‘I Think Striking Syria Was Absolutely Right’

Written by Editor on . Posted in Capital Commentary

From left: JNF Breakfast Co-Chair Jeffrey Menich, New York Times op-ed columnist and guest speaker Bret Stephens, Co-Chair Adrienne Rulnick, and breakfast host Dr. Chet Stein. (Photo courtesy of JNF)Bret Stephens talks values-based foreign policy with Kol HaBirah at JNF event.

On April 23, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bret Stephens was the guest speaker at the Jewish National Fund’s (JNF) annual community breakfast, held at B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville, Maryland. Stephens spoke eloquently and expertly on American foreign policy and its future under the new administration.


Formerly a foreign affairs columnist and the deputy editor of the editorial page at The Wall Street Journal, Stephens raised eyebrows with his recent move to the op-eds section of The New York Times. He was editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post from 2002 to 2004, and holds the distinction of having interviewed every Israeli prime minister since Shimon Peres.

After the event, we sat down to discuss his own new transition and his thoughts on Trump, Israel, and the importance of values-based American foreign policy.

What prompted you to leave the Wall Street Journal for the New York Times?

I had 16 great years at the Wall Street Journal, it’s a fantastic newspaper, but we live in a world where it’s a miracle when people stay in a job for three years. I felt it was time to stretch my legs and speak to a different audience, and offer them some different viewpoints on subjects, including Israel.

You’ve written extensively about the dangers of isolationism. We are experiencing the first hundred days of a president who was elected on a platform of “America First,” yet his foreign policy seems to be moving in a different direction.

I am — at least in the last two weeks — somewhat pleasantly surprised by some of the things the president has done. I think striking Syria was absolutely right. It was an act of moral geopolitical hygiene to make sure that dictators who use weapons like that should not go unpunished.

I’ve been heartened to see Trump come around to the importance of NATO and drop the rhetoric about Iraq’s oil to emphasize the need for allies, including allies that he has previously suggested were moochers (Japan, South Korea, and so on). He should keep it up; that is to say, he should abandon the kind of isolationist and protectionist impulses that defined his candidacy and adopt some version of robust liberal internationalism which represents the best American tradition from Harry Truman on.

It’s important to have a foreign policy in which we define our interests according to our values, not our values according to our interests. What we care about is democracy, free societies, human rights, human dignity, and when you pursue those values, what you will wind up discovering over the course of time is that your interests will follow. The fact that in the last two or three weeks we’ve seen similar movement in that direction has given me hope that I haven’t had before.

What steps can the Trump administration take to differentiate its Middle East policy from that of its predecessor?

I think the major problem of the Obama administration, in a word, was ambivalence. The saying in the Marines, which would be familiar to General Mattis, would be, “No better friend, no worse foe.” That would be great foreign policy, so that the traditional U.S. allies have the confidence that the United States really does have their back. When they have that confidence, we have much more influence in terms of their internal deliberations and the actions they choose to take.

When they don’t have it — we don’t want a world in which various countries more or less freelance their foreign policies and do whatever they feel like doing, because that’s a disorderly world. We want a world in which the South Koreas, and Israels, and Saudi Arabias of the world, before they take any precipitous act, say, “Let’s consult with Washington, let’s think this through.”  That’s a world that favors order, and it’s a world that favors the United States.

Do you think that President Trump speaking glowingly of Putin, only to suddenly change his tune, doesn’t reflect ambivalence?

It reflects a total flip flop, but I’d rather have Trump flip flop on his previous stance on Putin than maintain it — the hobgoblin of small minds is a foolish consistency. I don’t want to fault Trump too much for flip flopping if at least he’s flip flopping in the direction of sanity.

What should the Trump administration’s approach be to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Unfortunately, the best solution is to anesthetize the conflict so that it doesn’t become the neuralgic point of Middle Eastern politics. That means telling Israelis
 to take it slow on the settlements — I’m not against all settlements, but not to have a provoking policy, not to become a flash point, not to become a center of conversation.

On the other hand, [an additional step is] to speak the truth to the Palestinians, which is that they’re not going to get a state if they insist on a politics that celebrates terrorism, violence, and hatred of their neighbors.

What would you say to the argument that anything Israel does becomes a flashpoint, because that’s the nature of the coverage?

Not necessarily. Look, the world has moved on. When I think of the difference between my time in Israel in 2003 and 2004 and now, I think the world has caught onto the fact that the real story in the Middle East is not in Ramallah or even Gaza. The real story is in Aleppo and Mosul, and Kandahar. Even journalists learn… just slowly.

By Rachel Kohn

Rachel Kohn is editor in chief of Kol HaBirah.