THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Michael Ledeen
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Gene Kirkpatrick says about today’s guest that, “His fascinating new book analyzes the structural and cultural basis of both Soviet and United States policies. It cuts through conventional interpretations and illuminates our world. Grave New World is important, well-written, required reading.” Former Secretary of State Alexander Hague says that, “The book is a chillingly frank overview of the contemporary internal scene.” And of the author, that he is “One of the all-too-rare, broadly experienced new generation of foreign policy realists who has placed himself in the actual undercurrents of international state craft.” And even as Michael Ledeen, who has served as consultant to the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense joins us today, we should further quote George Will about Grave New World, that “In it, Michael Ledeen deftly explains where we stand and why the world is cracking beneath our feet.” All of which makes me want to ask my old friend whether this doesn’t place him squarely in the much despised gloom and doom camp.
Michael, is it really cracking beneath our feet?
LEDEEN: Yeah, it’s cracking. Whether it’s gloomy and doomy is another question. But the central theory of the book is that the world is becoming more dangerous because neither we nor the Russians know what we’re doing. And consequently all the other countries in the middle who a few years ago used to say to themselves, I’d better not do this crazy thing, because if I start it the Russians will hit us or the Americans will clobber us,” now say to themselves, “I don’t know what they’re going to do, so we’ll start, And then if one or the other comes to us says, ‘You better stop, or else,’ then we’ll have tome to reconsider.”
HEFFNER: You say, “A few years ago.” So it’s literally true, as I’ve perceived it, that over the years you’ve become, if you’ll forgive me, a little more gloomy and a little more doomy every year.
LEDEEN: Yes, I’m getting a little gloomier. On the other hand, the bad new is that I don’t see much hope for good American foreign policy the way things are going.
HEFFNER: What do you mean?
LEDEEN: I just don’t think that we as a country take foreign policy seriously enough to prepare people and train people and then elect people or to place people in a position to conduct good foreign policy.
HEFFNER: Yes, but Michael, as I read the book I Have the feeling that you say that doesn’t count for very much because the people really shouldn’t have that much to say about foreign policy, but real leaders should.
LEDEEN: Well, the problem is the people that I’m talking about in this case are a foreign policy elite which in my view should be in place in countries that take foreign policy seriously. And we don’t have one, and that’s one of our basic problems. Consequently, the people who are there and are making policy aren’t very serious about it. They don’t understand what the basic requirements are. And so they get blown one way or the other by all kinds of fanciful storms, whether they come from the media, whether they come from the legal profession, or whether they come from public opinion, whatever it may be. But these are the things that drive American foreign policy, and not the kind of fundamental analysis and fundamental understanding which I would like to see running our foreign policy.
HEFFNER: But you know, I’ve used this phrase “doom and gloom” to needle you a little but, I’ll admit. But I was thinking, Norman Podhoretz was at this table just a few weeks ago, and I was thinking of the things that he has written about the gloom and doom period in England after the First World War, before the Second World War energized Britain again. You seem almost to be leading us into those kinds of pathways with this downer approach.
LEDEEN: Well, there are certainly a lot of comparisons. During the Carter period the comparisons were really hair-raising when you saw the kind of wishful thinking about the Soviet Union which was very similar to the kind of wishful thinking that the British indulged in with regards to the Nazis. And that certainly did hold, and there’s a lot of that still around today. And in the book I run through some of the things and I point out that there’s a disproportionate amount of energy devoted to worrying about the possibility of nuclear confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States when this is really an area of great success between the superpowers. This part of it at least so far has been managed well. The rules seem to be understood. Deterrence does work. And yet there’s proportionately very little concern about all kinds of smaller countries in very explosive situations which really could provoke a direct confrontation between the superpowers.
HEFFNER: If you say deterrence does work, does that mean you’re not supportive of the president’s present notion that there might be a shift and a change in that notion?
LEDEEN: No, I’m always for improvement, but the basic fact is that deterrence has worked, and this is a unique period in the history of the western world. We have rarely had two systems so totally in conflict in terms of their view of the world and their view of the future, and yet there has been no direct confrontation between us and the Soviet Union because deterrence has worked.
HEFFNER: Do you think that the Star Wars scheme og things may upset that equilibrium as you see it?
LEDEEN: No. I think Star Wars is wonderful. I think that especially if it works. But certainly the research part of Star Wars has to be done.
HEFFNER: But I don’t understand. If you say on the one hand we have managed to establish some kinds of equilibrium with our mad policy, how come you are willing to disturb that equilibrium?
LEDEEN: Because I think that first the Russians are working on such a program, and if they develop it before we do that will be extremely dangerous. And so simply from the standpoint of meeting Soviet challenges with our own actions we’re obliged to do it. And here’s another case in which people worry a lot more about American system that doesn’t exist than about a Russian system that does, on which work has already been done.
HEFFNER: Does that mean that—and I ask this out of ignorance, obviously—does it mean though that in a very real sense the president’s Star Wars initiative was not but a response to what we knew was happening in the Soviet Union?
LEDEEN: I think the president’s Star Wars initiative is two things. First, it is a response to what we knew what was going on in the Soviet Union, and the awareness of this Soviet program dates way back to Carter. General Keegan, who was roundly written off as some kind of maniac when he said it back at the early days of the Carter administration, laid it all out right then and there, all the laser beams and charged-particle beams and so forth. But it is also a willingness by this president to consider a different form of deterrence and to look at a world in which we could have a defensive shield.
HEFFNER: You’re approving then of the Star Wars initiative?
LEDEEN: Oh, yes…
HEFFNER: Initiative or response, call it what we will…
LEDEEN: Whatever it is, anything that the Russians hate as much as they hate it must be good.
HEFFNER: That’s almost an irrational approach to foreign policy on your part.
LEDEEN: No, it’s not at all irrational, because the things that create problems for our adversaries are likely to be worthwhile. There’s no life-threatening aspect to Star Wars. Star Wars is a purely defensive system. And the fact that the Russians pound the table so hard about Star Wars, as they did about the INF deployment, the Cruise and Pershing missiles, this too was evidence, When they scream and holler that loud at something that bothers them intensely. And the reason why Star Wars bothers them intensely in my opinion is twofold. First, they want to have it and they don’t want us to have it. But also they really do not wish to get into another round of major economic competition with the United States. If they can get away with something on the cheap they would like to do it that way. But what I lay out in the book is that the Soviet Union has entered a period of major structural crisis. They’re having a terrible time meeting current accounts. They have a cash-flow problem. They have an agricultural system which has failed and they know that it’s failed. Their own commodities really can’t keep up. They cannot match the technological competition with the west unless they steal from us or buy from us. They do not want a major round of technological competition with the United States right now. They’re just not equipped to deal with that.
HEFFNER: That’s interesting that you say, “Unless they steal from us or buy from us.” They’re doing both, aren’t they?
LEDEEN: They’re doing both. They’re doing less. We now have a program which is beginning to work on technology transfer, and it hurts them. It hurts them very badly.
HEFFNER: Is it part of your sense of despair about our foreign policy establishment that, as you suggest, perhaps only recently are we beginning to have a policy about Soviet purchases from us?
LEDEEN: The way that administration began, there was a grant total of four customs agents in the United States that were supposed top stop the illegal flow of American high technology to the Soviet bloc. Today there are over a thousand. So at least that has begun and programs like this area beginning. What drives me crazy and what I find so maddening is that it requires so very much effort to do these simple and obvious things like enforce our own regulations on a program which is eminently sensible.
HEFFNER: But just stay on this another moment. It seems to me that at the beginning of the Reagan administration there were efforts on the part of White House to increase our trade with the Soviets. Is this not true?
LEDEEN: Yeah, trade in grain. They lifted the grain embargo. But not trade in high technology. They are two entirely separate questions.
HEFFNER: Had you approved of the grain transfers?
LEDEEN: No, I was against lifting the grain embargo.
HEFFNER: All right. Is this part of what you consider the ineptitude of the foreign policy—I won’t say “establishment,” because this was a new administration—the foreign policy thrust of the United States?
LEDEEN: Yes. The drive to life the grain embargo was largely a domestic consideration by Reagan and the people around him. And they lifted it because they wanted to make life easier for the farmers, and the farmers wanted to sell grain to the Russians because they got hard cash for it. And the whole thing was taken in the context of domestic politics.
HEFFNER: And you seem to frequently in this book to come back to the theme that we can’t have a meaningful, consistent foreign policy because constantly domestic politics intrude upon what we do in the world outside.
LEDEEN: Yes. Basically the two things that bother me most about the constraints on American foreign policy are, first, that the political system, the electoral system, tends to give us presidents who are out of date. That has now changed because Reagan now in the second term, both himself and the people around hum have probably caught up with most of the major problems. But I looked at the period from John Kennedy through Jimmy Carter and found that every found years maximum, because in the case of Fort to Carter it was even less, we got a new president. That president was elected on the basis of foreign policy statements that he had made which were aimed at winning the election. Since it takes three to four years of full-time campaigning to get elected, this meant that the new president generally came in three to four years out of date with the realities of the world because he wasn’t looking at the realities of the world; he was taking positions based on polls and saying what he needed to do to get elected. So then he comes in and he looks around and he has to create a foreign policy. The foreign policy team that he creates, contrary to what most people believe, are based on internal political considerations. And if you run through the national security advisors and the secretaries of state that have been named in the last several administrations, it’s quite remarkable. Carter came in and took Cyrus Vance, who was the antithesis of Carter’s whole campaign and what he allegedly stood for. Nixon came in and picked Henry Kissinger as his chief foreign policy advisor, and Kissinger was a Rockefeller man. Then Reagan comes in, and as his chief foreign policy spokesman he takes Hague, and Hague was a Nixon man. That is precisely the thing that Reagan had allegedly been running against for the better part of eight years. So these are political, what I’m saying is these are political considerations. It wasn’t based on any policy.
HEFFNER: When was this ever not so?
LEDEEN: It certainly wasn’t so in the great period of American foreign policy, maybe the only truly great period we had, which was the one at the end of World War II and immediately thereafter.
HEFFNER: But there too you had what was considered a bipartisan foreign policy, a search for bipartisanship.
LEDEEN: Yeah, but the bipartisanship we have today is bipartisanship within a party. The bipartisanship we had during the war and after the war imposed by necessity of the first instance then carried through by reflex and great leadership was really a national bipartisanship.
HEFFNER: You know, let me turn to, let me see, it was page 65 of Grave New World. There is this, to me, amazing paragraph. If I may: “Most damaging of all is the carryover from the popular culture to the highest levels of government of the notion that there are no real standard of authority and this that the promises of American foreign policy can be redefined with each new administration,” as you just said. “Because foreign policy is put on the same level as domestic politics, the leaders of the country feel that they must respond equally to the demands of the true experts and to the human cry from below. This is a serious mistake,” says Michael Ledeen, “because public opinion is always poorly informed on serious policy matters, and also because effective policy and courageous leadership almost always produces its own consensus. Strong leadership for a just cause can alter the political universe.” It sounds very much like Commodore Vanderbilt, “The public be damned.”
LEDEEN: No. I hope, anyway, that it sounds more like Jimmy Carter at his best, which was the Panama Canal, or Ronald Reagan at his best in what I hope will be a successful campaign on Central America. The point is that if you permit photographs of public opinion or the human cry from the media to define your foreign policy and take those as the basic parameters, you’re not leading the country. And that government officials should take a look at the problems and define their policy in terms of the American national interest. And if that disagrees with the current state of public opinion, then try to change public opinion. Take your case to the public, weigh out the evidence, and eventually you’ll prevail. Look, when Jimmy Carter started the Panama Canal campaign to revise the Panama Canal treaties, there was something like 70 percent of public opinion against him. Plus a very strong campaign from the right that regarded this country, and he finally won. And I approve of that. I think the leadership was good and I think the cause was right. What has happened altogether too often, whether it’s Carter or other people, is they have looked at the state of public opinion and they have listened to what is frequently an abstracting, moralistic human cry from the press, and they have said, “Well, we can’t possibly have this,” and they’ve given up.
HEFFNER: Well, you talk about leadership. You still, and you refer frequently, constantly to a hero of the two of us, Walter Lippmann, an intellectual hero. But if I think back to that great book, Public Opinion, and to Lippmann’s effort to create a kind of organized intelligence that would do what you want the establishment, the elite to do, it didn’t really work out, and it was almost an abandonment, because within a democratic society how in the world do you achieve that?
LEDEEN: What you can do is hold people accountable, and you can set standard which makes it possible for successful practitioners to advance and for failures to pay a certain price. What is happening now throughout the whole system, but it’s particularly acute in my opinion in the foreign policy area, is that there is no reward for taking risks and succeeding, and there is every reason simply to go through and be a good bureaucrat and not address the major problems. That is why the Department of State, for example, is so frequently way behind the power curve on foreign policy questions, why their instints are so frightfully conservative and diplomatic in the extreme, and why it is that most of the initiatives come form political appointees who are not part of that system and who are themselves starving. But the oddity is that it’s the foreign policy professionals that really have the database of information, and the political appointees, for all their enthusiasm and their ability to change things, often go off in bad directions.
HEFFNER: When you talk about accountable, you want a kind of bottom line accountability. But there is another kind of accountability, and that’s accountability to the political process, which you seem to want to put in the second seat, not the first.
LEDEEN: No, not really. What I want is for our political leadership to use the political process to shape public opinion. The political process is a two-way phenomenon. It’s nowhere written that a politician simply has to accept a current state of public opinion. If they did that, most campaigns would never be waged at all, and Mondale never would have tried and so forth. “Well, there’s no chance, let’s just stop right here.” But there is an effort to educate the public, and the president is in a terrific position to do that. Look, to take my main criticism of Reagan in this book, it is over Central America. And to say that in the first year of his administration he had a terrific opportunity to really come to grips with the Central American crisis and to defeat Nicaragua right then and there and to support the democratic revolution in Central America. All the evidence was there. Most of what we know today we knew then. It’s just a matter of degree. Instead, what happened, his people did not want to be bothered with a major foreign policy to-do at a time when they believed that the central question before the nation was economics, tax reform, reduction of budget, and all of that.
HEFFNER: Was it not?
LEDEEN: It was. But the point is that in foreign policy you have a very limited window of opportunity. And if you don’t do it in the first year you’re not going to do it in the first term, and so proved to be the case. He could just as well, he could have done both, and should have done both. And the problem of international affairs was so important that he really couldn’t leave it to a second term.
HEFFNER: But Michael, that sort of business, it’s a little like my old friend and teacher Richard Hofstadter looking back at the Roosevelt administration and saying, in a sense, “He was a traitor, not to his class, but to the rest of us. He didn’t nationalize the bans. He didn’t do what I wanted him to do.” You’re talking about impossibilities, it would seem. Who more than Ronal Reagan would have wanted to do both, to have done all? Yet he choose. Didn’t he choose wisely as a political person?
LEDEEN: I don’t think so. I think it was relatively simple for him to do both at the time. He had an enormous national consensus behind him. The evidence on Central America had been laid down not even by his people but by the Carter administration. All that famous stuff in the White paper had been collected by the Carter administration and not by Reagan people. There was a terrific expectation all over Central America and indeed throughout the west that he was going to do something about it. Plus, he understood as very few presidents have understood that it was terribly important for the United States to demonstrate that a whole period of history in which the Soviet Union had been expanding and we had been retreating had come to an end. And there was the logical place to demonstrate it.
HEFFNER: Perhaps as a superb politician he was a little more aware of the fickle nature of public opinion. When you say, “He could have done everything,” he didn’t, and he won overwhelmingly his second term.
Let’s drop that for a minute. I want to go on the, I was going to almost say, “The praise you heap on the press,” and then I realized, “That isn’t what he is going. Michael Ledeen is terribly upset by the courts, by lawyers, by the press, by the media generally, in this country.” And you seem to be more and more concerned about those institutions each time you sit at this table.
LEDEEN: Yes, I’m concerned about them even though I’m convinced that their power is waning, and the media in particular. And the peculiar thing about the media, and I’m almost willing now to say that it’s a phenomenon of the western world and not just of the United States, but there is a great recognition on the part of the public at large that the media are not as reliable as they have pretended they were all these many years. And therefore the media no longer exert the great sway over public opinion that they used to. But paradoxically, the one area in which they really do have great power is within the government. People in Washington get up every morning and read the elite media and watch the networks, and they base an enormous amount of what they do each day on what they’ve seen in television in the morning, what they have read in the newspapers that day. And that too is dangerous, and one must not have these people dictating the agenda to the government officials any more than others.
HEFFNER: You don’t think they have as yet caught up with the rest of the population?
LEDEEN: I think that the politicians are quite out of touch with this reality. And I think that their overreaction to the media and the degree to which they really permit their agenda to be dictated by the media shows that they’re out of touch.
HEFFNER: Does that mean that you’re going to stop berating and beating the media people?
LEDEEN: No, because we need good media. And we do have an awful lot of good people in the media. What is so alarming is that again so many of these foreign policy questions are treated in an abstractly moralistic way that makes it impossible for the public officials who are reacting to it or for the public at large to see what’s really at stake in these cases and to understanding issues in context.
HEFFNER: Michael, what would you do if you were king, emperor, call it what you will, to change the thrust of Grave New World, as you entitled your new book?
LEDEEN: You mean to change the direction of American policy and to try to…
HEFFNER: Yeah, in terms of these institutions you have little good to say.
LEDEEN: I’ve made a few suggestions, little suggestions. I don’t believe in big solutions here as in elsewhere. But you basically have to improve the quality of the work that people are doing. So the firs thing is throughout the bureaucracy people have to be accountable, which means that successes have to be rewarded and failures have to be punished. That’s number one. Number two is probably reduce the size of the number of people who are dealing with these problems overall. There are too many people in the State Department, too many people in the Pentagon, and so forth. Thirst is the United States should make its foreign policy not just an American foreign policy but a policy for the western world. And so I think that we should draw upon the expertise and the wisdom of people from other countries and bring them to Washington and put them in advisory capacities where they can regularly inform the president as to how they see the world.
HEFFNER: That’s why you like the Kissingers and the Brzynskis.
LEDEEN: I like the Kissingers and the Brzynskis, and I like the Li Kwon Yus and the Helmut Schmidts and the Kosikas and the Suarezes. I like a lot of these people. And I think that they bring to a view of the world an understanding that we cannot possibly have. And since in practice we end up responding to the lobbying of foreign governments all the time anyhow, they are players in our policy debates just as much as Americans are, I think it’s better to take some of these guys who are freed of the pressures of day-to-day political constraints on their own countries, people who have grown out of it or who are no longer running for public office, have retired, why don’t we just bring them here and put them in a position where the president can draw upon them.
HEFFNER: Michael, I keep talking about this last great hope of mankind, this nation; you seem to be saying we’d better substitute for certain leaders those who are wise from abroad, and you seem to be saying that the press does better in other parts of the world although you’re willing to concede that your attack upon the press here could be expanded to the rest of western civilization. Generally though I have this down feeling.
LEDEEN: No, the press in the United States I think by and large is very much better than the press I’m familiar with, with any of them in any other western country. I don’t know of one that’s better. Although in terms of foreign news coverage some Swiss and German papers are very much better than anything that we have here, and I would say The Economist in England is probably the best western weekly publication that I know of. But in terms of the last great hope of mankind, of course it is, and it’s the only place where you can do these things. And that is precisely why I think that one ought to take some of these people from foreign countries and make them not leaders, not put them in positions of real power, but in advisory capacities so that we here can draw upon experiences that they have had and insights that they’ve developed that we cannot possibly have here.
HEFFNER: The striped-pants brigade in the State Department? Move it out?
LEDEEN: No, but make it accountable and make it possible for people in striped pants to do things which require nerve and courage and insight and initiative and be rewarded.
HEFFNER: You know, the trouble, it seems to me, with what you’re saying is that it runs so counter to the populism of the present president and the one before him too.
LEDEEN: Well, the populism of the president before the current one didn’t work out very well in foreign affairs. And this president has been forced to do an awful lot of catching up precisely because he’s been so often captured by the people in the foreign-policy establishment, and because he’s paid so much to the human cry from the press. And I give you just one simple example. In the case of Lebanon, at the key moment of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the president put enormous pressure on the Israelis to stop because of a series of photographs—I’ll believe this to my dying day—that appeared on television and in the press of this famous Lebanese child who allegedly had his arms blown off by Israeli weapons. Well, it turned out of course that the child hadn’t had his arms blown off at all, it was a deception that had been mounted especially for this purpose. But one has to make policy on the basis of serious considerations and not simply on the basis of a photograph in the newspaper. We just can’t manage to have a safe world if policy is made on a basis like this, especially if we are facing an adversary who is coming apart and who’s going to look more and more desperately for foreign policy successes at our expense.
HEFFNER: You know, we have about 30 seconds left, and I did so want to talk about that adversary who was falling apart. You really believe that.
LEDEEN: Yeah. There’s absolutely no question about it. Any angle you look at the Soviet Union you find that they are in serious crisis. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s Gorbachev or Chernyenko or whoever it is, they have to face a crisis which has no good solution.
HEFFNER: And you think we will, in terms of the nature of leadership in this country, the potential.
LEDDEEN: We have a basically sound and vital society. What we need is a bit more expertise here and more accountability within the press and the policy establishment.
HEFFNER: I wanted to end this program on that up note because Grave New World had put me in a different frame of mind. Thanks so much for joining me today, Michael Ledeen.
LEDEEN: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time here on The Open Mind. And meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”