter origins and of the times he broke news in his columns, also could not resist asking us almost as many questions as we asked him. One wonders whether he will be able to stay out the limelight of the Washington political and policy scene for long.
As a long time political friend of Ariel Sharon, what are your thoughts on disengagement?
First, you don't really want Gaza to be part of Israel.
Demographically, it would be a disaster. It would also be impossible for Israel to govern. To keep so many troops occupied defending a few islands, 8,000 or 9,000 Israelis, is a strategic error.
If you don't want the area and it's costing you too much to maintain a presence there, it should fit into a general philosophy of disengagement - not just from there, but from areas of the West Bank that you don't feel you can keep.
Sooner or later you're gonna have to do something. Instead of making it in the form of a concession, saying 'we'll give you this if you give me that,' concessions haven't worked over the last decade. So I think a unilateral approach saying, 'ok, if you can't give us a real negotiating partner who can deliver, then we'll have to do it ourselves' - that's what you've done and it makes good sense to me. Now I'm an outsider. [But] I'm a rooter for Israel through ups and downs... [and] I think long range you're doing the right thing because you don't have a likely peacemaking partner.
There are numerous counter-arguments, primarily the concern that Israel is apparently vindicating the theory initiated when Israel left South Lebanon: that if you hit Israel hard enough and relentlessly enough, it will capitulate. It has left southern Lebanon and, after 4 1/2 years of second intifada terrorism, it is capitulating and leaving Gaza, and 'if we keep going we'll get them out of the West Bank and then we're just one step away from kicking them into the sea.'
I think that's a very weak argument - that everything you do is going to be interpreted as surrender. You have to have enough self-confidence to say 'we're going to do this because it's good for us. And it's not as a concession.'
If other people then think mistakenly, we can't act on their mistake. You have to act on what's best for yourself.
Now, is it for American Jews and opinionated right- wing neo-cons who write for the New York Times to say this is what Israel should do? I've always felt that if you're not on the front line, you shouldn't tell them how to do it. But at the same time, if they're doing something right, you've got to be able to say, 'Hey, you're doing something right.' So that's what I feel.
But it's not only what the other side thinks.
There's also a concern that disengagement will practically encourage terrorism. There's a very strong argument, which many supporters of disengagement acknowledge, that the pullout from Lebanon emboldened Palestinian terrorism. So it's not merely that they'll be able to cheer from the rooftops, but the concern that they will escalate their efforts and therefore more Israelis will die.
Many people say, 'If we do this, that will happen.' But they don't say, 'If we don't do this, that will happen.' And the downside of doing nothing is enormous. You will subject yourselves to more terror. By saying, 'The hell with the present plan; we will become rigid and stay in Gaza and keep everything we've got in the West Bank and freeze and see where that goes,' that could be considerably worse than the alternative of having some propagandists saying, 'See, we got rid of them.'
What does the same mindset that says leave Gaza say about the West Bank?
What parts of the West Bank should Israel be prepared to relinquish unilaterally in a Disengagement II?
There'll be a portion of the West Bank that will remain, become part of Israel, and a portion that will become part of a state of Palestine if they can get it together and that's a big 'if.'
To switch to the war against terror, after Afghanistan and Iraq, what's next? Is the era of regime change over? Is the invasion phase of the Bush doctrine over for the foreseeable future. If so, what form does the Bush doctrine take for a country like Iran?
There is no regime change doctrine. That isn't a doctrine, that's a tactic. Bush's idea: taking from the idealistic Woodrow Wilson, making the world safe for democracy; taking from Jefferson, holding a light to the world - it's derided as idealistic by people in the US who used to call themselves idealists. The neo-cons, who used to be the hardliners, find themselves reviled as idealists and optimists.
So I'm on the side of the idealists. You are too young to have lived through the absolute certainty that the Soviet Union would remain a counterweight for a century. In the '60s everyone was talking about maybe there would be a convergence of communism and capitalism and now everybody is talking about fascist civilizations and Islam. I believe - and I don't think it's cornball - that there is in human beings a desire for less repression and more freedom.
Now, it doesn't have to be expressed in beautiful democratic terms, but it does have to be expressed in 'get off my back.'
Over there [in repressed regimes, people] can see on television and on computers that those people [in the free world] have a better life. [And they ask:] 'Why can't we?'
[They want] two things: political freedom and economic opportunity. Now I believe that the capitalist system is the answer to the human needs that drive the engine of prosperity. I also believe there is a lust for freedom that is increasing as people get to see other peoples' freedom.
What controlled the Soviet Union was the ability to crack down on Samizdat and now, as a result of that ability to clamp down, the Soviet Union fell way behind on technology. They missed the whole boat and the reason for that was the fear of freedom, fear of information flow. Now we're seeing that information flow stimulated [on the Internet]. It's got people talking to people. And here's a video of a sitcom and they're looking at what people have.
So we have the answer when it comes to an economic system. And we have the answer when it comes to a political system. That's why I think that the wave of the future is what the neo-cons have been talking about. And this thing was given impetus by the 9/11 attack, which changed the Bush administration so radically. It said, 'Well, we've got to move now, we can't just talk about this.
That led to Afghanistan. And I was among those that felt strongly that there would be weapons of mass destruction [in Iraq], but I also felt that human rights was a huge thing in Iraq and it was being run by a tyrant and a murderer and 30,000 people a year were being killed. I had all my Kurdish contacts on the cell phone telling me what was going on, and that's why I was all for the invasion of Iraq. And I think it was a healthy bet - the right thing to do.
It's dragging on, but the Iraqis will win and if that blossoms in those two countries where nobody thought 10 years ago that there could possibly be democracy, that would be good for Israel. That would be good for Lebanon, which is a complicated mess politically, but it's better off now without Syrian troops. You're seeing some change in Egypt. Not enough change yet, not any change really, in Saudi Arabia.
So you have different speeds of movement, but the movement is in the right direction. And I was sitting there, like you at your age, saying '30 or 40 years from now we're going to be talking about the same thing, fighting the same battle,' but progress happened.
Let's talk a little more about the speed factor.
President Bush in his second inaugural address made this ringing declaration about the need for freedom, but was he talking about this in our lifetime or just in the indefinite future? He spoke of the axis of evil, but he's not spending huge amounts of money on behalf of the Iranian people [for democracy]. Meanwhile, Iran is racing to a nuclear capability. Who is going to win that race? Will the Bush administration be more pro-active for freedom and democracy?
Certainly the record has been extraordinarily pro- active.
What about post-Iraq, post-invasion?
You mean, what has he done for us lately [laughs]. Let me back up and tell you an anecdote about Iran. I was writing speeches for Nixon back in '71 and we were going to Moscow and on the way back, to reassure the Shah of Iran that we hadn't sold him out, we stopped in Teheran. I told my wife we would be in Teheran. She said, 'Antiques, they're terrific on antiques. And these are the five places you should go to.'
We leave Moscow, the summit's over. We get to Teheran about 5 or 6 in the evening. And there's a diplomatic reception and dinner. And we're leaving the next morning. I'm on the reception line to meet the Shah, and the president says, 'This is my speechwriter, Safire,' and the Shah says, 'are you enjoying Teheran?'
And I say, 'Frankly, I'd enjoy it a lot more if I could do some shopping. But we're leaving tomorrow morning.' And then the Shah turns to the Grand Vizier or whoever it is behind him and says, 'Keep the shops open.'
So a dozen of us wander around Teheran with these bleary-eyed shopkeepers at 3 o'clock in the morning and we're buying antiques. This did not help the image of the United States...
This was imperial power. And we could hear that night some demonstrations going on, and we were told, of course, that it was nothing, just troublemakers.
So, coming from someone who has seen that kind of imperial power and the misdirection of the resentment and the seizure of the issue by the ayatollahs, [I can tell you] there is a literate, educated, suppressed Iranian people, not just the ones you see on television. They are there and ultimately they will express themselves. They can't be repressed forever. There's much more upward pressure in Iran than there was in Iraq.
By upward, I mean pressure for freedom. So we're in a race, really, between their getting a nuclear weapon and their getting freedom.
How do you define victory in the war on terror?
An outbreak of freedom in more and more countries and a diminution in the excitement of fanaticism.
Hatred is a fire, but it also has to have fuel and the more nations we can get to adopt mildly free or more capitalistic societies, the more momentum we gain. And if you look around the world and count the democracies and count the tyrannies over the past 50 years, we're doing very well.
But then put it into our particular context. We went down that road. Shimon Peres's central concept was that economic improvement would marginalize the extremists and bring pragmatism and compromise, and that didn't work.
Communism lasted 70 years. I'm not saying these guys can last seven, but it takes a while. You've both met with intelligent and articulate Palestinians, as I have. And I can't believe that Palestinians are just going to listen to the same arguments and promises forever. Sooner or later, there's going to be some charismatic figure who says, 'Let's start feeding ourselves and let's start taking advantage of the offers we're getting from around the world to help. Let's upset the corruption here. We can't just blame the Israelis. That doesn't work. Either we want to conquer Israel and that should be our dream and our goal, or we concentrate on ourselves, what can help us.' The logic of the situation just seems to call for someone to come up with that.
If you're referring to someone like Sari Nusseibeh when you say 'intelligent Palestinians,' he would tell you that he has little Palestinian support behind him.
Furthermore, there is the perverted concept of what Islam requires of its followers: The sense that eliminating Israel and killing Jews is the finest task that you can perform for Islam.
That's robustly out there. So you'd think that forward-looking and charismatic leaders would emerge, but you'd also be fairly confident that in this environment, they would be eliminated.
Therefore you're doing what you have to do, dealing with what you control. You have control of whether you stay in or out of Gaza. Control of where you build your fence. You have control of the degree to which you take the West Bank into Israel.
I don't think one can eat and live long with fanaticism. It wears itself out and sooner or later good sense prevails. The odds are greater for good sense to emerge from an exhaustion of fanaticism than the odds are for the opposite.
The concern that the Israeli Right raises when you get to that point in the argument is that 10-12 years ago, when the PLO was exhausted and had broken all its friendships and had no support, Israel rehabilitated it and brought Arafat back. And that Israel is doing the same kind of thing now: for four years Israel resisted terrorism. The terrorists were exhausted and then, here we are, we vindicated them.
You're not doing the same thing now. You're saying, 'We are deciding to do this. This is unilateral.' You wish it could be bilateral. But they haven't been dismantling the gunmen and until they do, you have to operate the way you are now.
Looking at the Communist precedent, might religion be harder to shift - the perverted sense of what religion requires?
I don't know. We'll see. I'd rather bet on my hopes than on my fears.
Who would you say is the Establishment in Washington now?
It's an overwhelmingly Republican establishment in po- wer that automatically builds a counter-force. And as of now the counter-force can't decide whether it's fiercely, Howard Dean hot, or Hillary Clinton cool. It won't really decide for another year and a half. And then we'll have an election and I know who the candidates will be on both sides and I know who will win, but you haven't asked me that.
On the democratic side, Hillary Clinton should come out on top. It'll be a tough fight. It'll be the greatest fundraiser for Republicans and the two I think she'll wind up fighting are Evan Bayh, who is a mid-westerner and a nice guy; and a cloud no bigger than a man's hand on the horizon is Bill Richardson, who has a Latino wife and who at the Gridiron Club, where he represented Democrats this year, got up in front of this white-tie stiff audience and said, 'There are many people who think I will exploit the fact that I have a Latino heritage and that is absolutely untrue. Let me repeat that.' And then he said the whole thing again in Spanish. It went over big.
He's a big man. He's been both the UN ambassador and the Energy Secretary and now he's a governor in the southwest, so he could be a formidable candidate against Hillary, but if he doesn't get it, then he's going to be the nominee's vice-president, running against John McCain and Condy Rice.
You're hopeful or you really think McCain?
Well I always bet my hopes.
He'd be a good president?
And what's the analysis of him winning?
He's got the center. Now, having the center usually means you lose the right or the left. But in this case, having really had the primaries stolen from him back in 2000 - and I was a 100% McCain man - he did what was in character. He forgave the North Vietnamese and he forgave Bush and in 2004 he was a stalwart, so in terms of the political establishment and the Republicans, he did the right thing, and you can't be against him.
And as far as the sociological, he's been pro-life. He can point to his voting record and you can't really fault him in that area if abortion becomes a very important thing to you, which it is to a lot of people. He's a hero. He's not anathema to the religious Right the way Rudy Giuliani would be and that's why I think he'll win.
What is your sense of the future American relationship with Israel?
Of all the administrations I have seen, this one is the best for Israel. Bush and the people who surround him - Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith and Cheney.
Maybe the call in this case has little to do with ethnicity and religion and everything to do with attitudes toward bedrock stuff. I think that is reflected in this president and the men - and woman - closest to him. The relationship has been very good and I don't see it moving away from that.
How is Israel perceived today in the American psyche?
Israel is seen as being on the right side and is trustworthy. Little bumps come up like the arms sale, technical stuff to the Chinese. So your defense guys need to sit down with our defense guys and Israel is intelligent enough to say, 'We know on which side our security is buttered.'
And there has to be some display of, 'We mustn't just be 100% for Israel if we're trying to make a deal. We have to show our ability to work with the Palestinians or with the Egyptians.' But in the context of history, of the last 20 or 30 years, I think you can be confident of Bush looking to his second term legacy as being supportive of Israel.
Do you have any thoughts on the AIPAC business - the indictment of the Defense Department's Larry Franklin on charges of passing on classified information?
It looks like the government spent a lot of money and a lot of time tracking down essentially a relationship between allies about policy. We're not talking about secrets. We're talking about policy. So I worry about it. I wonder if priorities are properly placed on the use of the FBI.
In your speech [accepting the Guardian of Zion award from the Rennert Center of Bar-Ilan University on June 15], you talked about welcoming converts into Judaism. Your position indicates that you think Judaism has things to offer potential converts that we're not offering.
What do you think the Jewish people and Judaism have to offer in the modern world?
There is the sense of being special and the sense of traditions and history. There's the cultural affinity, the food and the guilt and the language and the humor. I heard a joke the other day about two Jews lined up against the wall and the head of the firing squad says, 'any last requests?'
And one of the Jews says, 'I would like to have a blindfold,' and the other Jew says, 'Don't make trouble.' That's uniquely Jewish humor.
And there's hot pastrami.
So there's that ethnicity and that irony that is part of the culture and it attracts. There's a centrifugal force there that's not working as well as a centrifugal force. So how do you do it? In my speech I talked about some of the techniques of using the Internet to set up virtual Bar Mitzvas and education via the Internet.
Judaism is an interesting field. Dissent is allowed. You can argue with God. You don't need intermediaries. You can use teachers and rabbis and help and study, and you can do it without, and that's an attractive idea. I think it can be used to bring people in. With all the intermarriage that we see now as a way of losing people, there should be a way of turning that around and bringing them in and making it less difficult and having people say, 'you can join us. It's not such an exclusive club,' rather than leaving people saying, 'Why would I knock myself out and try and force myself in?'
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