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Realpolitik: An interview with John O'Sullivan

By Bernard Chapin
web posted January 1, 2007

John O'SullivanJohn O'Sullivan is one of the most famous political commentators alive. Unlike many other pundits, he has considerable real world experience, and that experience has helped to shape his views. Specifically, he once was a special adviser to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and also ran as a candidate for Parliament in 1970. He holds many posts such as Editor at Large for National Review, co-chairman and founder of the New Atlantic Initiative, columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times, and Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute. In the past, he has been Editor in Chief for United Press International, National Review, The National Interest, and Policy Review.

BC: You have a new book out called The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World. The title refers to Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II. Can you explain its theme (although the title is fairly revealing)? Also, I was intrigued by the idea of their being middle managers who found their way to the top. What did you mean by this? Furthermore, how much of what they did has been undone by events of the last decade?

John O'Sullivan: My basic theme is that Reagan, Thatcher and the Pope between them brought about the fall of communism and the end of the Cold War. They undermined Soviet communism ideologically, blocked it strategically, and left it lagging in the race towards a modern information economy. But such strong and principled leaders would never have won power if the 1970s had not been such a terrible decade for the West. Grave crises are generally needed to persuade people to choose leaders associated with bold and risky policies. Remember Sir Humphrey in "Yes, Prime Minister" who when he wants to dissuade Jim Hacker from some course of action, always says suavely: "Very courageous of you, if I may say so, Prime Minister." Well, with "stagflation" hobbling Western economies, the Soviet Union advancing from Afghanistan to Central America, and a mood of despair seeping even through the U.S., even the Sir Humphrey's woke up to the need for genuine courage in their leaders.

Why did I describe my three heroes as "middle managers"? This was a reference to them as they were in 1970.  They were then on the fringes of power and looked unlikely to rise to the very top. They were held back by their strong and positive personalities: Thatcher was seen as too conservative, Reagan as too American (i.e., too optimistic), and the Pope as too Catholic, which meant too Polish, or maybe just Polish. Courage and principle did not seem necessary in 1970. By late 1970s, however, not only were the crises grave, they were also in line with what Reagan, Thatcher and Bishop Wojtyla had been saying. People turned naturally to them. So I suppose the gravity of those crises is something we should be grateful to Jimmy Carter for.

BC: As someone who knows Prime Minister Thatcher, what is her personality like? Did she deserve the nickname "Iron Lady" or was that just Soviet agitprop?

John O'Sullivan: Lady Thatcher is a warm, lively and combative personality. She likes a good argument and so she likes people who argue with her. She certainly deserved the title "The Iron Lady" (given to her by the Soviets) because she was firm and authoritative in the face of attack. She also had the administrative stamina to push through her labor and economic reforms not only against union opposition but also against the usual bureaucratic obstructionism in government. Because Blair lacks this stamina, his achievements will fall far short of hers on the day he leaves office. As a boss she was kind, thoughtful and considerate, especially to those lower down the pecking order. But she was also demanding and tough towards ministers and senior civil servants. Sometimes she took this too far—it's generally agreed that she treated Geoffrey Howe badly because she misread his mild good-natured personality as a sign of weakness. She paid heavily for that error. In general, though, she is a very kind woman. She also has a strong domestic side. She used to cook supper for aides working late with her on speeches. I think of her as a combination of towering world-historical figure and ordinary British housewife—and equally good in both capacities.

BC: Despite Stalin's sarcastic question about how many divisions the Pope had, Karol Wojtyla was a Pope in no need of an army. In the history of the papacy, how unusual was John Paul II's moral authority along with his will to express it? How influential was he?

John O'Sullivan: He was very unusual. Pope John Paul II was probably the most influential Pope since the Reformation within the Christian world. And because the entire world is now united by the communications revolution, he wielded more influence than any Pope in history over the non-Christian world. This was recognized by Gorbachev in 1989 when he introduced his wife Raisa to John Paul by saying something like "meet the most important spiritual authority in the world." That was quite a come-down for the leader of the officially atheist state that only a few decades before had pretensions to replace Christianity throughout the world. It reflected the fact that John Paul had begun the defeat of communism in his 1979 pilgrimage to Poland. John Paul II established—and I think the present and future Popes will continue—the tradition that one important role for the papacy is to be a spokesman for religious liberty everywhere.

BC: Has the left lost the battle over Ronald Reagan? It seems as if the American people now view him as being a great leader, which has allowed his reputation to climb out of the morass of partisan politics.

John O'Sullivan: Yes. The Left lost the battle of Reagan's reputation to three forces: former Cold War enemies, including advisors to Gorbachev, who testified to Reagan's strength and shrewdness; Reagan's own earlier writings, published after he developed Alzheimers, that showed the clarity of his mind and his grasp of political issues; and the unavoidable reality that Reagan obtained arms reduction treaties, revived the U.S. economy, and won the Cold War. As his latest biographer, Richard Reeves, a political liberal, points out, it's simply implausible that these achievements could have been the work of an "amiable dunce." There's increasing embarrassment in the media over their 1980s misreporting. As for the bias of Liberal academia—well, in the immortal words of Mick Jagger (about Marianne Faithful), they "don't embarrass easy."

BC: I absolutely love your contribution to physics and hope it is long remembered with the same reverence as the word, "thermodynamics." The sad thing about O'Sullivan's First Law, which postulates that all organizations not right-wing will eventually become left-wing, is its eerie accuracy. Why does it prove so annoyingly predictive of organizational behavior? Is this principally due to conservatives being such poor evangelists for their beliefs? 

John O'Sullivan: I'm delighted you like ‘O'Sullivan's Law.' It does seem to have caught on, probably because new instances of it crop up weekly. My best guess is that the law works because the Zeitgeist is liberal. People who lack firm convictions will therefore tend to drift in a liberal direction. Only avowed conservatives will stand their ground. Hence organizations not led or staffed by conservatives will tend to move left over time. Of course, there are other possible explanations. My favorite one is taken from Robert Conquest's Second Law: "The behavior of any organization can best be predicted on the assumption that it is headed by a secret cabal of its enemies." That would explain the behavior not only of non-conservative organizations but of some avowedly conservative ones as well, notably the Republican and British Conservative parties.

BC: Does the media remain as biased to the left as they once were? Here in Chicago, your columns can be found in the Sun-Times which undoubtedly pleases many a conservative. However, do you think the media is as biased to the left as it once was? If so, is there any cure for it?

John O'Sullivan: No, there has been some correction to what is still a strong liberal bias in the media. This correction—strongest on economic issues, weakest on social ones—is the result of several major developments that have more or less abolished the monopoly power of the establishment media. The first is the internet which enables readers everywhere to choose their newspaper from all those in the world, including conservative papers in Britain, Australia and Canada. The second is the rise of the blogosphere—namely, the growing world of unpaid freelance journalists who compete with professional journalists and critique their stories. Since some of them are manifestly more talented and curious than the "professionals," they constitute both an alternative media and a school of media criticism. Third is the establishment of media watchdog organizations whose very existence is a disincentive to media bias. Fourth is FoxNews which covers the news every bit as accurately as ABC, NBC and CBS—and sometimes more accurately—but from a different political perspective. It is very funny to see indignant liberal journalists complaining of Fox's bias in a way that shows they confuse "reality" with their own views. Of course, such mistakes are easy to make when a newsroom consists of 80 per cent Democrats and 10 per cent Republicans, with even more lopsided majorities supporting such liberal causes as abortion on demand and gay marriage. When all these forces are added up, you get a reduction in liberal media bias but also, and more significantly, a more competitive information environment both ideologically and organizationally. I'm glad you like my Sun-Times column. I have enjoyed writing it, and my colleagues on the paper have been very supportive.

BC: What was your stance on the quarrel between The National Interest and The American Interest?

John O'Sullivan: I did my best to arrange a marriage between The National Interest (TNI) and the people behind "The American Interest" (TAI) before the latter was launched. The idea was that Frank Fukuyama and Charles Davidson would join TNI—or, in Frank's case, play a larger role in it—in order to strengthen both the business and editorial capacities of TNI. Negotiations fell through, unfortunately. The gulf in both temperament and vision between Frank and Dimitri Simes, then effectively the sole proprietor of TNI, was too deep. I was on friendly terms with the TAI people. They agreed to hold off their launch until I had raised the funds to keep TNI going as a magazine of debate. But all that was short-circuited when I left the magazine involuntarily. Half the Advisory Board followed Frank in resigning and in setting up TAI. We now have two magazines—the pure "realist" TNI and the mixed "realist-neocon" TAI—claiming paternity from the TNI of Owen Harries. That's quite a tribute to Owen. Wearing my freelance writer hat, I say: "the more the merrier."

BC: This is a rather freeform question to ask, but how would you "fix" Iraq? What would you recommend we do about the situation at this point?

John O'Sullivan: I am not a soldier and I have only limited experience of the Middle East. So it would not be sensible of me to lay down a detailed prescription for how to win in Iraq—or even how not to lose. That leads me to suggest three general points. The first is the old British Army maxim: when you have a man on the spot, you must either back him or sack him. What you can't do is continually second-guess him from a position of greater ignorance. Probably we haven't sacked enough generals—but we have certainly maximized confusion by having the administration in Washington constantly micro-managing policy when it couldn't even agree on a single strategy. These faults are now likely to be aggravated by the report of the Iraq Study Group which combines defeatism with wishful thinking in about equal proportions.

The second general point is that the U.S. cannot leave Iraq until a relatively stable and friendly government is established there. If it tries, it will simply have to return. That's not because of neo-conservatism or any other left-wing bogey but because an Iraq that is either another anarchic Afghanistan or a second Iran would be a massive threat to American interests both there and here. Discussion of Iraq in Washington at present seems to ignore the main strategic fact that Iran, Syria, Hizbollah and Hamas are allies in a radical campaign to re-make the Middle East as an Iranian region of influence. Insofar as the ISG report considers this, it is to propose a plan that—when it is stripped of its wishful thinking—amounts to arguing that the radicals can obtain their objectives by a regional conference rather than by force if they allow America a graceful exit. Such a plan would require the betrayal of Israel which, however, is unlikely to go gentle into that goodnight. So even the defeatism of the ISG report is wishful thinking!

The third general point is that American difficulties in Iraq are due not to some inevitable doom but to errors of judgment that can still be corrected. In particular, our enemies within and outside Iraq are not frightened of us—and with good reason. We didn't shoot looters after the fall of Baghdad; we backed off from the first battle of Fallujah; we threatened Moqtada al Sadr and then allowed his rise; we left undisturbed the terrorist camps in Eastern Syria from which insurgents were infiltrated into Iraq; and we have merely complained about Iranian support for terror. Seriously frightening our enemies is the sine qua non of any new Iraq policy—including even that of the ISG report. And the longer we delay it, the more terrible our actions will need to be. 

BC: In terms of the future with Northern Ireland, is there any reason, at this point, for Britain to continue to take an interest in its political goings on? What are they getting out of being involved in their affairs?

John O'Sullivan: Britain cannot avoid involvement in Ireland since Northern Ireland is part of Britain (or, technically, the United Kingdom.) This is not a mere legal truism. There are two nations in Ireland—the Gaelic Irish and the Ulster British—and if one has a right of self-determination, so has the other. The root cause of the present troubles is not British imperialism but the refusal of the Irish nationalists to accept that one-quarter of the population of Ireland belongs to another nation and has exercised its right of self-determination to remain in the UK. The Ulster-Brits have been telling the other nation this since 1911 but the Irish nationalists have sought to override their protests by force. So far the Ulster Brits have been able to resist these attacks. The latest census seems to have removed any nationalist hope that demography will produce a united Ireland (separate from Britain) any time soon. And the thirty-year campaign of terrorism by the Provisional IRA, killing more than two thousand innocent people, has achieved a very odd kind of success: the Rev. Ian Paisley is about to become the First Minister of Northern Ireland—with the enthusiastic support of Gerry Adams.  In short, as anyone but the Provos has accepted since the mid-1970s, a united Ireland will come into existence only when no-one much cares one way or the other. That might mean never. It might mean as an unnoticed result of European integration that abolishes both Britain and Ireland. But it will not mean the fulfillment of the Eastern Declaration of 1916. So Britain will remain involved in Ireland.

What does Britain get out of it? Well, what does the U.S. get from being involved in Louisiana? Very little, I should guess, but then the U.S. doesn't start out expecting to "get" something. Rather the reverse. So it is with Britain and Northern Ireland. Some time ago, as part of a diplomatic minuet, a British Minister made a speech stating that Britain had "no selfish strategic or economic interest" in remaining in Ulster. The IRA was pleased, seeing this as a step to withdrawal. In fact the reasons for staying in Northern Ireland to protect the people against murder and terrorism are not "interests" but honor, loyalty, and allegiance. If they did not exist, the Brits would long ago have pulled out of a province that is costly in every sense. But honor, loyalty and allegiance do exist and—contra both cynics and establishment appeasers—will continue to be ultimate determinant of British policy.

BC: Where do you go from here? Do you have another book planned? Do you think you'll ever retire?

John O'Sullivan: I'm not a great planner. Most of the good things that have happened to me have come out of the blue. That said, I have a general interest in writing another book—and also in writing something outside my usual range of journalism and political history. It would probably be tempting fate to say more.

I doubt if I shall ever retire—though I may be forcibly retired by editors and publishers. Journalists can look forward to one of two obituaries: a favorable one "Always Consistent, Never Predictable" (which Colin Welch coined and which he certainly deserves), and an unfavorable one, "Forgotten But Not Gone."  On the whole I would prefer the second since it's the only epitaph erected over a living person.

BC: Thank you very much, and good luck with your new book. ESR

Bernard Chapin is a writer and psychologist living in Chicago and the author of Escape from Gangsta Island. He is currently at work on a book concerning women. He can be contacted at veritaseducation@gmail.com.




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