Interview: Lee Kuan Yew -- Part 1

By ARNAUD DE BORCHGRAVE, UPI Editor at Large  |  Feb. 8, 2008 at 10:13 AM
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SINGAPORE, Feb. 8 (UPI) -- UPI Editor at Large Arnaud de Borchgrave interviewed Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew on Feb. 2. The following is the text of the interview.


UPI: How do you see Iraq?

Lee: I do not want to say anything that would hurt President Bush because I believe he went in with the best of intentions. He put his trust in Dick Cheney. And I had trust in Dick Cheney as the voice of experience -- oil business executive, defense secretary during the first Gulf War (1990-91). But I don't know what happened to Dick Cheney. He allowed himself to believe with Richard Perle and the neocons you could change Iraq. How could you change Iraq, a 4,000-year-old society that is not malleable? Everybody knows the troubles the British had during and after World War I. Ideology should have no place when making geopolitical assessments.

George W. Bush, whatever his faults, is not walking away from what was started, which is just as well otherwise further damage will be done.

Q: And the next president?

A: Of all the candidates who will inherit the problem, I prefer John McCain. He will see this thing through. Walking away from it would also have disastrous consequences. If Afghanistan is a failed state, it's not your fault. No one has ever made sense out of it. But if you leave Iraq in its present state, you will have even bigger problems throughout the entire Middle East. The Shiites will get together. The Iraqi Shia will become dependent on Iran, and the Iranians will have mastery of that critically important Gulf area.

Q: So what is your recommendation about Iran's nuclear ambitions?

A: Is it now unstoppable. They are a very old civilization. Unlike the Arabs, apart from Mesopotamia valley, they rank with the Chinese, as history's two principal civilizations worth talking about. And I think the mullahs and others want to go back to the days of empire.

Q: So should we be talking to them at the highest level, the way Henry Kissinger went to China?

A: (Chuckle) But you haven't got a Kissinger or a Brzezinski to do that anymore. Where is the successor generation of geopoliticians?

Q: In fact, democracies don't produce great statesmen anymore. Why?

A: You now have, and I don't know how long this phase will last, mass media domination, owned by a group of media barons who want constant change for their balance sheets.

Q: So the power of mass media has made it impossible for a great statesman or woman to emerge and last any length of time?

A: I'm not sure. It depends on the nature of the crisis that must be faced. When a real crisis sets in, a matter of life and death, opinion formulators realize this is no time to be pontificating, but a time to stay the course with someone who understands what this is all about. Short of that, the media help put a leader on the pedestal and then start chopping away at the pedestal until he/she falls in disgrace. That's part of the cycle of constant change. Watch Sarkozy in France. They hoisted him up to prominence and now they're already attempting to bring him down through his personal life.

Q: But didn't Sarkozy contribute to what you call the cycle?

A: Well, yes. But it's also the enormous pressure of media competition and the giant appetite for advertising revenue, what television program gets what viewership, or eyeballs, or clicks online. Never mind the consequences. If you get the advertising, you win.

Q: We have a whole new generation that doesn't read newspapers, but get their news online. The average age of a newspaper reader in the United States today is 55.

A: So I'm a dinosaur (laughs).

Q: When I last interviewed you in May 2001, I asked you what concerned you most about the next 10 years, and you replied, "an Islamist bomb, and mark my words, it will travel." Four months later, we had Sept. 11. Secondly you said, "China and India's challenge to the global status quo." Do you still have the same concerns about the next 10 years?

A: Not quite. The Islamic bomb has traveled already (in Iran). I'm not sure how this will now play out. The U.S., the Europeans, even the Russians, will have to make up their minds whether to allow Iran to go nuclear. The Russians are playing a game, posing as the nice guys with Iran, supplying nuclear fuel, and making it look as if America is causing all this trouble. But if I were Russia today, I would be very worried about Iran acquiring the bomb, because Russia is more at risk than America. The risk Israel runs is another dimension. Russia is at risk because whether it's the Chechens or Central Asian Muslim states that were former Soviet republics, none are friendly to Moscow. Next time there's an explosion in Moscow, it may be a suicide bomber who isn't wearing an explosive belt or jacket, but something a lot bigger. It would certainly be in Russia's interest to say at some future point to Iran, "this far and no further." It could also be that Russia no longer knows how to stop it, in which case the Russians will be opening the door to a very dangerous world of nuclear proliferation. You can be quite sure that if and when Iran gets the bomb, the Middle East will go nuclear.

Q: Which raises the question of the United States or Israel bombing Iran's nuclear facilities.

A: (long silent pause) … I can express no views on that.

Q: The Israelis say they are facing an existential crisis.

A: No question, they are at risk.

Q: As I travel in moderate Muslim states in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, I ask heads of state and government how many extremists, or would-be jihadis, they estimate live in their midst, also how many fundamentalists who support openly or secretly the jihadi cause. The answer is usually 1 percent and 10 percent. In a country like Pakistan, that translates to 1.6 million extremists and 16 million supporters. On a global scale, that comes out to roughly 14 million extremists and 140 million sympathizers.

A: Yes, but I do not see them winning, and by that I mean able to impose their extremist system. I can see them inducing fear and insecurity, and causing fear, but they don't have the technology and the organization to overwhelm any government.

Q: So how do you assess the global threat since Sept. 11? What are we doing that's right and also that's wrong?

A: Even if we can't win, we mustn't lose or tire. We cannot allow them to believe they have a winning strategy, and that more suicide bombers and WMD will advance their cause and give them a chance to take over.

Q: So we're doing the right thing?

A: No. Iraq was a mistake. I've said this before and I said this in the presence of Paul Wolfowitz, one of the architects of the invasion, at an IISS conference two months after the fall of Saddam Hussein, when someone asked me what will happen in Iraq. In October 2002, I was in Washington and became quite convinced an invasion would take place. On the way home, I stopped in London and asked Tony Blair to brief me. After 45 minutes, I said, "Look I accept the argument that with British and American military capabilities it would be a walk over, but then what do you do the day after? Blair replied, "That's up to the Americans." I then said to Blair, "If you were in charge, what would you do?" His political adviser then stepped in and said, "We would appoint the strongest pro-Western general and then get out quickly." So I repeated all that at the IISS conference and explained this reflected the institutional memory of what the British had been through in Iraq in the early 1920s. Paul Wolfowitz stood up in high dudgeon. So to placate him, I said, "Of course the British don't have the resources you have."

Q: Did Wolfowitz ask anything of you?

A: Yes, he came to my office to ask that Singapore send police trainers to Iraq. I had known Paul since his days as an ambassador at the State Department. I said, "Paul, do you realize how long it takes to train a policeman in Singapore? And that's only in one language, English, and it still takes two years. And you want me to teach Iraqis how to do it in three months in English? No, he replied, we'll supply translators. This is an emergency, he said, and many nations are helping us. So I replied OK, but we'll do it in Amman, Jordan, not Baghdad, where we would become the targets of suicide bombers. When he told me they had disbanded Saddam's police force, I became very nervous. Because when the Japanese came down here in World War II, 20,000 of their troops captured 90,000 British, Indian and Australian troops. They sent them into captivity, but they left the local police in charge, and kept all the other positions of the British administration intact -- from power management to the gas board -- and simply put Japanese in charge of each British position. And 20,000 Japanese troops moved on to Java. But in Iraq, you disbanded everything, and tried to run things without the former Baath party officials who had been in charge of civil administration. You created an ungovernable vacuum.

Q: Why do you think this was so?

A: From Day One, the idea of remaking Iraq, without the civil service in place and without recalling Saddam's army to service, showed a frightening lack of understanding of local conditions and elementary facts of political and economic life in Iraq. In ancient days, those who invaded and conquered China on horseback got off their horses and applied themselves to the more difficult job of governing.

Q: Did Iraq have anything to do with al-Qaida?

A: Of course not, as became clear in the daily sessions the imprisoned Saddam spent with his Arabic-speaking FBI interrogator over several months before his execution. But U.S. authorities were convinced Saddam was secretly supporting al-Qaida with weapons and training and maybe even WMD. So therefore the imperative became the elimination of Saddam.

Q: Switching to Pakistan, most terrorist trails in the United Kingdom and most recently in Germany via Turkey, track back to training camps and madrassas in the tribal areas that straddle the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

A: We even had a terrorist of Pakistani descent here in Singapore.

Q: So what's your view of what should be done about the Pakistan-terrorist nexus?

A: (Laughs for several seconds) We should learn to live with it for a long time. My fear is Pakistan may well get worse. What is the choice? (President) Musharraf is the only general I know who is totally secular in his approach. But he's got to maneuver between his extremists who are sympathetic to Taliban and al-Qaida and moderate elements with a Western outlook. We forget that right after Sept. 11 he was given a stark choice by President Bush: either you abandon your support of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan or face the disintegration of Pakistan. There is an interesting study of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency that says 20 percent of the Pakistani army's officer corps is fundamentalist.

Q: So what do you feel the United States can do there now?

A: There is very little, if anything, the U.S. can do to influence the course of events in Pakistan that wouldn't make matters worse. Any U.S. interference in Pakistan would result in Pakistan's four provinces becoming four failed states. And then what happens to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal? It's a horrendous festering problem. The Feb. 18 elections may bring a little clarity and hopefully democratic stability to Pakistan, but I am not holding my breath.

Q: But Afghanistan cannot be stabilized until Taliban and al-Qaida are flushed out of FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), failing which we could see the collapse of NATO in Afghanistan?

A: I'm surprised at NATO, some of whose members have such short memories. They can't seem to project into the future their experiences of the past. Do they believe the Russians have been defanged forever? Do they believe Europe is at peace and can remain at peace forever? This is a globalized world. So for NATO members to balk at casualties when America came to rescue them in two world wars, I simply cannot fathom. I guess it has to do with the mood in Europe, which is appeasement, and the shift from papa Bush to Madeleine Albright as the indispensable power with an uncertain trumpet, and then, of course, the neocons who persuaded the Europeans that it was America's show, and no longer theirs. Supposing America had kept to the papa Bush line of thinking and coalition building, Europe would have understood that while they are targeting America today, Europe would be next.

Q: So you do feel that NATO's future is at stake in Afghanistan?

A: No doubt about it. But you should also realize Afghanistan cannot succeed as a democracy. You attempted too much. Let the warlords sort it out in such a way you don't try to build a new state. The British tried it and failed. Just make clear if they commit aggression again and offer safe haven to Taliban, they will be punished.

Q: If NATO collapsed in the wake of a failed campaign in Afghanistan, would that be a major concern of yours in Singapore?

A: Not immediately, but overall the balance of power would be upset.

Q: In whose favor?

A: China and Russia. They would be faced with a much weakened West in the ongoing global contest. I can also see the danger if America loses heart and says to hell with it all because the Europeans are not helping and the Japanese are blocking this and that, and tokenism from all the others. Let's not forget that what we're all enjoying today is the result of Pax Britannica and Pax America over the past 100 years. So don't give it up.

Q: In the next 12 months, China, in this New Year of the Rat (Feb. 7) that you are now celebrating, will mark its transformation in the past three decades from one of the poorest countries in the 20th century into the world's third-largest economy, soon to displace Germany, as the globe's new engine room of economic growth. Will China be to the 21st century what America was to the 20th?

A: The Chinese leadership has come to the conclusion if they stay on their present course, the peaceful rise of China's power will prevail. They are determined not to challenge any existing power, meaning America, EU, Russia, but just make friends with everybody. Given the rules of the game now that China is in WTO, they can only grow stronger year by year, and within three or four decades, China's GDP will be equal to America's, their technology will be equal to what was long regarded as the world's only superpower, and their GDP will be larger than America's. And all that stems from what they have long studied in detail in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. When Deng Xiaoping came to Singapore he was amazed at what he saw, as his briefing papers did not tally with his own eyes. That's when he must have concluded the Communist system didn't work. He could see how we were exploiting Western capitalism and had plants all over the place with cheaper labor and exporting goods all over the world. Hell's bells, he said, we can do that, too. That's when China began setting up special economic zones around coastal cities. They saw Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore with the advantages of close ties with the West, access to Western technology, export markets, knowledge, capital and an educated workforce. Now with WTO, they are on the same course, sending 250,000 students abroad every year, and even though they may lose 60 percent to 70 percent of them to other countries, they don't care because they know many of them will come back eventually. Year by year, they're closing the gap.

Q: And all this peacefully?

A: I watched "The Rise of the Great Powers" and I was amazed at this scholarly job by noted historians. No Communist or leftist jargon. How did some of these powers rise in history? Tiny little Portugal? Naval technology, pure and simple. Christopher Columbus? Spain? Tiny Holland, the French, the British, the armada, what was the trick? Technology plus governments that united the people in a common objective toward growth.

Q: Can the Chinese keep a one-party state going in this age of mass media, the Internet, and almost 100 million blogs?

A: I was quite surprised when this television program analyzed the British rise to global power status. The barons brought the king to Magna Carta, and said you will rule through us, Parliament, not divine right, but divine right through us. And when the king misbehaved, such as Charles I, he was beheaded. It was subversive to advocate cutting off the head of the Communist Party, but in today's China the people have confidence in the leaders because they allowed the once-hated merchant class to emerge and grow. That's the same dynamics that once created the East India Company and created an empire.

Q: So you see China on the same glide path?

A: I think so. But they want to avoid building a pre-World War II Japan or a Germany. Territorial conquest is not necessary as it once was. You don't have to be a genius to know that they are producing five times as many engineers and scientists as the Americans. What is it they need most now? Roads, railways, infrastructure. They are everywhere in Africa, in the Arab world, Latin America. China is everywhere today. Can you be everywhere while focused on Iraq? In the Caribbean you have one embassy in Barbados that serves six other tiny island countries. The Chinese have an embassy in each place. And that's what you call your front yard.

Q: Are you saying this will be China's century?

A: No, no, I don't think so. They will want to share this century as co-equals. By 2030, it will be a different world. They won't invade Taiwan and try to take over militarily. That would be far too costly for them all over the world. The U.S. Pacific commander said, "Look, you've got all these forces trained to knock off our 7th Fleet and if Taiwan declares its independence you will have to move. I would be quite happy to leave it as it is, but not Beijing." In my opinion, Chinese leaders would also be happy to leave it as it is. Taiwan goes to America to get its technology, which then transits to China. If they take back Taiwan, it becomes Chinese without the same freedom of access to U.S. technology and research labs. So why kill the goose that lays the golden eggs? The Chinese are quite comfortable leaving Taiwan the way it is.

Q: The nature of conflict is changing to an era of asymmetric warfare when one micro actor can neutralize or blunt a macro power. A few weeks ago, when five Iranian speedboats were darting in and out of three major U.S. warships steaming through the Strait of Hormuz, had they been loaded with super explosives, could have immobilized U.S. naval power the way al-Qaida attacked the USS Cole in Aden in October 2000.

A: But again, can the Chinese land troops in Taiwan and establish and hold and widen a beachhead? The answer is no. Can they conquer Taiwan militarily? Again, no. They can only inflict damage.

Q: But in the Gulf, if the U.S. and/or Israel bombed Iran's nuclear facilities, Iran has formidable asymmetrical retaliatory capabilities?

A: But let me repeat, they cannot conquer you. Hezbollah cannot conquer Lebanon. They can create trouble for the non-Hezbollah Lebanese. So micro actors can cause a lot of trouble for your friends, but they can't eradicate them.


(First of two parts)

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