Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist Charles Krauthammer has been called "the most influential commentator in America'' by Britain's Financial Times for his impact on U.S. foreign policy. The 60-year-old Krauthammer, who will speak tonight at the annual Presidents Day dinner of the Tampa Jewish Community Center & Foundation, discussed recent events in the Middle East and other topics in a phone interview with Times senior correspondent Susan Taylor Martin. His comments have been edited for length.
You developed the theory of Democratic Realism — U.S. foreign policy should encourage democracy in other countries but be "prudent in application.'' Was President Obama's handling of the events leading to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation a successful example of that?
He sort of navigated between two factions within his administration that were really contradictory but I think he ended up in about the right place. The State Department was far more reticent to let Mubarak go and far more wary of change than Obama himself. He seemed more eager. The messages were mixed but in the end it worked out as well as could be expected at this point in the revolution. Meaning we're at a fairly good point where Mubarak is gone and the army is trying to guide the transition. But that, I think, occurred largely for internal Egyptian reasons.
If Egypt becomes a true democracy, doesn't that show that revolutions need to start with the people and can't be imposed from the outside, as we essentially tried to do in Iraq?
No, it doesn't. We certainly brought democracy at the point of bayonets to Germany and Japan, and a lot of places that tried to achieve democracy from below ended up very badly — Tehran in 1979, Moscow in 1917, France in 1789 are the most historically significant. (Revolution) can work from below and it can work from above. Of course if it works from below and everything turns out beautifully as it did in Eastern Europe that's the best model. But people forget what happened in 1989 with another beautiful revolution in China that was crushed in Tiananmen Square. Just because a revolution has a glorious beginning does not mean it is destined to end well.
What should President Barack Obama do in regard to Bahrain, Yemen and other countries where revolution is brewing?
There's no blanket rule. Every country has its own idiosyncrasies, its own institutions. Egypt has a strong military and it's always guided the country. It appears to not want to rule and it appears eager to transfer to civilian rule. That doesn't mean that formula works everywhere.
In Jordan, the monarchy is a respected institution that guarantees continuity so that would be a completely different situation. Then you have places like Libya, Syria and Iran with utterly ruthless dictators. I think we also need to distinguish between the worst of the worst like the Iranian and Syrian regimes where the protesters have a much more difficult task, and places like Tunisia and Egypt with relatively benign dictatorships that ultimately yielded because they were not prepared to kill hundreds and thousands.
How should Israel, which has a peace treaty with Egypt, feel about the events there?
Israel has a real cause for concern simply because so many Egyptians (say) the 1979 treaty is obsolete, it has outlived itself. People talk about Egypt's peace with Israel as being a great favor done (by Egypt) out of magnanimity but the fact is Israel conquered the Sinai three times and gave it back three times — the first two times with promises of nonbelligerency that were broken and the last time was in return for the peace treaty.
Sinai was a hell of a concession. It was three times the size of Israel, it was oil-producing, it required a border readjustment, it meant giving up Sharm el-Sheikh from which Egypt had blockaded Israel in 1967. It was huge, you can't get any larger concessions. It was quintessential land for peace. But is it peace until Egypt wakes up one morning and decides to go to war? Either we respect this treaty as having solemnity and solidity or else it's just a piece of paper.
How do you think the Mideast will look in five years?
If I had that kind of predictive abilities, I wouldn't be here doing an interview. I'd be on a yacht in the Adriatic.
Last week, Florida Gov. Rick Scott rejected $2.4 billion in federal money for high speed rail between Tampa and Orlando. Does that sound like a bad move?
I don't think so. If you read Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post who is fairly nonideological and nonpartisan, he just did an analysis of these high-speed rail deals. It's devastating. The problem is this — these systems are so expensive, so inefficient, so uneconomical that the operating expense will destroy any political entities trying to run them. Even in Europe, where the population is dense, and Japan, which is a fraction of our size, there are only two runs, I think, Paris-Lyons and Osaka, that pay for themselves.
People wax poetic about high-speed rail for passengers but what they don't know is that in the U.S., freight runs on rail. We have a very efficient rail system but in a country as spread out as ours this makes sense for freight, not for people. People like the independence of driving or they have to go to cities that are so far apart you've got to drive or fly. I think we've adapted to what the market has told us — you use rail for freight and I say this as a train lover who takes the train to New York all the time.
Besides being a commentator, you are a medical doctor who criticized health care reform as a "2,000-page bill that will generate tens of thousands of pages of regulations.'' Isn't that a great argument for the simplicity of Canadian-style universal health care?
It is. But it seems to me there are two choices. We have the best medical care in world but it is the most expensive and we waste a lot. What you need to do is reduce the complexity and inefficiency. If we can't get it right, we're eventually going to a single-payer system. At least it doesn't have this incredible, absurd complexity of ObamaCare. It's the worst of the worst. It has the complexity of our (present) system and doesn't give the universal coverage of single payer.
Do you ever socialize with so-called liberal commentators and if so, what do you usually talk about?
Cocktail parties aren't the great inducement they were when you were in your 20s. Let me say — some of my best friends are liberals and we talk about everything until our knives get drawn. They we put them down and finish dinner.
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.