By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman/JNS.org
Peter Hegseth, a rising figure in American conservative media, has one eye on the current war on terror and another on history.
He’s the author of, “In the Arena: Good Citizens, a Great Republic, and How One Speech Can Reinvigorate America.” In it, he calls upon Americans to restore the country’s power abroad by channeling Teddy Roosevelt’s vision for turning America’s high ideals into action.
On a recent visit to Israel, Hegseth toured sites in Sderot, Judea and Samaria and the Golan Heights to see first-hand Israel’s national defense and the fight on terror. “It is fact-finding trip,” Hegseth told JNS.org in an exclusive interview, over sips of American-style coffee, with the sunlit Old City of Jerusalem gawping through the window.
A graduate of Princeton and Harvard’s Kennedy School, Hegseth is a war hero who served in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, Iraq, and as a counterinsurgency instructor in Afghanistan. He spoke about the American political scene and how it relates to Israel and the Middle East.
As frequent guest on conservative cable news programs, his message to Americans is based on President Roosevelt’s beliefs that the success of a republic rests not on the brilliance of its citizens but on disciplined work and character, the quality of its people.
You served as a Guantanamo Bay guard from 2004 to 2005, when there were as many as 700 prisoners there. Tell us about it.
Peter Hegseth: “It demonstrated to me how important a place like Guantanamo Bay is, a place where you can detain and eventually try your enemy when you are in a war, if you believe you are in a war, and I believe we are.”
There are many who argue the camp should be shut down.
“We are trying to close it for no good reason but that we are ashamed of our conduct of war, when it should be the exact opposite. We should realize we are facing a vicious enemy, be proud of who we are, who our allies are and what the West represents and be willing to fight unapologetically. We should be willing to say freedom is important, pluralism, religious tolerance, religious rights, rule of law, free markets – all the things we cherish in the West that make us strong and free are good, right and true. When people seek to subjugate or terrorize us, we should fight back with all that we have.”
Are the prisoners treated well?
“It’s a quality facility where people are treated in a top-notch manner, better than they deserve. We allowed the international media and the left to create a perception it’s some evil place.”
Contrast Guantanamo Bay to what you see in the field?
“Contrast it with heads being chopped off by ISIS and burning cages? Imagine if they captured a Jew or a Christian, they would torture, enslave and decapitate us. You are in crazy town if you cannot see the contrast. I think we should be expanding Guantanamo Bay.”
What really happened in Iraq?
“I was in Sāmarrā in 2006 when we bombed the [al-Askari] golden mosque. It colored my belief that while the Iraq war wasn’t going well, it was winnable. I came home and became part of an advocacy group that made the case for winning the war. Then we had the Iraq War troop surge of 2007 and it worked. I went back in 2008 as a reporter to see what was happening on the ground and it was amazing how much that war had changed, how successful the surge had been. The lesson then was not of defeat but resolve; if you commit, you can win.”
Did we win, are we winning?
“The retreat of the Obama administration that led to ISIS is the most damning aspect of the Iraq War. We won the war, and we were prepared to win the peace. But then we retreated and left behind a vacuum for something even worse. Our political leaders tie the hands of our war fighters, and they are not willing to recognize the true nature of our enemy. We have a commander-in-chief that won’t say that Islamic extremism is Islamic. It’s hard to defeat an enemy that you won’t name.”
In Israel, you are among world experts in fighting terrorism. Can the U.S. learn from Israel or give the Jewish state advice?
“We can learn from Israel to remember to live in history, remember your sense of purpose and who you are. Don’t shrink from it. Be willing to stand up for it. Also, Israel has made many military technological advances and invented the next generation of weapons systems. This is all part of a U.S.-Israel relationship and it should continue and be strengthened. My advice to Israel: Don’t give into the international left or others who want to attack you or mischaracterize who you are. You have millions of friends in American who understand and support you.”
Do you believe the U.S. administration had Israel in mind with the Iranian nuclear deal?
“I watched America negotiate a deal with a regime that seeks the death of Israel and America. They can say death to America, but we have oceans between us. Israel doesn’t. This was a historic mistake with terrible consequences.”
Some argue that in the last decade America has started to lose its international power. Your thoughts?
“It’s true our word doesn’t matter the way that it used to and our military might doesn’t stack up as credibly as it has in the past. That should put anxiety into the minds of our allies around the world who rely on America to be a beacon of stability and strength.” Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.’ If you don’t educate, fortify, remind citizens in all generations what makes America a special place, slowly, over time, you can give it away. As we are seeing, it’s not inevitable that America will always be the strongest and freest. We have allowed ourselves to slip.
It’s a message for Israel, too.
“If Israel does not teach the next generation what its people went through, why the state is important and what it takes to defend it, then they will take it for granted.”
What kind of leadership does America need right now?
“We need a leader that believes in what America represents and what its traditional role has been. The left has gone so far left that it has abandoned many of the basic building blocks of our country. America is an idea, a social contract. We have one candidate that supports the police and other throwing them under the bus. One candidate that wants borders, and the other that doesn’t want to secure them. One candidate that is into free markets, and one that believes in socialism.
So you support Donald Trump?
“Donald Trump was not my first choice, but at least he believes in America, wants to rebuild the military, fix the department of veteran affairs, secure our borders, will name the enemy as radical Islamic terrorism. He’s not a perfect candidate, but he represents the ability to revive and make America great again.”
When it comes to foreign policy, which candidate is better for Israel?
“Obama, and now Hillary [Clinton], has a co-existence foreign policy. But coexistence is not a means to an end. When you use coexistence as an end, you coexist with terrible ideologies, you cut deals with Iran and Cuba and you throw your allies, like Israel, under the bus.”