- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2008

Lee Kuan Yew led Singapore to independence and served as prime minister from 1959 until 1990, when he stepped down. Under his leadership, Singapore became an economic powerhouse and global financial center. In maintaining an authoritarian system, Mr. Lee argued that Western-style democracy was unsuitable for many non-Western nations, including Singapore. He remains Singapore’s most powerful politician, with the title of minister mentor. He was recently interviewed by Arnaud de Borchgrave, editor at large of The Washington Times. Here are excerpts from the interview:

Question: How do you see Iraq?

Answer: 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. 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.

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 have disastrous consequences. The Iranians will have mastery of that critically important Gulf area.

Q: Should we be talking to the Iranians at the highest level, the way Henry Kissinger went to China?

A: You haven’t got a Kissinger or a [Zbigniew] Brzezinski to do that anymore. Where is the successor generation of geopoliticians?

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 9/11. 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. 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.

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

A: No question, they are at risk.

Q: So how do you assess the global threat since 9/11? What are we doing that’s right and also that’s wrong?

A: Even if we can’t win, we must not lose or tire. We cannot allow them to believe they have a winning strategy, and that more suicide bombers and [weapons of mass destruction] 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 [International Institute for Strategic Studies] 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 walkover, 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.

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 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 Qaeda?

A: Of course not. But U.S. authorities were convinced Saddam was secretly supporting al Qaeda 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 U.K. and most recently in Germany via Turkey, track back to training camps and madrassas in the tribal areas that straddle the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. What should be done about the Pakistan terrorist nexus?

A: We should learn to live with it for a long time. My fear is Pakistan may well get worse. What is the choice? [President Pervez] 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 Qaeda and moderate elements with a Western outlook.

Q: So what do you feel the U.S. 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: Do you 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: 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 [the World Trade Organization], they can only grow stronger year by year, and within three or four decades, China’s [gross domestic product] 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.

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

A: 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 Co. and created an empire.

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.

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: How do you see the future of capitalism?

A: Unbridled capitalism, winner takes all like in America, does not work unless you can cope with an underclass. So here we also stay with the losers, make sure they have enough to live on, with health care, equal education opportunities for their children whose parents can no longer afford it. It’s very important they not feel abandoned. So we have workfare and ingenuous ways to keep them working as we don’t want layabouts doing nothing. We also subsidize homes which they would not be able to buy. A society can only survive if there is a sense of equity and fair play.

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