Bret Stephens is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal and a former editor of the neoconservative flagship magazine Commentary. A promoter of aggressive "pro-Israel" U.S. foreign policies, Stephens previously worked as editor of the rightist Jerusalem Post and appears regularly on Fox News.
Stephens advocates views that are largely in line with the foreign policy agenda espoused by neoconservatives, particularly with respect to U.S. Middle East policy. Not surprisingly, he takes a dim view of those who argue that many "war on terror" policies, like the invasion of Iraq, were unnecessary and driven largely by ideological actors and business elites.
Among those he has targeted for criticism is 2016 Republican presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who combines extreme libertarian domestic policies with a cautious regard for overseas military intervention. In a bitingly sarcastic 2014 column, Stephens called on Republicans to vote for Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) in the next presidential primary, arguing that what Republicans needed as a "nominee in 2016 is a man of … glaring disqualifications. Someone so nakedly unacceptable to the overwhelming majority of sane Americans that only the GOP could think of nominating him." Among the issues that mark Paul as a right-wing crazy, according to Stephens, is his insistence that Vice President Dick Cheney helped manufacture a "war in Iraq" for his friends in business and politics. But, asked Stephens, "Cui bono—to whose benefit? It's the signature question of every conspiracy theorist with an unhinged mind. Cheney. Halliburton. Big Oil. The military-industrial complex. Neocons. 9/11. Soldiers electrocuted in the shower. It all makes perfect sense, doesn't it?"
On the Obama Administration
Stephens has pushed the idea that the Obama administration has presided over a U.S. "retreat" from world affairs, making this claim the central argument of his 2014 book, America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming World Disorder. In the book, Stephens claims that the American-dominated international system is "a world in which the economic, diplomatic, and military might of the United States provides the global buffer between civilization and barbarism." He asserts that "since Barack Obama took office in 2009," the United States has become "more reluctant than it has been for decades to intervene abroad, judging that there is better security in inaction than action." He adds: "Traditional allies of the United States, uncertain of its purposes, are beginning to explore their options in what they suspect is becoming a post-Pax Americana world, encouraging freelancing instincts which Washington has a diminishing ability to restrain."
A scathing review of the book from the American Conservative stated: "Devoid of any new ideas, America in Retreat recycles old clichés in a confused and misleading way as part of an effort to revive and advance the neoconservative agenda at a time when it seemed (at least for a while) to be in decline, while at the same time bashing and trying to marginalize current and potential enemies of the cause."
At a March 2014 events at the New York-based Tikvah Fund—a neoconservative group whose board consists of figures like Elliott Abrams and Bill Kristol—Stephens compared the United States' supposed "retreat" from the world to salted peanuts. "Henry Kissinger once had a wonderful line about retreat from Vietnam. He said, 'It's like salted peanuts.' And so once you embark on the process of retreat, it's hard to know where to stop," he opined.
In an October 2014 column, Stephens lambasted Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry for not publically meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon during his visit to Washington. "The good news here is that at least there's one kind of quarantine this administration believes in. The bad news is that it seems to give more thought to pursuing personal vendettas against allies like Israel than it does to waging effective military campaigns against enemies like ISIS," he declared.
Stephens went on in the piece to praise Saudi Arabia for signaling their intent to lower their dependence on the United States and posited that Israel should take similar steps. "At least the Saudis understand the value of showing they're prepared to be, as someone once wrote, co-dependent no more," Stephens proclaimed. "Israel needs to look after its own immediate interests without the incessant interventions of an overbearing partner. The administration needs to learn that it had better act like a friend if it wants to keep a friend. It isn't as if it has many friends left."
Stephens also strongly supported Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's controversial March 2015 speech to Congress. "The president collects hard favors from allies and repays them with neglect and derision. He is eager to accommodate the political needs of authoritarian leaders like Iran's Hasan Rouhani but has no use for the political needs of elected leaders like Mr. Netanyahu," he wrote in a February 2015 column for the Journal.
Stephens argued in the same article that Netanyahu needed to make the speech in order to demand respect and secure continued U.S. support for Israel. He stressed: "Above all, Mr. Netanyahu needs to speak because Israel cannot expect indefinite support from the U.S. if it acts like a fretful and obedient client to a cavalier American patron. The margin of Israel's security is measured not by anyone's love but by the respect of friends and enemies alike. By giving this speech, Mr. Netanyahu is demanding that respect. Irritating the president is a small price to pay for doing so."
Stephens strongly opposed the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 world powers that resulted in a comprehensive nuclear agreement in July 2015. In March 2015, Stephens wrote that "the deal being contemplated now … is neither prevention nor containment. It's facilitation." Stephens has argued that if the United States had pursued more aggressive policies towards Iran, a better deal could have been reached. "If you had, again, the kind of sanctions backed by a realistic threat of military force, then we could have had a much, much stronger deal," he said in April 2015.
However, in a December 2014 interview with the Weekly Standard, Stephens stated that he cannot see "any Iran deal" that he would be willing to support. "Iran will never agree to the only deal I would be able to support, which would be a complete and verifiable dismantlement of all nuclear capabilities along the lines of the terms imposed on Libya in 2003/04," he opined.
Stephens has also expressed support for Israel launching military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities irrespective of U.S. pressure against such an action. In an April 2015 interview with conservative radio-host Hugh Hewitt, Stephens argued that Israel made a "fundamental mistake back in 2012" and "lost a real window of opportunity when they could have conducted a much more successful military strike against still weaker targets." He added: "My own view is that ultimately, Israel is better served by acting than by simply being handed fait accompli."
During the interview, Stephens expressed agreement with Hewitt for saying that "we are suggesting military force" as an alternative to a nuclear deal with Iran. "There are all kinds of military actions that are well, well, well short of another Iraq war. And yes, I understand the argument. Yes, there are always unforeseen consequences to any military strike. I get it," Stephens said. "The real issue is, is that menu of unforeseen consequences really worse than the foreseeable result of a threshold nuclear Iran contending with a soon-to-be threshold nuclear Saudi Arabia in a Middle East where states are dissolving."
After the comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran was reached in July 2015, Stephens proclaimed: "Iran will get its money. It will redouble its bad behavior. And sooner or later it will probably get its bomb. The most Congress can do now is to lay a political predicate for the next president to disavow the deal. Good luck."
In July 2015, the Intercept reported on an "off-the-record call to formulate strategies for defeating the pending nuclear deal with Iran" between Stephens and members of the ardently "pro-Israel" Christians United For Israel. Stephens detailed during the call how members of Congress could be convinced to oppose the deal, arguing: "Someone should say, this is going to be like your vote for the Iraq War. This is going to come back to haunt you. Mark my words, it will come back to haunt yo. … This vote will be a stain. You will have to walk away from it at some point or another. You will have to explain it. And some of you may in fact lose your seats because of your vote for this deal."
The Intercept's Glenn Greenwald said of Stephens' remarks: "First, note the bizarre equation of support for the war in Iraq with support for a peace deal with Iran. Second, since when do neocons like Stephens talk about the Iraq War as something shameful, as a 'stain' on one's legacy? … Third, yet again we find journalists at newspapers claiming the pretense of objectivity who are in fact full-on activists: here, to the point of colluding with a right-wing group to sink the Iran Deal—there's nothing wrong with that on its own terms, other than the conceit that journalism is distinct from activism."
Hardline "Pro-Israel" Positions
Stephens is an ardent advocate of hardline "pro-Israel" policies and has scolded the Obama administration and the Democratic Party for allegedly being anti-Israel. In March 2015, he wrote for the Journal: "The Democratic Party is on the cusp of abandoning the state of Israel. That's a shame, though less for Israel than it is for the Democrats." He added: "That means the GOP is now the engine, the Democrats at best a wheel, in U.S. support for Israel. The Obama administration is the kill switch."
Among Stephens strongly held policy views is his opposition to Palestinian statehood. In an interview with the conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt, Stephens described former Israeli Prime Minister and Likud leader Ariel Sharon as "the most significant prime minister Israel has had since the founder, David Ben-Gurion." Stephens praised Sharon's often militarist policies toward the Palestinians, arguing that he had "defeated the Palestinian intifada and proved, therefore, that there is a military solution in the face of suicide terrorism, or other kinds of terrorism." Regarding the George W. Bush administration's hawkish stance on Palestinian issues, Stephens said, "I think this administration has been head and shoulders above its predecessors in being shrewd about [Yasser] Arafat, shrewd about the Palestinians, shrewd about what needs to happen, in order for the Palestinians to present some kind of realistic … for there to be some kind of realistic prospect of peace between the Palestinians and Israel."
In March 2014, Stephens also argued that religious considerations prevent Israel from agreeing to the formation of a Palestinian state in the Occupied Territories. "A Christian pastor [speaking at an AIPAC event] said, 'The land was promised to Israel, therefore, I'm for it.' That's a consideration, by the way, when Israel considers the cost-benefit analysis of ceding land for so-called peace, remembering that one of the reasons that millions of Americans love Israel is because it has the land, not because it's prepared to give it up," Stephens declared.
A writer for LobeLog responded: "Stephens' advocacy of a Christian Zionist belief that no land should be given up would seem to eliminate the possibility of such a [two-state] solution. And that, of course, suggests that Stephens favors a one-state solution which then begs the question of whether Palestinians should be accorded equal rights or whether they would be relegated to pseudo-autonomous Bantustans of the kind apartheid South Africa tried to impose on most of its black majority in the 1970s and 1980s."
Stephens and Anti-Semitism
Stephens has criticized Jewish Americans for supporting Barack Obama and for not being sufficiently "pro-Israel." He said at a March 2014 event: "Thank God I was born a Jew because otherwise I'd be a raging anti-Semite … [be]cause I tear my hair out all the time at my fellow Jews. But rare is it in history that we've been blessed to live in a country where we can say anything we want and actually get away with it. And it is a scandal, it seems to me, if we fail to live up to the promise of our American citizenship to do all we can to assure the survival of the Jewish state and the Jewish people."
Commented journalist Eli Clifton: "To be clear, Stephens isn't just comparing his anger and frustration with Jewish liberals (who comprise the mainstream of American Jewry) to the bigotry of anti-Semites. He's also stoking an anti-Semitic trope that Jews can never be entirely loyal to their country of citizenship because they should dedicate themselves at least as much to Israel's security."
In 2012, Stephens added his voice to a chorus of neoconservative writers who decried President Barack Obama's decision to nominate former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) to be defense secretary during his second term. Stephens wrote at the time: "Prejudice—like cooking, wine-tasting and other consummations—has an olfactory element. When Chuck Hagel, the former GOP senator from Nebraska who is now a front-runner to be the next secretary of Defense, carries on about how 'the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,' the odor is especially ripe."
The effort by Stephens and other "pro-Israel" figures to paint Hagel as an anti-Semite was widely panned. As Richard Cohen wrote in the Washington Post at the time: "I direct Stephens and others to page 426 of Anita Shapira's new book, Israel: A History. She writes that when the George H.W. Bush administration in 1992 withheld $10 billion in loan guarantees, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir 'enlisted the help of the Jewish lobby in the U.S. Congress, but in vain.' Shapira is professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University. It is true, as Stephens writes, that Jews are not the only ones who support Israel, and it is likewise true that not all Jews support Israel—or at least the current government of Benjamin Netanyahu. But Stephens's real beef with Hagel is not over speech but policy."
A writer for the "Open Zion" blog at The Daily Beast concurred, opining that the"ugly, facts-optional anti-Hagel campaign was never about Israel. ... Neocon attacks on President Obama—as channeled through the likes of Bill Kristol, the Emergency Committee for Israel, Jennifer Rubin, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, etc and so on—are about American power. They are about how a certain (pretty well discredited) ideology envisions the use of American power in the world, and they are about how power is shared within America's borders."
Attacks on Critics of the Israel Lobby
Stephens has also targeted those who question the close U.S.-Israel relationship. In a May 2006 speech, titled "Meet the Israel Lobby," at his alma mater the University of Chicago, Stephens took aim at noted international relations scholars Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer for their controversial 2006 paper, "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," which argued that lobbyists who worked on Israel-related issues in the United States had undue influence over U.S. policy in the Middle East, to the detriment of the United States. Stephens said: "Let's be clear: What professors Walt and Mearsheimer have produced under the guise of disinterested scholarship is a demagogic, disingenuous, distorted, bigoted, factually inaccurate, analytically flawed, and intellectually wretched piece of work."
According to Stephens, intellectuals who criticize Israel are not necessarily antisemitic but do help "pave the way" for growing antisemitism. He cites the case of Walt and Mearsheimer: "Professors Stephen Walt of Harvard and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, whose paper on 'The Israel Lobby' is now being turned into a book, have complained that 'anyone who criticizes Israel's actions or argues that pro-Israel groups have significant influence over US Middle Eastern policy ... stands a good chance of being labeled an anti-semite.' Maybe. But earlier this week, former Klansman David Duke took the opportunity to tell CNN that he does not hate Jews but merely opposes Israel and Israel's influence in U.S. politics. He even cited Messrs. Walt and Mearsheimer in his defense. Would they exonerate him of being an anti-Semite?"
According to Stephens, while it might be the case that some writers are unfairly tagged as antisemitic merely because they are critical of Israel, this does not mean their positions are defensible. He writes: "So let's also concede that it is not anti-Semitic to oppose Zionism. … Yet simply because opposition to Zionism ideologically or Israel politically isn't necessarily anti-Semitic, it doesn't therefore follow that being anti-Zionist or anti-Israel are morally acceptable positions."