Ari Fleischer comes to New Jersey
Former White House press secretary dishes on Bush, Obama, Israel
Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary, is coming to speak June 12 as part of an effort by the Republican Jewish Coalition to ramp up its outreach in New Jersey in advance of the 2012 election (see sidebar). The event, “A Conversation with Ari Fleischer and Steve Malzberg,” will take place at Cong. Sons of Israel in Manalapan. Fleischer will discuss his journey from Democrat to Republican from a Jewish perspective, and share impressions of “what September 11 was like, from within the White House,” according to RJC spokesman Greg Menken. In advance of his talk, Fleischer spoke by phone with The Jewish Standard about current affairs as well as his years working in the White House.
Jewish Standard: I understand you’ll be speaking this month in New Jersey about your journey from Democrat to Republican, from a Jewish perspective. Can you tell me a little bit, in advance, about that aspect of your talk?
Ari Fleischer: I was raised in a very Democratic family in New York and my parents were very involved with politics. I entered college as liberal Democrat and, because of Jimmy Carter, I graduated as conservative Democrat. Jimmy Carter kept apologizing for America, the Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan, and I thought Carter was leaving us weak. Because of his belief in peace through strength, I fell for Ronald Reagan. The Democratic Party at that time was for a nuclear freeze, and I thought that would be a terrible mistake. I thought we needed to respond to what the Soviets were doing, and so I changed parties a few months after I graduated.
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J.S.: I think for many Republican Jews, awareness of the Holocaust links to the need to support Israel’s right to self-defense as well as a belief that it’s important, when possible, for a superpower to come to the aid of the defenseless. At essence it is an anti-appeasement mindset that is influenced by the Holocaust. Can you relate to that? Did awareness of Holocaust history help shape your political philosophy?
A.F.: The Holocaust has been in the backdrop [of my consciousness] in the past 15 years, not as a 21-year-old who made the change – I hadn’t been to Auschwitz at the time. It was more as I mentioned [the standoff between] the U.S. and the Soviets and the Iranian hostage crisis … but now … with regard to Israel, and how vulnerable Israel is, certainly, if the philosophy of peace through strength makes sense anywhere, it is in Israel.
J.S.: What did you make of last week’s flap in which President Obama said that, as part of a final peace deal, Israel would need to return to the pre-1967 borders with mutually agreed swaps?
A.F.: It was an unnecessary wound to inflict on those who care about Israel’s security, and about peace. He retreated from it two days later at AIPAC, which means he should not have said it to begin with…. My sense is he holds no special emotional bond toward Israel, he faults both sides equally, and he would like to be the man in the middle. That’s why he can say return to the ’67 borders without having sensitivity about how bad that will sound to Israelis and Israel’s supporters.
Look at his Cairo speech – he talked about Jewish suffering in the Holocaust and in the next sentence about Palestinian suffering at the hands of Israelis. He equates the two and omits vital facts such as none of the Arab states took in Palestinians, Palestinians [and other Arabs] attacked Israel in ’48 and [on an ongoing basis] because they fundamentally reject Israel’s right to exist. I found [his statement] troublesome and it was a self-inflicted wound that was unnecessary.
J.S.: There’s a general perception that President George W. Bush, your former boss, was sensitive to the importance of respecting Israel’s right to deal with its own problems in its own way. From your position within the White House, what factors do you think produced that understanding in him?
A.F.: From the beginning, the president distrusted Yasser Arafat. Arafat lied to the president about a shipment of weapons from Iran, and that convinced the president [that] Arafat couldn’t be trusted. After September 11, President Bush saw that what he was doing to protect the U.S. was similar to what Israeli leaders were doing…. He knew what he would do if rockets were fired into America. He came into office pro-Israel and that put even more steel in a solid spine.
J.S.: How do you think President Obama is doing on national security and foreign policy? Do you think he’s following [President George W.] Bush’s lead at all?
A.F.: Yes, I think he’s following [Bush’s] lead on wiretaps, indefinite detentions, Guantanamo Bay, military trials [for terror suspects], [and] predator drone strikes, all of which he accused George Bush of violating the Constitution over. I’m glad Obama is a convert to the cause; I just wish he hadn’t criticized Bush the way he did. On foreign policy, this president has a habit of speaking when he should be silent and being silent when he should speak. In 2009 Iranians took to the streets in peaceful protest and were brutalized by the Iranian government and the president didn’t [initially] speak out. When Syrians peacefully protested and were being gunned down, he was silent. When Israelis built housing he instantly condemned them using some of the harshest words in diplomacy.
J.S.: Do you approve of anything President Obama is doing?
A.F.: Obama is doing a good job on anti-terrorist activities.
J.S.: Would you say that in this area, his policies have vindicated those of George W. Bush?
J.S.: Where do you stand on the waterboarding controversy? Do you believe the waterboarding of the three high-value detainees that were subjected to this harsh interrogation tactic did lead to [Osama] bin Laden’s capture and in light of that, was President Bush justified in approving the tactic?
A.F.: Indefinite detention certainly led to information about the [bin Laden] courier [who eventually led to bin Laden], no ifs ands or buts. Waterboarding, depending on whom you talk to, may or may not have played a role in Khalid Sheikh Mohammed corroborating information about the courier. Whether it did or didn’t, I still think any president in office after September 11 would have faced difficult decisions about the use of these techniques. Uncomfortable as I am with waterboarding, I think there should be some allowance for the possibility we could have been attacked again at any moment.
J.S.: Is there anything else you would like readers to know about what it was like for you to serve as press secretary for President George W. Bush?
A.F.: It was always a great honor to work for someone who had so much Israel in his heart.