Bret Stephens: French murders attack right to insult

Bret Stephens  picture: Eyal Yitzhar
Bret Stephens picture: Eyal Yitzhar

The WSJ columnist tells "Globes": If the US won't intervene militarily, the world will be a much more dangerous place.

Wall Street Journal deputy editorial page editor and foreign affairs columnist Bret Stephens is a great believer in the ability of the US to lead the world and prevent an international descent into chaos. Stephens, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is considered one of US President Barack Obama's critics. In a "Globes" interview during his visit to Israel as a keynote speaker at the first Foreign Trade Conference of the Ministry of the Economy Foreign Trade Administration this week, he set forth his conception, which he outlined in his book, "America in Retreat": If the US isn't willing to intervene, including militarily, and combat threats to its allies, the world will become a much more dangerous place.

US the last resort

"Globes": In your book, you criticize the attempt at isolationism by the US, and assert that US leadership and willingness to intervene are essential. The relevant question is whether the world is willing to accept this role from the US.

Stephens: "For many countries, since 1947 the US has been the security guarantor of last resort. That's the reason why Japan, South Korea, and Germany have no nuclear weapons. That's also the reason why countries on the frontier between the free and the unfree world, such as Israel, or the Baltic states, Taiwan, and South Korea, feel safe to some degree. These things are all good, and they are based on the feeling that intervention by the US is good and reliable.

"But I think that this perception has changed in recent years, particularly under President Obama. There will be consequences, because if a country like Saudi Arabia, for example, doesn't feel that American security guarantees are good, that American insurance is good, it's going to look for another insurance policy. That's the reason why I predict in my book in an imaginary scenario for 2019 that Saudi Arabia might be the first country in this neighborhood to test a nuclear weapon. Not Iran, Saudi Arabia. In other words, if Saudi Arabia feels that American guarantees are BS, they're going to take measures into their own hands."

But even someone who accepts the assertion that the US is necessary as a power guaranteeing the security of countries by itself, and willing to intervene in order to carry out this promise, must recognize that there is a gap between the desirable and the possible. Intervention is becoming more and more difficult, and the alternative may be international cooperation through coalitions.

"We always needed coalitions, that's why we created all these treaty organizations, not just NATO, but SEATO, and CENTO and so on. It's a myth that American hegemony has meant American unilateralism. The truth is that American leadership has created coalitions that have been able to achieve certain goals. America has always been in its post World War II role a coalition building nation. But it turns out that it's easier to form coalitions from a position of strength and confidence and leadership than it is to go about it that other way, which is, in that famous phrase, 'leading from behind.'"

But in order to form a coalition under such leadership, countries must agree on what they want, and in many cases, this is simply impossible, even more so when one country exercises hegemony in the coalition.

"I don’t think so. The fact is that in recent years, the US has been able to create functional and successful coalitions sometimes for ad hoc purposes, sometimes for both short and long-term goals. It did this when it was clear that it was the leader, not just a participant. People forget now the example of the Balkans and the war in the former Yugoslavia. The fighting continued for years, hundreds of thousands died or became refugees or were sent to concentration camps, and it looked like it couldn't be stopped, until the Clinton administration took the leading role on itself, and even intervened militarily with bombings.

"I admit that foreign policy is an area in which forgetfulness is very common, at least where Americans are concerned, because it's what they see on television, not what they experience in their everyday life, at least for the most part.

"But thinking from a historical perspective, you have to recognize that the coalitions formed by the US have achieved quite a bit. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, there was no law of nature that said that President Bush Sr. would be capable of assembling a coalition of almost 40 countries that defeated Iraq and forced Saddam Hussein to retreat. Bush did it because he demonstrated to the Saudi Arabians and the Israelis that the US was willing to take risks on itself for their security. When you boil it down, that's what persuaded those two countries that there was no need for them to intervene directly."

Foreign policy is not abstract

Concerning Israel, where Stephens spent part of his professional life as editor of the "Jerusalem Post" in 2002-2004, he said at the conference, "If I speak in the role of a proud Jew, not as a foreign policy columnist, Israel has always been close to my heart. The Jewish people is possibly the most special people that our world has ever seen in the sense of its contribution to civilization in a variety of fields, and in its ability to adjust and continue its ancient tradition. The purpose of Israel is simply to defend the Jewish people."

Stephens asserts that in the past, "This was the foundation of US policy. Our connections with countries like Israel, or Taiwan, or South Korea are based on the fact that we offer them guarantees. When we don't do this, however, for example when we don't act with enough determination against Iran's nuclear program, then we run the risk of cretaing a world in which not only America's enemies feel that that they can do what they want, but our friends will feel that they have to do what they want, in which they become freelancers, and a world of freelancers is a dangerous world, for Israel and similar countries and for the US."

He adds, "What's important to me to emphasize is that at least in foreign policy, the ability of the president to convince the public is much greater than in internal policy. The reason is that foreign policy is something much more abstract for people in the US. Had President Obama decided, for example, to bomb the forces of Syrian President al-Assad when he discovered that they were using chemical weapons, he would have obtained public support, almost certainly. When it comes to foreign policy, the president mustn't be led by public opinion polls, because these polls are meaningless, or at least they have much less meaning than polls about issues like raising taxes, or some regulation. I'm not saying that they're completely meaningless, but you have to keep in mind that most Americans often lack knowledge about the relevant facts when some crisis occurs, and that's where presidential persuasion and leadership matters."

War over values

The attack on the offices of the "Charlie Hebdo" magazine, in which 12 of its employees were murdered, left no journalist indifferent. Stephens feels that this was an attack on Western values, especially on one of its most basic values - freedom of expression and the right to insult. "Strategically, these attacks are a reminder of the danger Europe is in from an extremist Muslim population," he says, "This is a problem that is today at the same level of urgency as when Mohamed Atta (one of the September 11, 2001 airplane hijackers, A.T.) immigrated to Hamburg in Germany in his youth.

"Ideologically speaking, this is a reminder that the West's conflict with radical Islam has nothing to do with any policy at all in the Middle East; it concerns much more Western values in Western society. So the desirable response is to defend those values with confidence, not provocatively, as "Charlie Hebdo" did."

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - - on January 11, 2015

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2015

Bret Stephens  picture: Eyal Yitzhar
Bret Stephens picture: Eyal Yitzhar
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