HH: I begin with deputy editorial page editor and foreign affairs columnist, Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal. @StephensWSJ is his Twitter handle, @StephensWSJ. Bret, welcome back, good to talk to you today.
BS: Good to be here, Hugh.
HH: Your reaction to Donald Trump’s statement yesterday?
BS: Highly unfortunate, although I’m sure he’s going to profit politically from it. I think it was an ugly statement, and I think it does a disservice to the Republican Party, and it does a disservice, above all, to the war on terror that needs to be fought, which is not, which should not be fought as an immigration policy.
HH: Now Tashfeen Malik, who came into this country as a black widow, represents sort of the id of American fear, doesn’t she?
BS: I mean, you have to look at those, that picture, those dead eyes in that picture. She should never have been let into this country. And we have, there’s no question we have inept, any bureaucracy that let her in was clearly inept.
HH: And we have Michael Weiss’ book. I watched Michael Weiss with great interest last night denouncing Trump. Even as I read ISIS: Inside The Terror Machine, which is really a blood-chilling account of how crazy these fanatics are, so the question becomes, Bret Stephens, what ought Republicans and everyone not aligned with President Obama to say about the current situation that avoids the overreaction attributed to Trump and somehow gets us talking about the most important thing, which is American security?
BS: You know, we’ve been saying at the Wall Street Journal for a long time that if you don’t get serious about the kind of community surveillance that was being done with the cooperation of Muslim communities in the United States, about the kind of bulk collection of telephony metadata, if you let those things slip, then you’re going to have terror attacks, and inevitably, you’re going to have calls, as Trump is calling for, kind of Japanese style internment camps. And that is, I think, a nightmare for the United States. It’s not what this country is about. It’s not what we should be aiming for, but that’s because just a week ago or ten days ago, Hugh, we allowed the surveillance provisions of the Patriot Act to expire thanks to something called the USA Freedom Act, which was a brainchild of Ted Cruz and Chuck Schumer.
HH: Now Bret Stephens, I’ve been in that room in San Bernardino. That’s my backyard. I know, and some of those people were my listeners, the victims of that thing. And it is everybody’s worst nightmare. And nobody wants to suspect their long-standing friendship with the Muslim down the street to be dangerous, but this is what Donald Trump is speaking to, fear in America. And metadata, it simply doesn’t do the trick when everything is incompetent. Isn’t it really the Obama administration’s epic incompetence that is driving fear? This was not a problem under George W. Bush.
BS: Well, in part, because we had things like the Patriot Act, and we were able to foil probably dozens of terrorist attacks or near terrorist attacks because we had the kind of surveillance that we did. But look, part of the problem, and this is what I think Trump is tapping into, and you know, it’s inarguable. There’s a great deal of truth to it. There’s terrible political correctness in this country. There is a terror of being branded a racist. You know, everywhere I go in New York City, there are all these signs, I’m sure it’s true out there in California, if you see something, say something. But God help you if you see the wrong thing and say the wrong thing. You’re going to be branded a racist. Look at the case of that, of the boy with the alarm clock, which a teacher worried might be a bomb. The school was vilified, it was pilloried. The boy was turned into a hero, and so we have a society which is so afraid of transgressing some kind of line of moral offense which shouldn’t be there, that we have forgotten the basic principles of defense, which is to say you know, gee, this woman does not look like she’s integrating into this society. This heavily-bearded fellow who is obsessed with Israel and ranting about Israel with his colleagues in the county, there is something off here. And above all, Hugh, what I find massively off, was a father who could listen to his son say that he support Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, and not immediately get on the phone to the FBI and say my son is trouble.
HH: Right, and that is, that’s new detail coming out. Let me explain to you my biggest concern coming out of this. I know Frank Gaffney. Frank Gaffney is a friend of mine. Frank Gaffney is not an extremist. And yet I have repeatedly heard over the past few days, he is very conservative. He is very sober-minded. I joke. I call him, you know, Champagne Frank Gaffney because like Andy McCarthy and General Boykin and others, he is, you know, obsessed with the issue of Muslim-Islamist ideology. But I heard Jeff Zeleny come on the air last night when I was on with Don Lemon and say we all trust the Southern Poverty Law Center, and they’ve labeled this Center For Security Policy an extremist group. A) the Southern Poverty Law Center is a radical group itself. They almost got everyone massacred at the Family Research Council for calling them a hate group and a same sex marriage advocate crazy went down there with a gun, and thank God, he got stopped. That’s what’s the margin of acceptable conservation, Bret, has narrowed in this country when you can start calling Frank Gaffney, who doesn’t have to be your cup of tea, but he’s not an extremist, when you start labeling him as outside of the margin of acceptable political discourse.
BS: You’re absolutely, Hugh, I couldn’t agree with you more. And by the way, that is the argument, that is the sense that I think Donald Trump is tapping into so successfully, and up to a point, with some legitimacy. The problem is that he goes so far beyond the point to make sweeping un-American, and frankly, foolish claims about how to wage a successful fight on terror. You’ve probably been seeing some of the fantastic op-eds we’ve been running by my colleague who works for me from our offices in London. He’s an American named Sohrab Ahmari.
HH: Absolutely, been a guest on this show.
BS: He came over to the United States when he was 14 years old from Iran.
HH: He’s terrific, yeah.
BS: Or should we kick out the Sohrab Ahmari’s of the world? Are you crazy? He’s a tremendous asset. And lots of people listening to the show will remember the name Fouad Ajami, a great American who was born into a prominent Shiite Lebanese family in 1945, made huge contributions not only to scholarship, but also to our understanding of the enemy that we face in his homeland, in Lebanon and places like that. So we should be, I mean, what Trump is doing is extremely ugly, but again, it is playing into genuine distaste with the excesses of political correctness that are so perfectly typified by Barack Obama in that insipid speech he gave the other night.
HH: Absolutely vacuous, and yesterday, Vice President both in studio and then in a live event I did went out of his way to say I’m very impressed with President al-Sisi. I’m very impressed that he went to the leading Muslim theology school in Cairo and gave a speech on January 1 demanding reformation within Islam. I’m very impressed with him, and I’m very not impressed with people who want to take him down or who want to defend the Muslim Brotherhood. And of course, he is referring indirectly there to President Obama. And that’s the conversation we’re not having. One of the tragedies of the Trump conversation is he stepped on the insipidy, the utter vacuous nature of the President’s speech, Bret Stephens.
BS: No, that’s right. You know, I interviewed President Sisi in Cairo back in February or March. He is an observant Muslim. And he’s so observant, very observant Muslims often develop what’s called a prayer bump on their forehead from praying five times a day. He has it, and he is a man who whatever his other faults, is calling for exactly the kind of reform that Islam desperately needs. And so you need the President Sisi’s on your side in a country like Egypt, but more to the point, we need to cultivate not so-called moderate Muslims, because I think that terms is often disingenuous, but reformist-minded Muslims who really understand that there’s something deeply wrong with too much of a portion of their religion and are out to change it. But you certainly don’t bring the genuine reformists on your side, you don’t help yourself in the war on terror by these sort of ugly, sweeping, almost fascistic-sounding calls to have what would amount to a 21st Century Muslim exclusion act in the United States.
HH: And when I next talk with Mr. Trump, and I hope it could be today. It could be next week before the debate or during the debate. Indonesia and Malaysia assist the United States in freedom of the seas, are allied with us against the PRC. They are absolutely indispensable to the modern world and the modern economy. I’m afraid we think of Islam as Arabic, Bret Stephens, and you’ve been around the world enough to know that’s simply not true.
BS: No, I mean, you know, there are probably, what, 200 million Indian Muslims from India, and it’s absolutely right. There is a kind of, an attitude, which is to say the Arab world is the Muslim world and vice versa. It happens not to be true. Above all, look, we’re not going to be able to wage a successful war on terror if we allow terrorists to enlist 1.5, or 1.6 billion Muslims on their side. On the other hand, we’re not going to wage a successful war on terror if we adopt the attitude that you heard from the President the other night, that we have more to fear from our own “overreaction” to terrorism than we have to fear from the Sayed Farook’s of the world. And quite frankly, I think Trump and Obama are mirror images of each other.
HH: Interesting, Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal. I’ll find out next Tuesday night in Las Vegas. These questions will be interesting. I’m not prejudging any answers, but I am glad to have Bret Stephens available. Thank you, from the Wall Street Journal.
End of interview.