Readers of The Wall Street Journal who follow Bret Stephens’s weekly “Global View” foreign-affairs column have come to recognize him as a first-class commentator. Known for his insight, wisdom, and elegant boldness in analyzing an increasingly bewildering world, Stephens is also a member of the paper’s editorial board and serves as deputy editorial page editor for the international opinion pages.
Stephens joined The Wall Street Journal in 1998, taking a leave of absence from 2002-2004 to serve as editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post. Named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2005, he won the 2008 Eric Breindel Prize for Excellence in Opinion Journalism and the 2010 Bastiat Prize for Journalism. In 2013 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Commentary for what the Pulitzer board characterized as “his incisive columns on American foreign policy and domestic politics, often enlivened by a contrarian twist.” He is also a regular panelist on Fox News Channel’s “Journal Editorial Report,” a weekly political talk show.
Stephens spoke with The Jewish Press about his new book “America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder” (Sentinel) and his views on foreign affairs, with an emphasis on the Middle East.
The Jewish Press: The extended deadline for the Iran nuclear talks prompted Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to say, “No deal is better than a bad deal.” Do you think the Iranians might be saying, “No deal is better than a good deal,” since Iran has bought time to further its nuclear ambitions with little threat of tangible retribution?
I wrote a column for The Wall Street Journal back in May titled “Iran Does Not Want a Deal.” This is before the first extension, never mind the second extension. And my evidence was simple: listen to what the Ayatollah Khamenei was saying. The things he demands as non-negotiable put any potential deal out of reach. And that’s because Khamenei understands that when it comes to the West – that means the U.S. and this administration – he doesn’t face the possibility of any serious consequences for bad behavior. Why should he agree to an agreement that Iran violates surreptitiously when he can continue to develop his nuclear capabilities pretty much as he is now? So I’ve always been skeptical that any deal would emerge.
Iran’s nuclear threat has loomed for nearly a decade, and yet the closer Iran gets to nuclear capability the further we get from preventing it. What do you think is the reason for our failure to challenge Iran?
I think that with this president there is a kind of psychological yearning to remove himself from having to be responsible for whether Iran gets a bomb or not. And that’s why you’ve had the internationalization of the process. That’s also why you’ve had what amounts to a kick the can down the road approach, which simply shunts the problem into the hands of his successor.
But Obama hasn’t kicked the can down the road regarding healthcare and immigration, where he proved to be proactive.
Well, this gets me to the deeper point, which is that this administration has privately concluded that an Iran with nuclear weapons is something the world can live with; that it is not a catastrophic outcome; it is just an unfortunate outcome. This administration thinks that a truly catastrophic outcome would be an American military strike on Iran. That’s what they are seeking to prevent, not an Iran with nuclear weapons.
But they can’t quite bring themselves to say it because they’ve talked themselves into a bit of a corner by saying an Iran with nuclear weapons is unacceptable. So they effectively lack the courage of their genuine convictions. We have this kind of sham negotiating process because the administration just can’t bring itself to say what it believes, which is that a nuclear Iran can be contained. And a nuclear Iran in their view would be no worse than a nuclear Pakistan or a nuclear North Korea.
France is the latest country to symbolically vote to recognize a Palestinian state, following England, Spain, and Ireland. It follows last month’s official recognition by Sweden and is ahead of an impending EU Parliament debate on issuing recognition. How do you explain the irony of this in the wake of the Gaza war and the recent terrorist attacks in Israel, which have led many in Israel to lose faith in a two-state solution?
First of all, it’s just Sweden. Sweden did it because, effectively, it’s an irrelevant gesture by an irrelevant country. Countries that go about recognizing a Palestinian state in a fit of diplomatic symbolism are underscoring their own insignificance. Second, I don’t think it’s all that ironic that it happened after the Gaza war because you had what seemed to me the weight of European public sympathy behind the aggressors.
I happen to believe in the two-state solution with a Palestinian state that has more in common with Canada than it does with Iran or Yemen or what the Palestinian state is shaping up to be. And the tragedy of this kind of recognition is that it tells the Palestinians that they can behave the way they have with the use of terrorism, aggression, missiles, and lawfare and get away with it. That’s astounding. The Kurds have been responsibly building up an autonomous region in Northern Iraq for many years and yet they don’t get recognition. The Tibetans have been models of peaceful, nonviolent resistance to Chinese oppression for decades and yet the Swedes aren’t recognizing Tibet. There are many other stateless people who have a far stronger claim morally and historically to a state and yet they don’t get recognition.
With the PA’s continuing incitement against Jews and Israel, is a two-state solution just a fantasy at this point?
What I wish would happen is that people who believe in it would understand that the only way it would ever come about is by revolutionary changes in Palestinian political and ethical culture. And it has to start by saying the Palestinians should only get a state when they’re worthy of a state. That begins with being prepared to be a peaceable and responsible member of the community of states. The Palestinians are several thousand miles away from that place. So it has to begin by saying it. We do have examples in living memory of cultures that changed, like Germany and Japan.
The alternative is a situation which is in my view akin to diabetes. It’s a disease, but it’s a disease that can be managed. And the question for Israeli statesmen in our lifetime is how well they manage the disease with a view that in the very long term some other cure will arise. The word “solution” should never be used when it comes to politics. Solution is something that happens when it comes to math. Human beings don’t operate according to equations.
We have to accept that maybe in a hundred years we’ll look back on this and say that was a temporary period and we figured out how to do it. What I don’t want Israel to do is race toward solutions of one stripe or another that only invite graver problems. We’ve learned over the last seventy years that Israel, while living with all these problems, has gone from a tiny little enclave to a thriving, powerful, technologically advanced, economically developed state. So Israel has in effect gotten stronger, not weaker.
Then you would not advocate annexing Judea and Samaria, even though the quality of life for Israeli Arabs is superior to that of their counterpart in the territories?
No, I guess I wouldn’t, because at that point you’d have to contend in a much more difficult way with the Palestinian population. The tragedy is that “quality of life” is a kind of western metric. Not everyone looks to that metric as an ultimate ambition. It would be nice if Palestinians cared about quality of life, access to good schools, good doctors, better infrastructure, and an advanced economy as opposed to their goal being “let’s kill Jews and wipe Israel off the map.”
Coming to grips with that is the beginning of wisdom when you talk about politics. People have radically different goals for themselves and their societies. In the Islamic world that often involves the slogan “the Jews love life and we love death.” That’s a very powerful statement and one that not enough of us have come to grips with.
Do you think the new Republican-controlled Senate and House will be a reliable buffer for Israel against the administration?
Not really. We have a system of government in the U.S. where the executive branch holds the whip hand in foreign policy and Israel has always understood that. Israel has always worked hard to cultivate relationships with members of the House and Senate. They’ll continue to do that. You’ll have a friendlier tone from this Congress than the last. But let’s face it: the last few congresses have all been extremely friendly toward Israel.
What’s important is to make the case for Israel more forcefully and to give it the articulation that the next presidential candidates ought to have: Why Israel is not just a moral interest for the United States but a strategic one. Why Israel is ten times the asset that other Western allies are. There’s a kind of mentality that Israel is a sort of supplicant and so grateful for America’s help, and yet America’s alliance with Israel provides Americans with tangible goods and benefits. For starters, when you look around the world we don’t have troops to defend Israel like in Germany, Japan, South Korea, and many other places. No Americans have ever died defending Israel, because Israel defends itself. The kind of technology, military technology, we get from our alliance with Israel, epitomized by Iron Dome, is something that sooner or later will be saving American lives.
You’ve written about the damage Obama has caused to America’s international standing. Where do you think American loss of dominance will hurt us most in the long run?
This brings me to the theme of my new book, America in Retreat. America’s loss of dominance hurts us everywhere when you have a president who came into office explicitly urging us to shrink our global footprint. He calls it retrenchment, nation building at home. I call it retreat. And the consequence of retreat is that you create power vacuums around the world, and power abhors a vacuum. So those vacuums are being filled by ISIS, the ayatollahs in Iran, Putin, and a much more assertive Chinese leadership.
It hurts us not only because these aggressive states and regimes think they’re pushing on an open door and can do whatever they like, but also because we lose credibility with our traditional friends and allies around the world who have to start looking around for other security guarantees. And that’s a dangerous world for the U.S. and for everyone.
I’ve written this book as a manual for the next set of presidential candidates, Republican or Democrat. It’s an argument for why the era of American power and dominance is good for the world and good for the United States. It tries to explain what is wrong with the Obama administration’s foreign policy and why the disorders we see now are the direct result of his foreign policy. And it is an explanation of where this world might be going if we continue on our current course. It’s also an argument against the neo-isolationism that is brewing in certain corners of the Republican Party.
Finally, it is the case for America as the world’s cop. You often hear people say America should not be the world’s policeman. I totally disagree. If we’re not the policeman, then the people who will volunteer for the job will have names like Putin or Khamenei or Xi or Baghdadi. America is the only country in the world that has the wherewithal and the democratic decency to fulfill that job responsibly. And we have lived in a relatively peaceful world for almost seventy years because America has been doing that job.
How has your experience as a Jew and a writer who lived and wrote in Israel impacted your thoughts and writings?
I was raised in a very secular home, but my parents were very pro-Israel. So it isn’t so much my Judaism that informs my journalism. It’s something closer to the reverse. It was only through my experience as a journalist in Israel, first for The Wall Street Journal and then becoming the editor of The Jerusalem Post, that I came to feel much more strongly both about Israel and about Judaism because what I observed was that Israel was a country that was being maligned and attacked.
Israel was a country that didn’t simply have a right to defend itself, it had an obligation to defend itself. So both my Israeli and Jewish affinities were strengthened because professionally I was in a job of trying to tell the truth about a conflict and about a situation. I’m not a defender of Israel because I’m a Jew. I think that’s incidental. I’m a defender of Israel because I think I’m an honest journalist.