By Kaleem Hawa
A frequent guest on network news, David Frum is a political commentator, former Bush speechwriter and prominent Republican. He will be participating in the World Affairs Conference Moring Panel on February 8th, 2011 along with Cheri DiNovo and John McGarry. The following is an interview with Mr. Frum about his experiences as a Bush speechwriter and his views on American politics, foreign intervention and the war in Afghanistan.
KH: I want to start off by asking what you’re doingnow and what plans you have for the future?
DF: I edit a website called frumforum.com which is about the modernization of the Republican Party. I write columns and do broadcasts in a variety of media outlets. I’m also active in a lot of political campaigns and political work.
KH: Is it true you were raised in Canada?
DF: I grew up in Toronto and lived there until I was eighteen when I went away to school. I continue to remain very active in things Canadian. My wife and I are building a summerhouse in Prince Edward County.
KH:Why was it that you moved to the United States?
DF:I went to school here and got very involved in American politics. I was writing a lot for American sources and this seemed to be, at that time, the place where the ideas I most cared about would be most intensely contested.
KH: What path did you follow to get involved with the Bush Presidency and how did you end up becoming a speechwriter for him?
DF: Well, there wasn’t really a path. It happened quite accidently. I was a journalist. I was writing during the 2000 campaign and, after the campaign was over, the Bush people offered me a speechwriting job. I have to say, I was very surprised. I had never written speeches in any serious way. At first I was reluctant for a lot of reasons that I detail in the book I wrote about that experience, but it seemed just too intense, too vivid an experience to miss and I agreed after a month.
KH: What would you say was the best part of that experience?
DF: Umm… getting a more intimate view of the difficulties that people in politics face. We’re always being told, “Do this, do that,” and even though people think they know how difficult it is to do this or that, you really have to work alongside them to appreciate just what a heavy lift it is.
KH: Does that colour the way you see the Bush Presidency? Do you think people have perceived the Presidency unfairly?
DF: It has influenced the way I see all Presidencies and I think I have learned considerable sympathy, for example, for the problems that President Obama faces. So many of my Bush administration colleagues were embittered by the unfairness of the criticism faced by George Bush and then turned around and unleashed similar kinds of criticisms on President Obama and the lesson I took from that experience was that I want no part of this. I think we have to have more understanding of the challenges faced by all Presidents and the unlimited range of options faced by all Presidents.
KH: You just said you didn’t want to take part in any of this. You also said Frum Forum is about the modernization of the Republican Party. Is that the way you perceive the Republican Party nowadays? Is it more radical? Is it something that displeases you or worries you?
DF: I am very worried by the present state of the Republican Party and I worry most of all about its ability to respond to the real needs of the country. America is going through an intense economic crisis and terrible suffering for very, very many people. That really has to be of the foundation of your political response. And Iworry that some of the Republican response loses contact with that fundamental fact.
KH: Are all American politics becoming more radical or is its just specific to the Republicans and the Tea Party movement?
DF: I think the tendency of the United States is for the opposition party to be radicalized. The comparison is not, “Who is more radical? Radical Republicans today or Democrats today?” The question is, “Who is more radical? Republicans today or Democrats in 2005?” The Democrats were driven to a position of real radicalism when they were out of office. I think it says something about the challenges and difficulties about American politics that opposition parties are driven to these kinds of outbursts. The American system is not a parliamentary system. Unlike Canada where the government governs and the opposition opposes, the American system does not have a clear division. Who’s the government in the United States? Is it the party that has a majority in the House of Representatives? The system requires cooperation from all the players – competition and cooperation. You have to be able to do both.
KH: We all thank you for it, being this mild-mannered person speaking out against some of the radicalism we’re seeing in the United States…
DF: I’m not mild-mannered.
KH: [Laugh] Right. Would you rather…
DF: No, no. I think that’s a common misconception. I’m not mild-mannered and I’m not a centrist. I am a conservative and I’m pretty fierce about it. But what I’m a strong believer in is that the American system requires certain kinds of standards and institutions to succeed. And the object is not to make people disavow their core convictions, the object is to make sure that the institutions can enable the clash of those core convictions to yield a positive rather than a negative result.
KH: So would you say that you don’t see a future for yourself in Canadian politics?
DF: Well, I follow Canadian politics very closely and I’m very impressed by the leadership of the Harper government. Stephen Harper – personally I’m a big admirer of his and I think Canada always tends to be an underrated story, partly because successful countries don’t get as much attention as unsuccessful countries do. And right now Canada is a very successful country.
KH: You are coming to the World Affairs Conference to be talking about intervention – foreign intervention – and the way Canada is going to deal with that in the future, and what concerns it may need to have about growing threats in the Middle East. Do you want to highlight for us right now some of the things you think Canada and the Harper government should be most concerned about?
DF: Well look, I think that we are globalized.The process of globalization means that countries, peoples, nations come closer together than they used to, both for good and for ill. Travel is easier, trade is easier, sharing of ideas and cultures is easier but it is also easier to do harm and easier for terrorist networks to reach across international lines and easier for the flow of money to pay for terrorism to reach into other countries. Canada has not suffered as much from terrorism – although it has suffered plenty as some other countries – but when you look at the history, for example, of the Air India disaster, when you look at Sri Lanka, the ability of dangerous groups to reach into Canada as a base of support is really qualitatively different from what you would have seen before the 1980s.
KH: I read an article you wrote in the National Post about the necessity of the War in Afghanistan. Do you still maintain the necessity of the War in Afghanistan?
DF: What I maintain is the necessity of a presence in Afghanistan. The war part is not a goal, the war part is an unwanted byproduct. This is how I would say it most fundamentally: there are probably few places on the planet more essential to the peace and stability of the whole planet than South Asia. Afghanistan is really more part of South Asia than it’s part of the Middle East. When the Afghan state collapsed during the Russian invasion and because it wasn’t put together well afterwards, it opened a space for all kinds of extremist actors from the Middle East, but also from South Asia, to gain a foothold. They have lashed out in ways that are threatening to the whole world. What the NATO presence in Afghanistan is trying to do is to bring stability to that country. Now we’ve got a war on our hands because there is some Taliban resistance, but the challenge is much bigger than the war.
KH: Does it upset you that Canada and Stephen Harper have proposed that we remove our foreign troops from Afghanistan by 2011 and just maintain a small training force in the country?
DF: No, I think Canada is genuinely at the limits of Canadian capacities, so I’m not surprised that Canada would say that this mission, which has lasted so long, has exhausted Canada’s capacities. The issue is not, “Should Canada do more?” The issue now is, “What other major Western democratic countries will step up and take the Canadian role?” This is a commitment for all the NATO countries and the mission in Afghanistan is a NATO Article 5 mission. Every NATO member is obliged to be there.
KH: Do you think it’s possible to succeed?
DF: I think it’s very possible to bring about a situation that is reasonably stable in Afghanistan. Not only do I think it’s possible, I think we’re likely to get there pretty soon. It’s very expensive, partly because of the way we’ve handled this war. We may have a bigger footprint than makes maximum sense, but I think the goal of having a stable government that has its authority recognized through all the population centres of Afghanistan – that is not an unreasonable goal.
KH: Again, thanks a lot, and nice speaking to you.
DF: See you in February.