Victor Davis Hanson returned to the “Seth and Chris Show” to discuss how North Korea became a crisis, what China’s role is, how the United States can reassert itself in Asia, and why so many movement conservatives have become estranged from each other over President Trump. The complete transcript is below.
Seth Leibsohn: We are delighted to welcome back to the show Professor Victor Davis Hanson, senior fellow in residence in classics and military history at the Hoover Institution, contributor to American Greatness, and military historian. Nonpareil Professor Hanson, thank you for joining us again.
Victor Davis Hanson: Thank you for having me.
Leibsohn: Professor, it’s an interesting thing when you’re on this side of the business in radio. When you look for an area or an issue and you need to get an expert. You want to talk to experts. It’s surprising how few North Korea experts there are in America. And it dawned on me, you know, something Irving Kristol once said, foreign policy isn’t that hard. You just need to know right and wrong. So, I thought I’d go to a military historian such as yourself, and help us unwind how we got here and where you think we rationally can go.
Events have developed, at least rhetorically, they’ve heated up quite a bit over the last 48 hours. But the truth is, we’re blaming a thunderclap when the clouds have been darkening and coming for some time.
Hanson: Yeah. I think it’s been, the idea that each administration understood that if they said the right thing, that is, the right appeasing thing, and they offered enough money and they placed their trust in China, that they could get through four or eight years without a nuclear weapon going off. Or if it did, it happened in 2006, they could contextualize it.
So that’s what Bill Clinton, who is the worst offender to be fair, and then George W. Bush and Obama did. So. You put it all together, it’s 24 years. And that gave them enough time to develop a strategic threat. It was diabolical and evil, but it was, there was a brilliance about [North Korea’s] strategy because 30 million people that are in a failed state suddenly have the world’s attention. They’re shaking down the world for billions of dollars the last three decades.
They’ve bifurcated U.S. strategy for the first time in 70 years, because our interests are now not identical with South Korea’s. Because of, you know, in 45 minutes you can blow up Facebook and Google and Apple and a million people who live around them. And that means that we have some other interest other than Seoul, South Korea. In the old days, we would say to Seoul, you’re welcome to a sunshine policy. You’re welcome to talk to them. Do what you have to do, because you’re on the front lines. Now we’re saying to them, we’re both on the front lines, so be careful what you do because it affects us as well. That was something that North Korea was able to achieve.
We’ve never really looked at China. We’ve always said, we’ve had this establishment in foreign policy that’s always said, “It’s not China’s interest,” fill in the blank. It’s always been in China’s interest, because it ties down U.S. assets. It makes us angry, upset, we invest blood and treasure.
Leibsohn: I have to tell you, I’ve always thought we were kidding ourselves and that it was a bad joke when people said, well, North Korea’s, you know, militarism is not in China’s interest. It just always sounded like a bad joke to me.
Hanson: Yeah. It’s always been in their interest, and they’ve gotten a lot out of it. And I think it’s now incumbent to make them pay. We need to tell them, you know, we have to use every card. India’s in a dispute with China in the Himalayas. I don’t know why we just cut Russia completely off. I know that Putin’s a thug and a killer, but we could have triangulated with Russia. As we did in the old days. To make China unsure of what our relationship is with the largest nuclear power in the world.
And we’re gonna have to raise the nuclear card with South Korea and Japan. We need to get a very sophisticated missile defense from the Philippines to Australia to Taiwan. Not South Korea to Japan, not only to deter North Korea, but at a level that would deter China and take away their first-strike threat.
I work at a university where, when I go in the elevator up to my office, every day there’s 10 to 20 people from, you know, China. They’re not Chinese Americans, they’re not green card holders. They’re visitors. And they’re here because they’re trying to lobby and get their children into Stanford and they’re looking at expensive properties in Silicon Valley. And we need to tell them, if you don’t do something, you’re all gone. No more Cal Tech foreign students. No more Stanford, no more Berkeley, no empty mansions in Beverly Hills, no houses in the Seattle suburbs. Gone. Get out.
All of that seems extreme, but it’s very mild in comparison with living with a nuclear weapon pointed at Seattle or San Diego. And notice how the Left has said, that well, this is sort of like Mao in the 1960s, and we lived with him, so let’s just get used to it. And, we’ve got a lot of, make some tough decisions coming very quickly.
Leibsohn: It’s not. Neither is it as extreme, Professor Hanson, as some of the other things that people have been talking about over the past few days. You know, the idea of a conventional war, the idea of taking Donald Trump’s words to their extreme conclusion, you know, “fire and fury.” As some said, that could only mean an atomic or a nuclear attack. What you propose is not anywhere near that level of extremism. That having been said, if we don’t have the will to act like that, on our own shores, you know.
I don’t know how quickly we can move on missile defense. I think that that is a sad, sad tale of willful neglect that has left us in the position we’re in now. And by us, I mean California, Alaska, Hawaii, for that matter, Guam. And the rest of the civilized world. That’s something that could have been done in three years with something like 30 billion dollars. And I hope we do it now, and quickly.
But what are the options? If we look at something militarily. They’re not good, but they can’t be taken off the table of our imagination.
Hanson: No, not off the table.
Hanson: Before I answer that, just remember that our president in a hot-mic conversation, “I’ll be flexible with Vladimir.”
Hanson: I mean on missile defense. He used the words missile defense.
Hanson: He used them in a different context, but the technology did not improve under his administration. And everything he said on that hot-mic became true. We … Russia behaved in 2012 and did not act like it does now until after Obama was reelected. Of course, if Trump had said something like that, we would have Robert Mueller with his indictment for collusion.
But nevertheless . . .
Leibsohn: Well, hold that thought. I mean, before nevertheless. That’s kind of an interesting thing about you know, the wave of thought right now is that Russia interfered in our elections. Here you had Obama directly interfering with Russia on our elections. It’s kind of an interesting thing to think about for a moment.
Hanson: Yeah. He also, remember, interfered in the Brexit vote.
Leibsohn: Yes, of course.
Hanson: And he interfered in the Macron election and, got on TV and said, “Do not vote Le Pen.”
Leibsohn: And, of course, the Israeli vote.
Hanson: In the 2015 Israeli vote, he actually sent agents, our operatives, to go over there and try to defeat Netanyahu.
Hanson: But I mean, we can go . . . we can, I suppose the idea is that if you were to go after the [apparatus] in the way that we couldn’t do with Saddam, we tried it. But we would send bunker-busters after, I don’t know, 10 or 15 of these big compounds, we would have to go after the conventional artillery sites. There’s up to maybe 8,000 of them. And . . . we would have to go over the nuclear sites. So you know, and we’d have to do that, I think, if we were gonna preempt without nuclear weapons, and we’re not in the same situation that we were eight years ago as far as our capabilities that we . . .
Leibsohn: . . . Right, once upon a time the thinking was, we could do something along the lines of what Israel did with Osirak, but we’re not in that position anymore, and the fallout would probably be too, well not too great, maybe too great, but also greater than anything that could have been contemplated back then.
Hanson: Yeah. And, I think that that it’s possible, and people are advocating that, but we would have to rely on help. Probably from the Japanese, South Koreans, and I don’t think we should count on any of our Europeans. But we need to find ways, first of all, we have about eight different steps as I said, that we could employ immediately and graduate them and escalate them, as far as China’s concerned. Because all the technology, all the capital, all the financing, came from China. And North Korea couldn’t have done anything. They can’t do anything without China. China knew it, they understood that they had a pit bull on their leash, and they cut it off to aggravate us.
And we know that if South Korea was under a dictatorship like it was in the ’50s and they had nuclear weapons and they were saying, “We’re gonna take out Beijing on Monday, and Shanghai on Tuesday,” China would invade. They would do something. Or they would attack us, or they would yell at us for allowing that to happen. So they know what they’re doing, and I think to be frank, I don’t want to scapegoat the Obama administration too much, but over eight years of fake step-over lines, fake deadlines, fake red lines, getting out of Iraq, ISIS, the Libya fiasco, Putin invited into the Middle East. All that put together created a climate of appeasement without any deterrent. And that’s what we’re looking . . .
Leibsohn: Yeah I know. That’s a sad tale of one big toxic confluence. I said yesterday, and I don’t know if you would agree, maybe we can answer it on the other side of the break because we’re heading into one right now, professor. I said yesterday, I think, you know, administrations often are, you know, thrown off their agenda and defined by a surprise foreign policy problem or international relations problem they did not foresee. Recent history testifies to that.
I think in some respects the Trump presidency will be judged on North Korea. Didn’t ask for it, but the war may have come. Can you stay with us one more segment? We’ll address that on the other side.
Hanson: Yes, yeah.
Leibsohn: Victor Davis Hanson, from Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. We’ll be right back.
Delighted to welcome back Professor Victor Davis Hanson from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University talking about North Korea. Taking a broader view. Professor Hanson, I was struck in Donald Rumsfeld’s autobiography. He says when Dick Cheney held, was having his confirmation hearings for secretary of defense in the first H.W. Bush administration, he received zero questions on Iraq. And that when he, Don Rumsfeld, was getting his confirmation hearings, in, I suppose, 2001, he received no questions on Afghanistan. Two international issues that ended up defining both presidencies. Irrespective of whether anyone like Mattis or Tillerson was asked about North Korea, it has been my view for some time that North Korea will be the international story that defines the Trump presidency. There’s no stake in it, but do you think that that’s a possibility? I mean, the stakes really, at this point, seem to be as high as we could get.
Hanson: It’s gonna work out to Trump’s advantage, because while there’s this controversy over McMaster being supposedly too accommodating to former Obama people, all of these controversies deal with the Middle East. Iran . . .
Hanson: . . . and radical Islam. But anybody who knows him and Mattis realizes that Obama got rid of Mattis because he was too tough on questions that we’re talking about right now, he felt. And the same thing, McMaster was stymied, never got to four stars, for the same reason. And when you put both those guys, and you add Kelly and I think that Tillerson’s probably in the same boat, and Nikki Haley, you’ve got a really PR wise, experience wise, militarily, you’ve got three lieutenant, full generals and I think we’re in a good position, because I think they are going to be, in this particular, this is where we need people that believe in deterrence, and they understand that you can’t kick the can down anymore. And that this Left-wing …
Mark Bowden wrote an article the other day in The Atlantic saying how we could live with these nukes pointed at us. Not good, but they’re not an existential threat. And so you have a movement now, on the Left and the man, the foreign policy establishment, to accept this quid pro. And if we do that, of course, China sees that as weakness and goes around to all our allies from Australia to the Philippines and says, “Look, you know, the United States is in decline. We’re ascendant. We pushed them around. We have a nut plant that’s pointing . . . You really want to be with people like that?”
And just the opposite will happen, if we can solve the crisis. China, at some point, we’ve gotta make it in their interest. It’s cost effective for them, so far, to the present crisis. But at some point, there are carrots and sticks. There’s also carrot, we could say, you know, you’re gonna come off pretty well in the world community if you squash North Korea. You’ll be a player. Not that that is a big incentive, but it’s some incentive, and if we have a lot of sticks as well, I think that we could pressure them.
Leibsohn: I have [to] get your take. You write, prodigiously and prolifically. I have been somewhat offended by a few Republicans and even more Democrats statements over the last 24-, 48-hours blaming Donald Trump for his rhetoric. For having ratcheted up this crisis. It started with John McCain, it’s now been echoed and aped by Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein, Chuck Schumer.
The message, you know, I would put out, is it’s not the rhetoric or actions of Donald Trump that have brought us to this crisis. It is the actions of tyrants and, if there is a history lesson in this world that bears repeating, it’s that when tyrants show you who they are, believe them. And too many people haven’t.
Hanson: By the same token, it’s the rhetoric of Barack Obama that was empty. We take, and he said things as you remember, in the North Korean matters. There’ll be severe consequences if this would happen. If they break the international community will unite, except that it was empty rhetoric. It’s a lot more dangerous.
And then we have to also remember that Bill Clinton said that if North Korea were to go down that path, it would end the regime as we knew it. James Mattis said the same thing the other day. So people. . . William Perry, remember, before his latest incarnation, had said that we had to take out the missiles on the launch pads immediately in a preemptive strike. So there’s been a lot of people who’ve said far more inflammatory things, and they were in positions of power. President, secretary of defense, etc.
But Trump is in a situation now where he’s iconic of everything the Left and the Republican NeverTrump people hate. So they’re going to give him no margin of error. And, you’d think they would unite in a crisis like this, but Lindsay Graham, John McCain, all those that . . . Bill Kristol, that establishment, hates Trump with a visceral hatred. For a lot of reasons that transcend . . .
Leibsohn: It’s sort of interesting that they would be the first to decry his rhetoric. Somewhat militaristic rhetoric. Given some of theirs.
Hanson: I deal with them a lot, at the Hoover Institute …
Hanson: And at National Review. And if you say, who, just say, President X has [reduced] immigration by 75 percent. President X has broken the world energy market and . . . emasculated OPEC and the Russians. President X has deregulated the state. President X got 2.6 economic growth, stock market, unemployment.
And then they look at you and they say, “What’s your point?” And I said, “If it was anybody but Trump, you would be for all this, because you can’t find any particular initiative that you are against. His federal judicial appointments, whatever. But you don’t like him, the person.”
Well, he’s vulgar. He’s no more vulgar than other people have been, but there’s something about him that represents to you, his voice, his mannerisms, his occasional vulgarity, his … all of his flaws, they only focus on that because it represents an affront to their class culture.
Leibsohn: I worry sometimes, Victor, that they’re a little bit, not a little bit, in some cases quite overtly, rooting for failure. A very dangerous and terrible place to be in.
Hanson: Well they’ve . . . once they took that position, and they doubled down regardless of the issue, there was only one way out. That was, “I told you so.” And I told you so can only happen if he’s removed from office, or quits, or doesn’t run again, or you know, anything. But any other thing, even if he survives or much less if he were successful, it’s the refutation of everything they warned about. He wouldn’t be conservative, he wouldn’t be successful. He would have lousy appointments. He’d appoint his sister to the supreme . . . All that stuff didn’t happen, and now they’re sort of discredited and they’re looking for an escape hatch, and the escape hatch is Donald Trump’s failure. No matter what the issue.
It’s been a big wake-up call. I’m 63, I’ve known these guys for 30 years, some of them. And, you kind of get estranged from them. You don’t want it to be personal, but these people that I didn’t really know, you know what I mean? I thought I knew them, but when I read what they write every day, they’re unhinged. And I don’t see how they’re ever going to come back to the Republican party, and if they think they can impeach or get rid of Trump and they’re gonna save the Republican party, they don’t realize that Trump is the … he’s consequence, he’s not a catalyst. He’s a reflection of a new movement. Of people who were sick of them. And they can’t win without that core. Blue state, blue wall group. And they’re never gonna get it back with John Kasich or John McCain or any of those people.
Leibsohn: Yeah, I think they’re missing it. And I think they’re missing a movement they were part and parcel of, more importantly. And sadly, I think they’re missing America. They’re missing something big in this country. They’re missing this country, what’s going on in it.
Hanson: Yeah, I think so. They have a visceral either dislike of people in rural Ohio or the San Joaquin Valley or . . .
Leibsohn: It’s a terribly sad thing to say. What else could one conclude? Victor, I wanted to be sensitive to your time, and thank you for coming on.
Hanson: Thank you for having me.
Leibsohn: So quickly, really appreciate all your work and you’ve got a real star. I’ve worked with her for years and years. In your research assistant, Megan Ring. She’s just great. I wanted to do a shout-out to her. I’ve worked with her for a number of years. You’ve . . .
Hanson: She’s very good.
Leibsohn: You’ve got great people, Victor.
Hanson: Thank you.
Leibsohn: And you are good people. Thank you for joining us.