Today’s morning chat with Bret Stephens of the New York Times covered some crucial ground and a central question:
HH: I am so pleased to welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show from the Relief Factor.com West coast studio Bret Stephens of the New York Times where he’s an op-ed columnist. Bret, I looked for you in Aspen. I did not see you at the Aspen Security Forum. Did you skip it this year?
BS: Well, my wife had to go someplace, so I was busy with, taking care of the kids.
HH: That is, that, fair enough. That’s a good reason. But I must tell you, you skipped the JCPOA wake. It was a giant JCPOA wake. And I want to play for you and get your reaction. During a panel of Tony Blinken, former deputy secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, former number two at Energy, Elizabeth Sherwood Randall, and Jim Sciutto, in which also United Arab Emirates Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba was part, it was all about how John Kerry was empowered to deal directly with the Iranians, and how he got our people home when they were seized, the Navy people were seized. They went on at great length about he had his phone number, his email address, he was able to get the Americans released. And stood up in the audience Ali Shababi from the Arabian Foundation. And here’s what Ali Shahabi said, cut number one.
AS: My question’s for Tony. Now Tony, if you’ll permit me, you presented an example of the Iranian incident in the Gulf where the Iranians took U.S. troops captive. And you presented it as an example of the benefits that you got from JCPOA, because Secretary Kerry had the capacity to talk to Jarad Zarif 12 times in 24 hours to have them released. I will tell you that in the region, that was seen very differently. In the region, it was seen as an emboldened Iran daring to humiliate the United States by arresting, by taking its troops captive, humiliating them on television for a 24 hours period, and having the American Secretary of State, you know, basically have to beg the Iranians to release those troops. What I can tell you is that the impression today is that the Iranians wouldn’t dare to pull such a stunt on America. And so while whatever you might say about the lack that this administration doesn’t have Mr. Zarif’s number on speed dial, an element of deterrence has been brought back towards Iran, and nobody thinks that the Iranians would have the courage to pull such a stunt on American today.
HH: All right, so Bret, Tony Blinken then does not respond directly to the Navy incident. What do you make of having to have the Arabian Foundation person stand up for the obvious?
BS: Well, I mean, I’m not entirely surprised, and I would assume, even though I wasn’t there, that Yousef, the UAE Ambassador also made the case against the JCPOA.
HH: Very eloquent, very eloquently, yeah.
BS: The question, the point that Ali made is unimpeachable, and the Wall Street Journal reported on its front page about six or eight months ago that Iranian harassment of American ships has also more or less come to an end. You’ll notice that even as the United States has withdrawn from the JCPOA, that the Iranians are still claiming to honor its terms, at least visibly honor its terms. And I think that’s absolutely right. It illustrates why so many of us were opposed to the Iran nuclear deal when it was negotiated, a majority of the Congress, a majority of Americans, and why I think I was right when I praised the administration for walking away from it. The question now is what kind of policy do we construct to follow through with the right course, which is to put the Iranians on notice that they’re not going to be able to escape from sanctions and eventually find their way toward a full nuclear capability.
HH: That is exactly the question that Mike Pompeo addressed last night at length, and I’m playing most of his speech in the last hour. I’ll continue to play it here. It is hard-hitting, it is specific, it is exactly what this country has long needed, which is clarity about the nature of that regime. Tom Cotton remarked on Twitter this weekend, Bret, that no one seems to be noticing that we’ve arrested an Iranian diplomat, the West has, the Austrian officials, who was plotting to blow up Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich and dissidents in France, another Quds Force operation, and that it’s just generally passed without notice. NBC News from which we both work reported on Friday that the Iranians have a massive cyber assault planned on the United States, and they have been busy doing to us what we did to their nuclear program, planting cyber hostilities, but not at a nuclear program, at critical infrastructure. Do you think this administration is getting Americans to focus generally on the nature of that regime?
BS: Well, I mean, I think the administration has had some clarity on Iran. I wish it were matched with similar clarity with other threats from crazy WMD-possessing regimes, mainly, you know, chiefly North Korea, and for that matter, Vladimir Putin’s Russia. You know, there needs to be, more needs to be done, Hugh, to counter the idea that under the JCPOA, everything was working just fine, because one of the findings that we uncovered, speaking of news revelations in the last few days through that extraordinary Israeli heist of the Iranian documentation of their nuclear program, is that Iran entered the JCPOA with a lie. They lied that they had fully declared their, their so-called past military dimensions or possible military dimensions of their past nuclear work. And so the deal was founded on the, you know, something approaching the old Soviet joke, which is the Iranians pretend to come clean and we pretend to believe them. So there needed to be an understanding that that deal was driving us toward the same kind of scenario that we now face with North Korea, a regime with fanatical rules and intent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction. And now, I think, there needs to be a public relations as well as a diplomatic play, not just the sanctions play, to persuade Americans, to persuade Westerners, that the threat was not contained, and that in fact it was growing worse.
HH: And what I, you and I agree on a lot about Helsinki. It was a disaster. And I explained to the Aspen Institute that national security conservatives know it was a disaster, because we allowed that which has to be perfectly clear, it was Russia that attacked us, we need to be clear about that so that we can deter other people from attacking us, because we can prove that we know it’s them, and that they know we can strike back with great certainty if they attack any of our infrastructure or our elections or anything that matters greatly to us. We might not, but we need clarity, and the President pratfalled that, right? That was the great disaster. Where we disagree, though, Bret, and I can’t say strongly enough, you wanted Mike Pompeo and John Bolton to resign.
HH: I want them to stay doing what Mike Pompeo did last night, which was speaking truth about the Quds Force, Soleimani, Khamenei, and all of the kleptocrat terrorists who run the Islamic Republic.
BS: Yeah, well, there are other people, you know, as De Gaulle or Clemenceau or some long-deceased French statesman once said, the graveyards are filled with indefensible people. And you know, Mike Pompeo, I interviewed him in Aspen, Hugh, a year earlier where he was pretty darned clear about the Russia threat just as he was pretty darned clear about making regime change in North Korea. So any of us who have known Mike or have known John Bolton for years just look sort of open-jawed at the fact that these guys are pursuing policies that if they were out of government, they would be denouncing. And I think that that being the case, they have no business advocating those policies. If you want to get Secretary of State Tom Cotton in there or any number of other people, or who can pursue the North Korea policy or the Russia policy for the President with a clear conscience, by all means, do so. I just don’t think either Mike or John have any business hypocritically pursuing policies they know perfectly well are disastrous for the United States. So I just think they ought, they ought to resign.
HH: I genuinely don’t understand that. I genuinely don’t understand what you’re, given what Mike did last night, the Secretary of State did last night, given what John Bolton is briefing the President about, even though the President flubs Helsinki badly, what policy are those two people pursuing that they don’t believe in?
BS: They’re pursuing two policies that they don’t believe in. A) they’re pursuing a policy of rapprochement with North Korea which they know is not only destined to fail, but to continue to empower a regime that holds millions of people in gulag-like conditions, they know that’s wrong. They know that it’s destined to fail there. And they’re pursuing a policy of détente and rapprochement with Vladimir Putin even as he continues to have seized foreign territory, threatened the West and undermined Western elections in the United States and elsewhere. And I don’t understand how they can stay in government. President Trump has millions of people…
HH: Well, I don’t speak for them. I don’t speak for them.
BS: But President Trump should…okay.
HH: I’d love to keep you. I’ve got to break.
BS: Take care, Hugh.
HH: Will you stick around with us, because I’d love to pursue this, because I think it’s…
BS: Yeah, sure, no problem.
HH: It’s the nub of what we’re getting to.
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HH: Bret, thank you for staying over. I wanted to get your response to this, and I want to make it clear although Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador Bolton are friends of mine with whom I have discussed these issues, I’m not speaking for them. I am going to quote two different senior administration officials, though neither of them Bolton or Pompeo, one of whom told me the objective in North Korea is to fail fast to prove that they went the extra mile and did everything they could so that any measure we take is unimpeachable in its response. And the second senior administration official on Friday at Aspen, I asked him who was our number one adversary, to which the official responded China followed by China followed by China, in which case the Russia policy, however inexpertly executed by the President, is an attempt to flip the script that Nixon laid. And unfortunately, Trump, like Obama before him, fell into the Nixon trap of believing that individual diplomacy could accomplish that end. Therefore, I don’t think their staying in the administration is inconsistent with serious national security conservative policy. Your response?
BS: You know, back in February of 2017, just after President Trump took office, I gave a speech, the Daniel Pearl lecture in which I talked about the Trump Xplants, with a capital X instead of the ex, which is that there’s always some high-flown explanation for manifestly idiotic behavior. I mean, President Trump has been skeptical about our alliance with South Korea not for years, for decades. This is a long-held view from him, and so there might be some high-toned gloss that they want to see this policy fail, and that Trump’s playing four-dimensional chess. But you know, being sympathetic to Occam’s Razor, I think the President really thinks that he struck kind of a man to man relationship with Kim Jong Un, and that he’s going to solve the North Korean problem by himself and then at the same time take our troops out of South Korea. The fact that we are no longer conducting war exercises with South Korea was a dreadful signal to the North, to our allies throughout Northeast Asia. So you can always come up with an explanation. As for Russia and the idea that we’re sort of doing a reverse Nixon, I think that explanation is perverse. Mitt Romney was absolutely right in 2012 when he said Russia is our number one geopolitical foe. We have all kinds of problems with China, but China did not knock down a civilian jetliner over Ukrainian skies and then deny it. China is not assassinating its enemies on British soil using exotic nerve or radiological agents. China is not acting the way Russia is to subvert elections throughout the West, bribing Western officials, and so on. And O while I have serious concerns about Chinese foreign policy, it’s simply false to say that our number one foreign policy foe at this moment is China. China’s a problem for us in Northeast Asia. Russia’s a problem for us around the world.
HH: Okay, a different Aspen Security Forum person to the individual I identified earlier said China is the pace threat now. We’ll come back to that. But we lost the thread, Bret, and I want to give you the last word on that. The threat was you asserted that Pompeo and Bolton should resign because they manifestly do not believe in the policies of North Korea and Russia. My response was in fact, they do, and those policies are exactly as I laid them out, that the President may be completely incapable of communicating them, but they are not only persuasive, they are necessary if in fact you believe, as I do, that Russia is 144 million people and a demographically failed state with no economic power that we could use, but that China is 1.4 billion that is going to be the GDP arriving. They’re putting two ships in the water every single month. And they will surpass our Navy and our military power within 25 years. Last word to you. I’m just saying Pompeo and Bolton don’t have to resign for the reason you say, because there is a counter to that.
BS: Look, if Obama were conducting this exact same foreign policy, you and I know we’d both be denouncing it. So let’s be consistent. And if GDP is a sole measure of a threat, then we should stop worrying about Iran and its intentions, as much as anything else, that ought to concern us, which is why Russia with its world’s largest nuclear arsenal is so problematic despite its economic problems.
HH: Again, that’s all true. I’m just saying that Pompeo and Bolton don’t have to resign if they should because they are pursuing policies with which they manifestly do not believe. I’m willing to take the good faith of good people at their word. Bret Stephens, thanks for sticking with me.
End of interview.