From where Bret Stephens sits, the Middle East can be all-consuming.
“Being as intellectually obsessed as I am with the Middle East, I have to check myself and make sure that I’m going to Asia and Europe and doing more than just covering the subject that I’m most inclined to cover,” said Stephens, the Wall Street Journal’s deputy editorial page editor, who writes a weekly column called “Global View.”
Stephens visited Seattle on Oct. 10 as a guest of the American Jewish Committee’s local chapter. While he treated his audience to a far-ranging question-and-answer session with Prof. David Domke, chair of the University of Washington’s department of communications, he spent time with JTNews earlier in the day to talk about global issues that specifically affect the Jewish community.
Stephens, 39, is best known today for his Pulitzer-award winning column in the Journal, but early in his career the Jerusalem Post recruited him to become the youngest editor in that newspaper’s history. He recalled the conversation with the Post’s then-publisher.
“I said, ‘Well look, I’m 28, I’ve never managed a thing in my life, but sounds interesting,’” Stephens said.
Stephens was with the Journal at the time, based in Brussels but writing more about Israel than his supposed beat, the European Union. His prescience by having his feet on the ground got him noticed.
“I wrote a piece that appeared about 10 days before the [second] intifada began,” he said, “the gist of which was, everyone wants Palestine to look like the American Colony Hotel, this Ottoman fantasy. But the Palestine that I saw was repressive, poor, increasingly fanatical, internally divided, and angry.”
Stephens wrote that there would be an explosion in the area, “which in retrospect seems perfectly obvious,” he said. “But at the time, no one really saw it coming, we were really in the peace narrative.”
Journalistically, he said, his two-and-a-half years at the Post were an intense, powerful experience, “but it was also a personally powerful experience. I became convinced that Israel’s side of the story was being poorly told and often invidiously told, and so I’m not quite sure where the journalism and the cause merged, but at some point, in a sense they did.”
While his columns span U.S. foreign policy, the Middle East as a whole, and occasionally other parts of the world, Israel more often than not finds its way into his arguments. The conservative bent of Stephens’s column hasn’t created many liberal fans, but to sit in conversation with him shows he can and does back up his statements with pragmatism and knowledge.
“What distinguishes a conservative or right-of-center editorial page like the Wall Street Journal from every other right-wing blogger with a two-bit opinion?” he asked. “We do a lot of actual journalism. We get on the phones. We don’t just opine…we go places.”
Over the past year or two he has traveled — somewhat to the disappointment of his three children, who would like to see more of their father — to Bahrain, to the Ukraine, and even to a naval ship in the Persian Gulf, where they were tracked by the Islamic Republican Guard Corps, Iran’s military.
“It was an eye-opening experience to spend some time in the gulf,” he said.
Since the summer, when the much-maligned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad left office as Iran’s president, Stephens has been relentless in his drive to expose the supposedly moderate successor, Hassan Rouhani, as just as radical. And Stephens is unequivocal about his belief that negotiations between the Obama administration and Iran simply give the country more time for plutonium enrichment. But he also has trouble seeing Benjamin Netanyahu having the nerve to pull the trigger and unilaterally attack Iran’s nuclear facilities — though he may have to.
“Israel is in a world of trouble if it strikes, but it’s in an even greater world of trouble if Iran becomes a nuclear power,” Stephens said. “When it comes to nuclear weapons, possession is use. This is what people don’t get about nuclear weapons. If you have nukes, you can do all kinds of things that countries without nukes can consider doing.”
To say that just because Iran has nuclear capability doesn’t mean it will be used is poor logic, he said.
“An Iran with nuclear weapons will consider doing things in the Persian Gulf, in Lebanon, with Hamas, in Syria, that they wouldn’t do without it,” he noted. “This was a regime that was planning on blowing up a restaurant in Washington, D.C. without the benefit of the nuclear umbrella. What would it do with [nuclear capability] if it felt it was invulnerable?”
Stephens has hit the Obama administration hard (not to mention what he calls isolationist Republicans) on not only dragging its feet with Iran, but its handling of crises throughout the Middle East — in Egypt and Syria in particular.
“A Syria that bleeds forever, and a Syria in which the United States doesn’t lift a finger to help push for the overthrow of Bashar Assad, is a Syria that is going to export violence and instability throughout the region, that is going to serve as a strategic partner of Iran, that is going to allow Russia to reenter the Middle East in a way it hasn’t since the Cold War,” he said. “None of that is good.”
While it’s nice to base a foreign policy on what he called dreams: “Dream: Israeli-Palestinian peace. Dream: A negotiated settlement to the Iranian nuclear crisis. Dream: Political reconciliation in Syria. Dream: A successful conclusion to the Arab Spring,” he said, “a better foreign policy is one that is aimed at keeping your nightmares at bay. Saying, ‘Okay, what are the three or four things we must avoid? We must stop? And how do we go about making them stop?’ That’s what I’d like the administration to do.”