A conversation with Bret Stephens

‘I'm not sure Obama believes in ‘American indispensability,’ says ‘Wall Street Journal’ columnist Bret Stephens in his critique of the Administration’s foreign policy.

Bret Stephens (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bret Stephens
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Bret Stephens writes Global View, The Wall Street Journal’s foreign affairs column, for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2013. He is the paper’s deputy editorial page editor, responsible for the content of the opinion pages in the Journal’s sister editions in Asia and Europe, as well as a member of the editorial board.
Previously, Stephens was editor- in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, a position he assumed in 2002 at the age of 28. He is the author of America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder, published by Sentinel Books in November 2014.
Raised in Mexico City and educated at the University of Chicago and the London School of Economics, he lives in New York with his wife Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, a classical music critic for The New York Times, and their three children.
I sat down with him for a candid talk.
In your new book, you say: “A world in which the leading liberal- democratic nation does not assume its role as world policeman will become a world in which dictatorships… fill the breach. Americans seeking a return to an isolationist Garden of Eden… will soon find themselves living within shooting range of global pandemonium.” How much of what is now occurring in the Middle East – i.e. Syria, Iraq, Islamist terrorism – is directly related to US President Barack Obama’s foreign policy?
I think much of it is. When you go around announcing that you are creating power vacuums by withdrawing American troops and American power, the vacuums will inevitably be filled – and they won’t be filled by peace-loving people. They will be filled by aggressive, often fanatical regimes or organizations – as we have seen in Yemen, northern Iraq and eastern Syria.
There is a connection today, as there was in the 1920s and ’30s, between the reluctance – if not the refusal – of leading liberal democracies to police world order, and the rise of aggressive revisionist movements and regimes.
It is not an accident that just six months after Obama allowed his red line to be crossed in Syria on chemical weapons, [Russian President] Vladimir Putin seized Crimea – because Putin understood he would pay only a small consequence; in fact, no consequence at all. If Putin had limited his actions to Crimea, there would have been no Western backlash of any substance.
Within weeks, [US Secretary of State John] Kerry and other Western leaders were trying to sweep it under the carpet.
We have, in the name of nation-building at home, abandoned our traditional postwar responsibility to be the guarantor of a certain kind of world order. That is not only a world order that deters aggression, but also a world order that assures our friends which happen to be small.
One may ask: What exactly are the alternatives to America as a world policeman? I understand that Americans don’t like the sound of their country as the world’s policeman. Most people don’t grow up wanting to be a cop, but most people want to live in a neighborhood where there is a cop. So who is going to be that cop? Is it going to be Putin; [Iranian Supreme Leader] Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; is it going to be the UN? Does anyone seriously believe that a multilateral organization like the UN can reasonably and competently enforce a world order that can favor the democracies over the dictatorships? What about liberal peace, that is to say the kind of notion that countries become wealthier and more democratic and inevitably become more peaceful? That was the hope of the post-Cold War era.... Well, it turns out that vision is a kind of utopianism.
Britain and Germany were each other’s largest trading partners on the eve of World War I. They were highly civilized, democratized or democratizing nations with very high levels of GDP per capita. And yet, on a dime, they began murdering each other on a scale not seen previously in history.
So there is no real alternative to world order to Pax Americana that any serious American would want to live with.
Does the president believe in “American exceptionalism,” or are we just one among the nations of the world?
Isolationism is, in fact, a version of American exceptionalism. And so, the question isn’t whether Obama believes in American exceptionalism; perhaps he does, perhaps he would make the case that we are exceptional and must tend to our own garden… defined by the ways it distances itself from the ways of the rest of the world.
What I’m not sure Obama believes in is “American indispensability,” the view that without America taking the leading role, without America setting an agenda, without America providing the better part of the diplomatic and political, economic and military muscle, we will face increasing global disorder and anarchy.
So it is that concept of American indispensability which politicians and statesmen of the Left and Right agree with, that I think Obama rejects. He tends to see an America in the world that is as much a sinner as it is a sinnedagainst nation. People say: “What’s Obama like; is he a socialist, a Marxist?” I think Obama is like every other liberal I met in college. This is the standard view of progressive America.
Obama is like any other progressive on campus. In the present day, these people – if not active sponsors – are sympathetic to the BDS Movement, they think Israel runs the risk – if it isn’t already – of becoming an apartheid state, they are adamantly opposed to our wars overseas, they are infatuated with [NSA whistleblower] Edward Snowden, the list goes on.
Obama is an ’80s progressive who became a professor, who became a president.
Which is a greater long-term threat to US national security interests – Sunni Islamists, or Shi’ite Iran and its allies Syria and Hezbollah striving for regional hegemony?
The enemy of American national security interests is radical Islamism, which comes in two flavors: chocolate and vanilla.
The immediate threat in my mind, contrary to what people argue, is the Shi’ite version – because it has the architecture of a well-entrenched state. It is a relatively powerful state in Iran and has the infrastructure of a soon-to-be nuclear power, and so it isn’t the ideology, but rather the capability, of radical Shi’ite Islam that concerns me most.
But it would be foolish to suggest that the Sunni version isn’t nearly as alarming. The only thing is that the Sunnis, like Islamic State, are just a kind of younger version of the Islamic regime in Iran.
But one point I would add is for the long term, I am somewhat more optimistic about Shi’ite Islam than I am about Sunni Islam, for a couple of reasons. One is that at a political level, most Iranians – having had 35 years of bitter experience with an Islamic revolution – would reject it, and know in their bones that it is a failure and why it is evil. So that is one source of longterm optimism.
The second source is that there are theological resources within Shi’ite Islam and its “quietism”; the political tradition argues that religion and politics shouldn’t mix, and that we should not have “guardianship of the jurist” – the concept that Ayatollah Khomeini [argued], insisting on clerical political leadership.
There are other traditions in Shi’ite Islam, epitomized by the Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq; this provides the deeper theological basis for rejecting Islamic government, which we don’t find so much in the Sunni world. And it was important to hear Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ask the clerics of [Cairo’s] Al-Azhar University to do some thinking. But Sunni Islam needs to develop its own quietist tradition if it’s going to be able to save itself from its radical impulses.
Obama has said that the recent Islamist terrorist attacks are “the senseless violence of the few.” Are these terrorist incidents simply lonewolf attacks that have little to do with Islam, as the administration contends?
It’s such a terrible comment, because it is not senseless violence – it’s logical violence, and it’s targeted violence.
It’s quite frankly, viewed from their demented or evil perspective, astute violence.
And how do we know this? By the deep fear journalists now have to publish images of the Prophet Muhammad.
We know they have succeeded despite those three million people in the streets of France saying, “Je suis Charlie.” We know they have succeeded in cowing much of the journalistic establishment; look no further than The New York Times’s refusal to publish those offending cartoons, even as they are perfectly willing to publish cartoons that would be offensive to Jews or Christians.
So it is not senseless violence, and it also not the violence of the few, in the sense that even if you would say that the jihadist or Islamist vision appealed to, let’s say, 10 percent of Muslims worldwide. Let’s say it is 5%. That is 80 million people who subscribe to a religious doctrine which approves the use of, and carries out, terrorist attacks of the kind we saw in France, and can do a great deal of damage.
I’m not sure it is just 10%, because if you look at the Islamic world and you look at the legal injunctions throughout the Islamic world that are jihadist, radical, fanatical in their impulses, they are quite widespread.
Look at the treatment of Christians in Pakistan; look at the treatment of women throughout the Muslim world; look at the legal sanctions against homosexuality in much of the Muslim world – all of these are radical.
So is it 10%? Perhaps; perhaps it’s more. And so again, what the president is saying is a cliché in the service of intellectual obfuscation. You have got to diagnose the thing; by refusing to diagnose it, we are harming ourselves.
Imagine if Harry Hopkins, president Franklin D.
Roosevelt’s great adviser, had said, “My fellow Americans, we are not at war with the great people of Germany.
Germany is a great, civilized nation that has contributed many wonderful things to our common civilization. We are not at war, furthermore, with nationalism.
Nationalism is a form of patriotism; nationalism is a healthy belief in the distinctive characteristics of your own country. We who believe in American exceptionalism, we too are nationalists. And socialism, socialism is about the brotherhood of mankind; so to suggest that Adolf Hitler and his tiny band of compatriots speak for nationalism or Socialism, much less for the German people, would be totally inaccurate.”
Let’s assume that during the Cold War, president Dwight D. Eisenhower had said, “My fellow Americans, we are not at war with Communism. Communism is about brotherhood. We are at war with people who are perverting the good name of Communism for the sake of their own ends.”
Come on, we face not just a terrorist threat but an ideological challenge. And if you can’t square off against that challenge, if you can’t so much as admit there is one, you are already losing.
Kerry said last month that in every Arab capital he visited, the first thing they told him was that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the root cause of the problems of the Middle East, and that is why he is so focused on solving this conflict. Is this a legitimate analysis of what is happening in the region?
You know, there was so much that was distressing about that comment by the secretary of state.
I guess diplomats ought to expect they will be lied to on a routine basis. After all, that is the stock-intrade of so much diplomacy, past and present. It is to accept the lie at face value and then, beyond that, to use it as the basis of your own policy that is really worrying.
Every Arab leader knows that Israel is not the source of their problems. Israel does not keep kings and defense ministers awake at night in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Kuwait; Israel does not pose mortal threats to the regimes in Jordan, Egypt, Damascus or Beirut.
They know perfectly well that the threats to them come from the jihadist regime ensconced in Tehran, and the jihadist fighters seizing larger and larger areas in northern Iraq and Syria. So it was just an extraordinary statement in that it makes you worry not only about the ideological direction of the administration, but of its basic intelligence.
On Israel, you wrote: “It isn’t only the land-forpeace formula that has failed Israel. The other failure is what one might call land-for-love: The notion that, even if ceding territory doesn’t lead to peace, it will nonetheless help Israel gain the world’s goodwill.... Instead, after 20 years of seeking peace and giving up land, Israel’s diplomatic isolation has only deepened.” Can you explain why the world has a double standard for Israel?
There was a telling moment not too long ago, where Danish Ambassador to Israel [Jesper Vahr] said explicitly that Europe does indeed have a double standard with Israel vis-à-vis its Arab neighbors. This is because Europe sees Israel as being a European state, which is to say a civilized, 21st-century, Western state, whereas it basically views the Arabs as barbarians. Those weren’t his words, but that was the essence of his message.
I found it curious, to say the least, that a Europe which within living memory was annihilating the Jews precisely on the basis that they were “not one of us” and alien, now seeks to ostracize and isolate the Jews on the theory that they are one of us.
Is it anti-Semitism?
Of course it is anti-Semitism. Let me be more precise: Anti-Semitism is merely what those in the 19th-century called Jew hatred or anti-Judaism. Anti-Semitism is a phrase that was coined by a fellow named Wilhelm Marr to give a racial and pseudo-scientific gloss to what had previously been a religious hatred.
Today, it is anti-Zionism. So when we say is it anti-Semitism, no, it is not exactly anti-Semitism, because anti-Semitism has a slightly narrow definition; we use it as a sort of phrase because it has a common currency. But anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism, the earlier forms of Jew hatred – they are all the same thing.
Turkey, the eastern flank of NATO, supports Hamas, helps Iran evade sanctions, assists Islamists entering Syria, turns a blind eye to Islamic State oil sales in its country, is anti-Semitic and anti-Western, and is becoming more authoritarian at home. Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute wrote, “The simple fact is that [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan ideologically leans more toward the Islamic State than NATO.” How would you, if you were advising the president, deal with Turkey?
Turkey is not an ally of the West; that is the first point to make. Turkey used to be an ally of the West. Nonetheless, Turkey has for decades been a component part of the historic structures of Western defense. Unless Turkey changes and soon, real thought and action has to be put toward removing Turkey from NATO.
I think the refusal by Turkish authorities to allow the US to use Incirlik Air Base against Islamic State should not have been just a wake-up call, but also a turning point.
But Ankara also refused the US permission to use Incirlik Air Base during the Iraq War in 2003?
Iraq was somewhat different; the French weren’t too keen on Iraq either. A majority of Turkish parliamentarians voted in favor of supporting the US, but they needed a two-thirds majority. And the government at the time was the [Abdullah] Gul government; Erdogan was not yet raised to the high office. At least they pretended to attempt to make an effort.
This is different… this is not a question of the controversial invasion of a sovereign country, this is an urgent military attack against a jihadist caliphate, a terrorist group.
And we should use that as opportunity to say, “Thank-you, Turkey, we have had a wonderful time here, but we are moving our base from Incirlik to [Kurdish] Erbil. We are moving swiftly to recognize and elevate our relations with the Kurdish autonomous region, to give them quasi-state status. We believe in Kurdish self-determination and we have not yet made up our minds on what ultimate borders of a Kurdish state might someday be.”
That would have been the kind of message I would have sent to Mr. Erdogan.
King Abdullah II of Jordan privately told a leading member of Congress last year that he may not be in power in two years. How would you analyze the stability of Jordan, and what should the US do to prop up the king?
Everything is possible – in terms of economic aid, improving living conditions in refugee camps, providing more military support. We should be prepared to go the full length of the field to make sure the Hashemite monarchy does not vanish, because the consequence of Jordan becoming another Yemen will be felt for decades.
There would be a regional catastrophe if Jordan were to collapse.
And, by the way, this administration in particular ought to care, because if Jordan collapses then any hope for some kind of settlement between Israel and the Palestinians absolutely vanishes. It is tenuous right now to say the least, but why would Israel ever relinquish the Jordan River Valley, when across that little stream they would have Islamic State?
What should the US do in Syria for its national security interests? Is it in US interests to have a no-fly zone in northern Syria, or to attack Islamic State – which may strengthen Syrian President Bashar Assad and his allies, Iran and Hezbollah?
We have two great enemies and we have to attack them both, and we cannot attack one at the expense of the other. I argued in a column in 2013 that US policy towards Assad should be to kill him and his brother – to decapitate the Assad regime. That is No. 1.
No. 2: We have to be much more aggressive in attacking Islamic State. The Wall Street Journal has reported that Islamic State continues to make gains throughout Syria.
No. 3: We have to establish no-fly zones and provide much more serious succor to what remains of the Free Syrian Army, especially in Aleppo.
No. 4: I just saw today that the US will be sending 400 troops to Jordan to train the Free Syrian Army. That number is hopelessly inadequate; it is an atrocious betrayal of the Free Syrian Army.
No. 5: Destroy the Syrian Air Force, destroy it completely. And, to the extent that we can, go after Syrian artillery depots, suspected weapons of mass destruction sites, including nuclear sites.
Have they gotten rid of their chemical weapons?
No. They have not gotten rid of their chemical weapons, as we are being told by monitors. Not only have they not gotten rid of all of their chemical weapons sites, not only do they continue to have – per the reporting of Der Spiegel – a very serious suspected nuclear site, but they are using chlorine gas against their enemies in a chemical attack.
And it’s gone unpunished because it gives the lie to the conceit that Obama accomplished something when he managed to obtain the removal of some of the sarin gas reserves that the Assad regime had stockpiled.
How would you respond to groups like J Street that believe Israel is the intransigent party, and that this is in essence a territorial conflict?
Their criticism is disproportionately against the elected Israeli leadership. Are they a pro-peace, pro-Israel group, as they define themselves, or do they advocate more for the Palestinian cause? I’m pro-peace, I’m pro-Israel. Who in the pro-Israel camp isn’t pro-peace? Is [Bayit Yehudi leader] Naftali Bennett not pro-peace?
Many people would say he is not pro-peace.
I would start by saying that I wish groups like J Street would simply not seek to appropriate the word “peace” for their policy positions, and somehow then claim that anyone who does not stand with them is against peace.
I am perfectly willing to accept that J Street is pro-peace, even though I think their views are likelier than not to lead to war. But I would ask for reciprocity, that they accept my views as being pro-peace even if they think that on the merits I am mistaken.
That is point A.
Point B: I wish this were a territorial conflict.... If it were territorial, relinquish the territory. If you could tell me that Israel can be a safe, secure Jewish state for generations to come simply by vacating settlements in the West Bank, I’d go for it. If you would offer that to me with true, rock-solid assurance with divine foresight, why not? The issue with the Palestinians is not where the territory is; it is who they are, politically, ideologically, culturally.
I believe in the possibility, the prospect, that a culture can change. Japan changed: Japan pioneered the suicide bomber, the kamikaze pilot. Yet here we are and Japan is a pacifist nation. Germany changed: People now complain how weak, small and ineffective the German army is. What a wonderful thing to complain about! So why can’t the Palestinians change? Why shouldn’t they change? Why do we subject the Palestinians to what someone once called the soft bigotry of low expectations? Why shouldn’t we ask the Palestinians to turn Gaza into another Dubai, rather than another Yemen? Why should we indulge the Palestinians when they vote for Hamas, which rejects every single accord that legitimizes the existence of the Palestinian Authority itself? Let’s have some expectations of the Palestinians; after all, there are lots of stateless people around the world – Tibetans, Kurds, Tamils, Walloons.
So if you want a state, get in line and demonstrate to the world that your state would be a net asset to human civilization. I have yet to see the Palestinians make that case at all, or even think that they need to make that case… I would welcome a day some point in the future when a Palestinian state has, in its own way, the same kind of liberal democratic institutions that Israel has had since its founding, and joins the community of nations.
It is not the question of whether I am in favor of the Palestinian state in theory, it is what it means in practice. And just as a doctor knows that even if a patient needs an operation, there is a way of doing it and saving the patient and a way of doing it and killing him, similarly with the question of the Palestinians’ statehood.
To come back to the J Street issue, by all means I think the more pro-Israel voices, the better. But they would do themselves and the rest of the pro-Israel community a great favor by not implicitly (and not so implicitly) denigrating everyone else in the pro-Israel groups, by suggesting they are somehow less ardent when it comes to the cause of peace, and when it comes to the cause of human decency for everyone. 
The writer, a doctor, is the director of the Middle East Political and Information Network (MEPIN), an analysis on the region read by congressmen, their foreign policy advisers, MKs, journalists and organizational leaders.