The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens was my guest Tuesday, discussing his new book, America in Retreat:
HH: In Jerusalem today, five rabbis at prayer slaughtered by Islamist militants, three of them Americans, five dead in that attack. I’m joined today by Bret Stephens. Bret is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal. In 2013, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his commentary. He’s the foreign affairs columnist there, also the deputy editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal. He previously was the editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post. I’m sure he’s been following events today. We’re going to talk mostly about, this hour, his new book, America In Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder. But I would be obtuse if I did not ask you, Bret, for your reaction to this, and how ominous it is that this sort of viral, random violence is spreading.
BS: Well, the first point to make is the attack is just extraordinarily barbaric. I mean, to attack people in prayer with axes and knives and guns has a quality of brutality that is unique, even if there are all kinds of ways of dying. I just felt, quite frankly, when I saw the scenes of it, I felt sick. But it’s also a reminder, Hugh, that the problem that Israel confronts in the Middle East, and the problem that the United States confronts is not a question of territory borders, settlements. It’s a question of political culture and ethical culture, because almost as disturbing to me, I’m sure you felt the way, wasn’t just what was done. It was the scenes of jubilation in Palestinian streets that these two cousins had gone in there and butchered peaceful people in prayer in Jerusalem. And when you have a culture that is like that, you have a much larger set of problems on your hand, and you have to look that culture in the face. You have to understand what it’s about, and you have to be clear-eyed about how you can engage it. I don’t know what the proper response to this kind of barbarism is, but it certainly can’t be demands for Israeli retreat.
HH: Ambassador Dermer will join me in the second hour today, but as I watched this story this morning, and I had read America In Retreat over the weekend, and remarked to a few people that Chapter 9 was particularly chilling, and we’ll come to that before the end of the show, but before the end of our hour talking about America In Retreat, and by the way, the new book is now, it was must-reading before today. It is absolutely must-reading now. In Chapter 9, you spin a scenario that involves violence in Jerusalem, nor non-violence in Jerusalem, actually, which his based upon the viral nature of communications, and I believe is closer to reality today than it was yesterday.
BS: Yeah, you know, it’s funny, I wrote that, Chapter 9, just for those people who haven’t yet read the book, it just got into bookstores today, imagines the world in 2019. It’s a scenario of where we might be headed if we allow current trends to continue. And one of the scenarios I paint is a possibility of a third intifada. Bear in mind, I wrote this in the early part of the year, and I imagined this would begin sometime, I think, around the year 2017. It seems like events are getting ahead of my scenario. But yes, it begins with violence connected to misinformation in Palestinian newspapers about Israeli attempts, alleged Israeli attempts, imagined Israeli attempts to undermine the Temple Mount and the mosques, the Dome of the Rock, and al Aqsa Mosque that are on top of it. Now when I paint the scenario I paint in the book is imagine if the Palestinians were to actually offer genuine non-violent resistance to Israel, because Israel’s Achilles’ heel, if you will, is its susceptibility to moral pressure. The difference here, of course, is what the Palestinians are offering is the most gruesome kind of violence. And this will stiffen Israeli spines and make them understand that they cannot accept a jihadist Palestinian state hard on their border dividing their capital.
HH: After I had finished America In Retreat, and Citizens of the Green Room, Mark Leibovich coming up later in the program today, I began reading, and I am in the middle of right now, the memoir of Dietrich Von Hildebrand, a great German, Catholic writer and opponent of Hitler and fascism. And his memoir in the 20s and the 30s is really quite riveting, because he saw growing what he called the antichrist, this deep-seated anti-Semitism. And I think that’s gone viral as well, Bret Stephens, and you touch on it in a few places in America In Retreat, but I think maybe you held back a little bit in order to make sure that the focus of the lens was wide as opposed to narrow on global disorder. But that permeates everything and everywhere.
BS: Right, and just look at the way in which pogroms began to spread or attempts at pogroms began to spread in the streets of Paris around Jewish worshippers in synagogues in France, in the streets of Berlin and London with, during this summer’s war between Israel and Hamas. And this also has not a little bit to do with the media’s obsessive focus on Israel military action and its downplaying of what Palestinians have done. You know, one of the striking facts for me during this summer’s war was how it was just one reporter, and Indian reporter in Gaza who managed a scene of Palestinians firing a rocket at Israel. And yet something like 3,000 of these rockets were fired. So the speed at which the hatred spreads through modern means of communication accelerates the pace of events today, and I think means that the disorders are happening more quickly than they might have in the 1930s.
HH: And it also means that because there are so many more of them, a less of an ability to weigh in the balance gravity. Now we’re on Ferguson watch as you and I talk about America In Retreat, and if Ferguson, a bad grand jury report comes out, there will be an expectation of violence. And the networks will cover that and Jerusalem equally, Bret Stephens. And talk about an Achilles’ Heel of our age, that they would receive even remotely the same amount of coverage, though they are both newsworthy events.
BS: No, I mean, that’s right. I mean, the common denominator here is an obsession with the alleged victims at the expense of any kind of ordinary standards of justice or the rule of law. And this is a real problem – the abandonment of sort of ordinary ethics, the abandonment of sort of ordinary rules for the sake of pursuing the moral fetishes of the age. And so I mean, we’ll see what happens in Ferguson. My real worry in Israel is that this is going to be seen as a kind of a war of opportunity for the Palestinians, and you’re not going to have an administration that has the strategic vision or moral fortitude to condemn the Palestinians as they should, and provide Israelis with the kind of support they need.
HH: Now I want to go back to America In Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder more broadly. You began the book by citing a letter from a critic. And by the way, I run into this program every day, one through four, people start off by critiquing my defense of George W. Bush, or today, my defense of Israel’s right to knock down the houses of those who killed the rabbis. And I won’t know if the critic is a hard lefty or a hard righty. And you point that out. I have no idea whether this letter you received, whether the reader wrote me that letter is a Republican or a Democrat, a Tea Party activist or a lifelong subscriber to Mother Jones. This is new. You’re absolutely right, Bret. And that is what makes it so confounding.
BS: Well look, I mean, this is one of the strange things. You know, when leftists or liberals become radicalized, their politics move to the left. One of the weird things at least when it came to foreign policy during the last years’ worth of debates is that when people who, ordinarily you’d think of as Tea Party people, became radicalized in their politics, their foreign policy views also moved to the left. They became more isolationist, more suspicious of the uses of American power, more convinced that anything that we did was bound to have blowback, unintended consequences, get us nowhere. And so you have this kind of strange meeting of the extremes between people who are somewhere to the right at least on, or somewhere in the Rand Paul camp, and people who are in really the progressive Barack Obama camp. It’s come home America time. Both of them end up sounding a lot like George McGovern. And this kind of harkens back to the late 1940s when you had figures like Henry Wallace on the left, and Robert Taft on the right vehemently disagreeing on social issues of the day, economic issues, but basically completely in line with one another when it came to the question of whether the United States should become, should help reconstruct Europe or found the Atlantic Alliance. And that, I think, is becoming a new dividing line when it comes to foreign policy. There are those of us who understand the need for America to be strong throughout the world, to defend our allies, to stand up to tyrants and bullies, and to preserve the rules of the road with a powerful military and especially a powerful Navy, and others who simply think well, if we just leave the rest of the world to its own devices, they’ll sort themselves out one way or another, and we’ll sort ourselves out. And I think that’s the kind of short-sidedness that gave us the foreign, the world of the 1930s and the tragedy of 1939.
HH: Though especially the world’s best Navy. I want to underscore what Bret Stephens just said.
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HH: I made notes, by the way, Bret, you tend to travel a bit. You were on the last convoy out of Afghanistan, Sangin Base. You stood at the edge of pax Americana at the devastated northern Pakistani city of Muzaffarabad at a MASH unit late in 2005. You were on the USS Bunker Hill in 2012 in the Persian Gulf.
BS: You read carefully.
HH: I know. You got around. I didn’t think columnists often left their couches.
BS: Oh, believe it or not, some of us try to. Some of us believe you have to see the world you’re writing about.
HH: Oh, it is a great advantage. I think Robert Kaplan does that, Dexter Filkins, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, John Fisher Burns. My favorite writers do that. Now I want to read the bottom line here. To say America needs to be the world’s policeman, as you do, is not to say that we need to be its priest, preaching the gospel of the American way. Priests are in the business of changing hearts and saving souls. Cops merely walk the beat reassuring the good, deterring the tempted, punishing the wicked. Is that the money graph of America In Retreat?
BS: Yeah, that’s exactly it. That’s the central thesis, because what I’m trying to do, Hugh, is give the next president of the United States to give those Republicans who are going to stand up in the debates come a year or a year and a half time, I want to give them a foreign policy that is strong, that is sensible, and that understands that Americans do not want to engage in large nation-building exercises that take ten years, but at the same time do not want to leave the rest of the world to the Vladimir Putins and Ayatollah Khamenei and Bashar Assad, who want to return this world to a kind of global anarchy. And what we’re looking for is a kind of, what I’m trying to spell out is a Reagenesque foreign policy, I’m very proud that George Schultz endorsed the book. He’s the top blurb on the back jacket, a Reagenesque foreign policy that understands the importance of strength and credibility – credibility with our enemies, and credibility with our friends. And those are the things that we’ve lost under Obama.
HH: And the renaming of my law school, the Fowler School of Law at Chapman where I teach, George Schultz came down last year and delivered without notes one of the most compelling addresses on the breakdown of the post-World War II order that I think I have ever heard. And he’s completely on the top of this game. So that’s quite a blurb.
BS: And he’s only 91 years old.
HH: He’s a Marine. He went ashore at Peleliu. It’s amazing to me, actually, that he’s out there. So here’s a hypothetical that is not a hypothetical, Bret Stephens, to test what your rule is. Tonight after the show, I’m going to go to a presentation by the International Justice Ministry. It’s going to concern Ghana and the fact that on Lake Volta, there are 50,000 children, more than half of whom were sold into slavery when they were two or three years old. They work horrific hours, 14, 16, 18 hours a day their whole lives until they die after nasty, brutish and short lives. And Ghana knows it’s illegal. They know it’s human slavery. They don’t have the infrastructure to patrol or prevent it. The United States does. Should we act there?
BS: Look, one of the points that I make is that there are a range of options for the United States. And where we can lend a finger or a hand, or even an arm to tilt the scales of humanity and justice and liberalism in the right direction, let’s do that. But let’s not use our whole strength and our whole bodies in an attempt to do that. The scenario you just described, well, at what cost? Would we really be prepared to send 20, 30, 40,000 American troops? American statesmen have to distinguish as a matter of necessity, because we are the world’s sole superpower, between those international fires that are likely to burn themselves out, and those that are likely to burn down the rest of the neighborhood. And that is more art than science. That is the art of statesmanship. But we cannot expend our energies trying to solve and cure all the world’s ills. We do have to make a determination about the things where our involvement makes the difference. And when we figure out what those things are, we have to act decisively. If we had stopped Syria from collapsing the way it did early in the conflict, we would have spared ourselves the disaster of ISIS and the collapse or the strain on all of the neighboring states. Syria was one of those fires that burnt the neighborhood down, because Obama let it burn, because of his inaction. But just if you had to ask me a yes or no question to your scenario, I would say no. I’d say there are other things that Americans could do. But is this something that concerns a vital American interest? It is not.
HH: Now see, where I disagree with you on this, I’ve been, one of the few places I’ve been is Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, where we have 10,000 American troops permanently lifting weights and running laps, and going on patrol. But the moment you them out, the Serbs start killing the Kosovars again. So they’re simply there. You could put a thousand troops on Lake Volta, and this would end. It would just be over, because of the ability of Americans to capture and kill pirates and slavers. And we don’t, it doesn’t take that much, Bret Stephens.
BS: Look, I’m not sure, maybe you’re right, okay? But the key point here is that at Camp Bondsteel, we are maintaining peace. We are maintaining order. We are not reacting to disorder. And you know, the analogy that I rely on in the book is what we call broken windows policing.
BS: And this is an important point. You know, psychologists have observed that if one broken window is left untended in a neighborhood, lots of other windows end up being broken. And so the role of policing, the role of proper policing, isn’t so much to react to disorder. It is to enforce order. And what we might be doing in the Balkans is enforcing the order that we created there. By the way, that’s what we could have done in Iraq after we had pacified the country belatedly in 2008 and 2009. We could have enforced order. It’s a different thing. I think it’s a different question when you are trying to police or react to disorder. And look, these are, no one should deny that these are hard causes. One of the points that I make in the book, Hugh, is that if we had sent a single cruise missile into Rwanda in 1994, to knock out the radio tower that was broadcasting orders to the Hutus to hunt down Tutsis, we could have done a world of good at minimal cost to ourselves.
BS: And to the extent we can do that, we should.
HH: And that’s where I…minimal cost matters to me. But I think the big difference as I contemplated America In Retreat is the difference between those who are ready and willing to use military force, even small amounts, and those who are deeply opposed to it, even in small amounts. You also write on Page 99, Bret Stephens, the serious conservative charts a course between two permanent American temptations. The first is the urge to save the world. The second is the yearning to retreat from it. Now I realize with my Lake Volga in Ghana example that’s easy, because it’s children in slavery. It wouldn’t work in the sex trade in the Dominican Republic very easily. You can’t occupy a country trying to eradicate the sex trade. You can help the rule of law take root. It really is just, though, if you see a set of circumstances where you can act, will you do so? And unfortunately, more and more Americans are saying not, not ever, never.
BS: Well look, and I think we agree more than we disagree here, because I do think that there are all kinds of ways in which the limited application, limited and targeted application of American power, can make that difference. The question is how much of our national capital and our time and our political patience do we spend on second order priorities.
HH: That’s the 5% question. We’ll come right back to it when we return with Bret Stephens.
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HH: I mentioned as we went to break before the update there, Bret, the 5% solution. I have long advocated this, so I always tend to agree with that which I’ve long advocated. The United States as a great power simply ought to say we’re spending 5% of our GDP on Defense. You can’t have too many tanks, planes and ships. You just can’t. You might not have to use them. You might not have the fuel for them. But you build them.
BS: Right, and this is, you know, you must be the 45 year average of American Defense spending between 1962 and 2007 was 5.5%. We’re now spending 3.5%, so considerably lower, even as Americans, many Americans seem to be under the misimpression that we are spending most of our national treasure on the military. That’s simply wrong. We have a Navy that is half the size of what it was in the last days of the Reagan administration. And you know, you’ve probably heard the military expression quantity has a quality all of its own.
BS: When you only have 289 ships, many of them which are in port, you just can’t be in the places you need to be. You can’t provide the physical, visual reassurance that our allies need. One of the shocking pieces of news that I came across in the last ten days or so was that the United States will go for four months in the coming year without an American aircraft carrier in the Western Pacific. I mean, that is a stunning comment. And believe me, the Japanese see that, and they have to start drawing conclusions about the reliability of American power. When the Saudis noticed that we weren’t going to be able to defend them last September in the event of an Iranian attack, they also began to draw their own conclusions. And the danger here is not only that our reduced military power gives our enemies the idea that they can do what they want, but it also gives our friends the sense that they need to start freelancing a new foreign policy because America can’t be trusted. And that’s just a world of disorder.
HH: And you write that disorder, global disorder, is not a shipwreck. It’s not the American ship of stat hitting a rock. It’s a storm. And that storm can grow. I liked on Page 145 your passage, Bret Stephens, a 1st Century Roman aristocrat could scarcely have imagined the effect that an obscure Judean cult propagating the, to him, preposterous notion that the meek shall inherit the Earth would have on the destiny of his empire. Luther’s doctrine that salvation was to be found sola fide, by faith alone, had similar effects on the religious and political foundations of Europe, as did ideas about the rights of man and the monarchies of the 17th and 18th Centuries, as did Marxism on much of the world in the 20th Century. You might have added the prophet on the 21st Century, but the point being we have no idea what is coming. And the only way to prepare is to stock up.
BS: Well, I think that’s exactly it. And it’s especially so because you know, the kind of disorder that I think we’re looking at in the near future, if not in the present, is different from the turbulence of everyday life that we’ve experience, I think, in the last 30 or 40 years. The disorder is striking not sort of within the systems, like you know, a recession or a change in government. It’s striking the very systems that undergird our international structure, the nation state. That’s coming apart with the collapse of now, in just the space of three years, four states in the Middle East, the European Union under immense strain, the geopolitical order of East Asia again in question because of Chinese encroachments, but most importantly, the very question of pax Americana. That’s the post-war order where the United States was the ultimate guarantor of the peace and security of our friends and allies. And pax Americana is maintained through military strength above all. So when you slowly bleed that strength, when we don’t have the ships, when our planes are 26 years old on average, when we have an Army the size it was before conscription in 1940, this is going back to the 1930s, then the basic architecture, the foundations of pax Americana, fall apart and you enter a world that is very much like a storm at sea, inherently unpredictable and terrifying, and you don’t know where you’re going to come out.
HH: And one of the sure signs of that, we’ll talk about it after the break, when people abroad begin to slander your leader. Our president, President Obama, the list of slanders leveled at him by Massoud Jazayeri, an Iranian general, who called him a low IQ president, a top advisor to the prime minister of Turkey calls Obama a half-leader, a deputy prime minister of Russia tweets, jokes about him, you know America is in a bad place. All of that is chronicled in Bret Stephens’ new book, America In Retreat.
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HH: I want to spend our last segment, Bret, today, talking about Hillary Clinton. You quote at length her speech on Page 59 in 2002 voting in favor of the use of authorization of military force resolution, and how she said Hussein’s threat was undisputed. You then go forward, and when you unleash your inner Tom Clancy in Chapter 9, the scenario for global disorder, and it’s Pages 185-206, and I defy anyone to read it and not be afraid, she’s your president in that projection. First of all, do you think…
BS: Yeah, that’s part of the fear factor, Hugh.
HH: But do you think she is going to be the president then?
BS: You know something, a year ago, I was almost certain she would be. I now have serious doubts about it. She is as brittle as I remember her, brittle as a candidate, as I remember her from 2008. She, like it or not, she owns a big part of an Obama administration foreign policy that is falling to pieces by the day. She is, I think, very unappealing to many people on the progressive left, almost as unappealing to them, if you’ve seen the cover of Harper’s Magazine, or the New Yorker, as she is to people on the right. And I think that Americans understand that eight years of a Democratic president have led us to one of the most mediocre economic recoveries, if that’s the word for it, in history, along with unprecedented dangers abroad. And so she, whether she likes it or not, she is the heir and the co-pilot of that presidency. So I think she’s actually, I don’t think she’s a sure thing at all.
HH: She may have a glass jaw. I think she could go down with one punch. It’s possible. You write in the middle of your book, the rhetorical question on the minds of many Americans. Can modern authoritarianism really succeed in getting the better of liberal democracy? But you write so it has been with Russia, and you give your evidence, so it has been with Iran, and you give your evidence, and so it is with China, and you give your evidence. Hillary Clinton was part of each of those capitulations.
BS: Well, that’s exactly right. She is, if not the author, then one of the foremost champions of the Russian reset. She was right there for much of the diplomacy with Iran. She was one of the people, the early gambits with China, sort of accepting China’s so-called rise as a peer, not so much a competitor but as a peer of the United States. You remember her engagement in the strategic dialogues with China? She owns the Obama foreign policy nearly as much as he does. She just got off the train before the destination became crystal clear to most Americans.
HH: Do you remember the scene in the Great Escape where the Germans speak English to the two Englishmen trying to get away, and they answer?
BS: You have to remind me.
HH: Well, they answer in English, and so they’re trapped. At some point, someone’s going to reference the Obama foreign policy, and she’s going to talk about her role in it, and she’s going to be trapped. However, you have planted in America In Retreat one minor comfort, which is very relevant to my audience in Southern California. Everyone who lives near the coast knows that properties are being bought for cash by Chinese.
HH: They just walk in. And so we’re becoming sort of the world’s retirement community or gated golf community. Doesn’t that provide us some measure of protection?
BS: Well, you know, you’ve heard people like Fareed Zakaria talk about the post-American world, and the idea that in India, in China, in Russia, in Brazil, there’s a new class of super-elite who are confident in their country’s future, who are investing outside of America. If all these other countries are supposedly rising and rising so successfully, why are their best and brightest racing for the exits and typically coming to the United States? Why did Roman Abramovich, the fifth-richest man in Russia, have his most recent child in New York City if not for the security, the long term security, of American citizenship and American passport? I am not a declinist, Hugh. We are not in decline.
HH: That’s clear from your book.
BS: This is the greatest nation of all. This is a great nation. Decline is something that happens for reasons that are beyond the reach of ordinary politics. We are in retreat because of the dreadful policy choices of this administration.
HH: But we are also in danger because of people like Qiao Ling and Wang Xiangsui, two Chinese colonels in the People’s Republic Army that wrote that book, Unrestricted Warfare. There is contempt for America abroad which you chronicle in America In Retreat. We are in a dangerous period of time, Bret Stephens. Who do you see among those who would lead? You know, yesterday, Lindsey Graham wanted to lead by repealing any deal with Iran that the President signs. We have a great freshman class. Later in the program, Tom Cotton will be on, Dan Sullivan, Joni Ernst. Who, though, do you think is in the best position for the Republicans to see lead?
BS: Look, I think, let me put it this way while avoiding your question very deliberately, Hugh. I see in this class of presidential contenders in 2016 more than one, more than just one obvious choice. And that gives me a lot of comfort that the grown-ups are showing up around the table. And that’s going to give, at least on the Republican side, a really rich menu of choices. You have some extraordinary reformist governors, you have highly-charismatic Senators, and maybe one very charismatic Congressman one could mention. And that’s a good sign. It’s a sign that there’s finally some depth in the Republican bench. What I’m trying to do with this book is give them some intellectual depth when it comes to a conservative foreign policy that is going to be persuasive with Americans, and persuasive with the rest of the world, too.
HH: It reminds me of a book I had a small hand on, The Real War by Richard Nixon, which came out in 1980 in anticipation of that campaign. And America In Retreat will play, I think, a very similar role for most of the Republican candidates who want an intellectual framework. How’s it been received? 30 seconds, Bret. Is it selling well?
BS: It’s selling well. It’s fantastic. I have been privately very, very encouraged by the people who are calling me about the book. It’s getting reviewed brilliantly, and here on the first day of sales, I feel, I hear nothing but great things from my publisher.
HH: Congratulations. America In Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder is linked over at Hughhewitt.com. Go and get it and read it. Thank you, Bret Stephens.
End of interview.