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Bret Stephens On The Possible Rapprochement With Russia

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Bret Stephens is the deputy editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal whose column yesterday “How I Learned To Love Putin” was a scathing attack on the idea of of a U.S-Russia “real reset.” So of course I had him on today to discuss just that:




HH: Joined now by Bret Stephens, deputy opinion page editor of the Wall Street Journal, editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and friend of the program. Bret, happy holiday to you, great to have you, thanks for joining me.

BS: Thanks for having me on.

HH: Yesterday’s column was bracing. Bret Stephens wrote yesterday How I Learned To Love Putin: The Russians’ Methods Would Make Macbeth Blush And Richard III Smile. Let me begin with a couple of preliminaries, Bret. Have you read Danny Silva’s novels about Gabriel Alon, the Alon novels?

BS: No, but you know, key people keep telling me to do so, so you’re the next guy who’s told me I’ve got to do it.

HH: All right, he’s probably the best thriller writer worker, but he paints over the course of five or six books the most sinister portrait of Vladimir Putin possible. That’s why I urge people who don’t read about international affairs to read Daniel Silva novels so they at least get smart about who we’re dealing with, as well as other world leaders. But Putin is, in Silva’s universe, the most sinister character. You share that opinion based upon your column yesterday, am I correct?

BS: Well, look. You know, there is strong, circumstantial evidence that in 1999, a series of apartment bombings that killed nearly 300 Russians and were used as a pretext to start the second Chechen war, which launched Putin into the presidency, were in fact false flag operations orchestrated by the successor organization of the KGB, the FSB, which Putin had run up until just a few months earlier. So if that is in fact true, and I usually am not predisposed to believe these kinds of theories, if that is in fact true, it means that Mr. Putin may have come to power by the murder of hundreds of his fellow citizens. That’s kind of a chilling thought, at least for me.

HH: He is also had a hand in the murder of many journalists, opponents who have fled abroad. These are not contested, really, by serious students of Russia. He has, of course, arranged for the arming of the little green men who shot down an unarmed civilian airliner. We are talking about a very bad character. I wanted to stipulate that.

BS: You know, one of the things that I found striking, and of course, in a column, you just get a little over 800 words, is how much I had to leave out. I wasn’t able to mention Paul Klebnikov, the great Forbes journalist who was murdered in 2004, and Anna Politkovskaya, the great muckraking Russian journalist murdered in 2006. You just mentioned the downing of the Malaysian Airliner flight in 2014, hundreds of people dead there. It’s a record, I said this in my column, it would make Macbeth blush and Richard III smile.

HH: And so I’m going to stipulate all to that. Now I am too young, so that means you are too young, to remember the gasp that went up collectively when Richard Nixon unveiled that Kissinger had gone to Beijing to arrange for an opening.

BS: Yeah.

HH: And I wanted to put on the table to you that Mao was the worst, the century’s worst mass murderer. I believe he actually passed Stalin in terms of the number of people whose blood it was on his hands. And Nixon did it in order to triangulate against the stronger of the three world powers that were not with us – Russia. If Trump is in fact operating to reverse the China card and play the Russia card against China, surging in the South China Sea, aggressive across the globe, exploiting Africa, would we allow the nature of the regimes’ leaders to prevent a geostrategically, and I don’t know that he is, but I’m just raising it to that level, would the nature of the regimes’ leaders prevent us from doing that?

BS: Look, I always think of Churchill’s great line when he decided to come to the aid of Stalin after the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941. He said something like if Hitler had invaded Hell, I would find an occasion to put in a good word for the Devil in the House of Commons.

HH: Yes.

BS: So you’re asking a theoretical question, and in theory, yes. The problem is that we also have a long record of trying to reach agreements with Putin, each of which he has violated, and often violated very quickly. If you just do a quick Google search, in September of 2013, Putin wrote an op-ed in the New York Times basically scolding the United States for thinking that it could possibly intervene in Syria in any way that would bring more peace to the world. Well, two years later, who’s in Syria? None other than Putin. He promised then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that Russian troops would never go into Ukraine. Months later, they were in Ukraine. So the issue isn’t whether there’s some theoretical deal that we could reach to defeat Islamic terrorists, or to contain the rise of China. The problem is that Putin doesn’t keep his word, even if that kind of deal were reached.

HH: It’s very true. And in fact, John Kerry is the Charlie Brown of international affairs, having signed, I think…

BS: He’s the Inspector Clouseau, Hugh. He’s the only one who doesn’t get that he’s an idiot.

HH: (laughing) That’s why, by the way, when people tell me Tillerson, the new Secretary of State-designate isn’t qualified, I look and say yeah, you thought John Kerry was perfect. He’s got the worst record of a Secretary of State. But going back to my theoretical thing, I have a theoretical objection, though, to this, which I wanted to trace out with you. As of this moment, Russia is allied with Iran, the greatest existential threat to the planet, because they are run by fanatics who have a death wish, often. There is a death cult within the regime, I’m not saying the entire regime, but there is a death cult within the regime of Iran. And they are arming themselves to the teeth. And Russia is methodically allowing that group of actors, and Assad’s butchers, to move through Aleppo and shoot civilians in the street. So that is the theoretical objection, isn’t it, to the Russian rapprochement?

BS: Well, also, you know, bear in mind, I mean, look, I can imagine, I can construct in my head a grand bargain with Russians. We drop sanctions on, economic sanctions on Russia. We accept a kind of a confederal option in Ukraine. In exchange, we get assurances that they’re not going to invade NATO member-states like Estonia. And in the Middle East, we could say listen, we’ll help you roll up the terrorists in Syria, even if it means the Assad regime stays in power. But in exchange, we need greater cooperation to go after Iran as it violates the nuclear deal. Sounds great, except from the Russian point of view, their real prize in the Middle East isn’t a broken country called Syria. It’s a rising country called Iran towards, to which it sells, at least this year, $8 billion dollars of arms, and will continue to do so. So again, I don’t see where the Russian interest is in cooperating with us, even if I see perhaps our interest in cooperating with them.

HH: Yeah, it has to be, that grand deal would have to include the isolation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. That’s, to me, if you bring that about, and you begin to contain China, and you rebuild our military, there is a path there. Let’s turn to the team that’s executing it. Michael Flynn, K.T. McFarland, General Mattis, General Kelly, I assume, of course, Tillerson will be confirmed, and I expect John Bolton, despite the party of one that is Rand Paul, and Rick Grenell and a few other hardliners on Russia to enter this administration. On a quality basis, if you have the Obama team as the Cleveland Browns of national security, where do you rank this team of national security experts? I mean, K.T. has been in the White House since Kissinger was there. She was an intern then.

BS: I mean, look, it’s no contest, Hugh. You know, where shall I begin? I mean, obviously, the difference is so vast. And it’s really difficult, I mean, look, some of these new players in the White House are unknown quantities. We know that, I mean, I wrote about General Flynn in 2010 when he was executing a brilliant intelligence operation in Afghanistan. Not clear where he is strategically. General Mattis, on the other hand, is one will be, I suspect, one of the, if not the greatest Secretary of Defense that we have ever seen.

HH: Agree.

BS: But if you’re going to simply draw a comparison with the Obama team, well, since you’re starting in absolute zero, it’s got to be way better.

HH: Agree. Now do you believe that John Bolton ought to be vetoed by Rand Paul, who is basically showing up everywhere he can to declare he’s against John Bolton. People forget the leader can move a nominee to the floor, so even if the committee vote is against him, but I don’t see people who are concerned with Russia stopping the preeminent Russia hawk in America from joining either as DNI or deputy Secretary of State.

BS: Look, I was very sorry not to see John Bolton be named Secretary of State. I think he’s really the most talented diplomat of his generation.

HH: Yeah.

BS: And I know where he’s coming from, whereas for me, Tillerson is much more of an unknown quantity. I have talked with people in the Senate who assure me that John Bolton would have no trouble being confirmed for any position, Rand Paul or no Rand Paul. So I don’t think, I don’t see Rand being the guy who kills John Bolton’s nomination to anything just out of a matter of personal pique. A president, just as a matter of sheer principle, deserves the advisors he asks for, except if they are manifestly unqualified for personal reasons having nothing to do with their worldview. And I would expect that Rand Paul as a self-declared Constitutionalist would understand that.

HH: I agree with that, and I would expect that the attempt to bully the President-Elect is not going to work very well in the Trump Tower, and I do believe some Democrats, there are ten Democrats from states that voted for Trump, if they start trying to take out John Bolton after the concerns about Russia, they expose themselves. But I would like some more hardliners in this administration. Now I want to turn to a technical side. The Deputy Secretary of Defense is a position that has enormous importance in terms of the acquisition. If Mattis is the strategery general, and he is, he’s a deep thinker. I’ve only been in a room with him once at Hoover, and I was amazed after 45 minutes the amount of information that swept out of this guy. He doesn’t much like the press, Bret, which is not in his advantage, but there is a battlefield there to shape and win.

BS: No, I disagree. The fastest way for the press to like you is to show them a bit of contempt. This is an old story in love as well as in politics.

HH: Let me argue that point. If you’re going to, Sun Tzu said if the only thing you have to do is persuade your enemy not to fight, and if the American media is at work every day persuading the American people that the war on radical Islam is not worth fighting and can’t be won, we lose. And I’m not sure Mr. Trump’s skill set is persuasion. It might be a lot of things, but it’s not persuasion. Someone’s got to do that job, Bret Stephens.

BS: Look, Mattis, as you pointed out, is, you get a chance to speak to him, and you are, as someone once said, I think, about Edmund Burke, you couldn’t spend but ten minutes with him under a tin roof and not come away convinced he was the most impressive man you’d ever met. And I think something, people will say similar things about General Mattis.

HH: And I hope he does that on Meet the Press. Another time, we’ll talk about the deputy secretary of Defense, because acquisition of 350 ships and a new military is going to require a consummate insider to go along with the outsider that is General Mattis. Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, great column yesterday. Thank you for joining me, Bret. That column, How I Leaned To Love Putin available at

End of interview.


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