Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal joined me on the show today to discuss the Iran deal and the rapidly shifting alliances in the Middle East:
HH: Joined now by Bret Stephens, deputy editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal. You must be following him on Twitter, @StephensWSJ. Of course, I’ve had on Carly Fiorina today. Bret, first of all, welcome back, it’s good to have you, you’ve been abroad a little bit, and it’s great to catch up with you.
BS: It’s good to be back from Egypt. Thanks for having me on, Hugh.
HH: And I want to get to that. But I began the show with Carly Fiorina. I just talked to Dick and Liz Cheney. I talked to Bill Kristol earlier. I actually haven’t been able to find one person whose views I respect on foreign affairs who are in any way even lukewarm about the Iran hologram. I refuse to call it a deal. Have you found any…
BS: I think hologram is a little too precise.
HH: Okay, have you found anyone who’s serious who says this is a good deal?
BS: Well, I found people who take themselves seriously who say it’s a good deal, but it’s hard to, the only argument in its favor is that here is, that the basically, a nuclear Iran is going to happen. And this at least puts it off by a number of years. That is to say if you accept that the nuclearization of Iran is a fait accompli, that it is not a grave threat to the region, that it is not an existential threat to Israel, and that it will not ultimately harm American interests, so this puts it off for a few years. That’s, I mean, it’s important to be proleptic in arguments. That’s, I think, the strong case by the supporters of the deal. The real problem, and I think this is the real problem for the supporters, basically the supporters say look, Iran’s going to get a bomb, but quite frankly, it will be neutralized by other Sunni powers perhaps getting their own bomb. A balance of power will spring up in the Middle East, and quite frankly, we want to get out of the Middle East altogether. And the reality is that if Iran gets a bomb, if other Sunni powers, if the contending Sunni powers get a bomb, then the United States is going to become more involved, not less, in an increasingly intractable and dangerous Middle East. So if your interest is trying to minimize the importance of the Middle East in our overall foreign policy, having, allowing Iran to become a threshold nuclear state is just a dreadful way of doing it.
HH: Now critics of the critics of the so-called deal say that we are without alternatives, to which you respond what, Bret Stephens?
BS: Well, of course we’re with alternatives. I mean, this is one of the most staggering comments I’ve ever heard. We’re without alternatives only if you accept that there’s no such thing as coercive diplomacy, only if you accept that John Kerry is the most brilliant negotiator the world has ever seen since Mark Cuban or Bismarck. I don’t accept those propositions. Only if you accept that Iran is the strong, is a superpower and America is a weakling that must accept, basically, whatever is handed to it, that’s just completely false. We actually were in a very strong position before the interim agreement in late 2013, because the Iranian economy was moving into freefall, as the President himself says. It was precisely on account of these sanctions that we were able to move Iran to the table. So what the extension, and in fact the strengthening of the sanctions have made the Iranians more pliable, not less, in terms of these negotiations. You know, people say we had sort of maxed out on sanctions, but that’s actually the furthest thing from the truth. We were only getting started in terms of the sanctions, in terms of the ways we could have damaged the Iranian economy, and basically said to them you can have an economy or you can have a bomb. But you can’t have both. We abandoned that leverage back in November, 2013, which is why I denounced the joint, the interim agreement. And now we find ourselves with this terrible deal. 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 that would not have allowed them to keep the Fordow facility open, that would not have allowed them to maintain such a robust enrichment capability, that would have insisted on snap, anytime, anywhere, no notice inspections. These are the sorts, that’s the sort of leverage we could have exerted if Obama hadn’t just given it up as the first order of business.
HH: Now I want to talk specifically, because I think you’re right. You have to confront the best argument of the other side in order to be persuasive. Their best argument is that we are suggesting military force, to which I respond yes. The tanker war by Reagan, President Clinton’s Desert Fox campaign against Saddam, are examples of military force of a limited duration that would be applicable in this situation. Am I wrong, Bret Stephens, that those are far short of the sort of war that people say we are suggesting?
BS: Yeah, I mean, this is the classic Obama method, which is there is my reasonable, sound, decent alternative that perhaps has a few small flaws on the edges, and there’s your way, which is essentially nuclear Armageddon, and that’s just, it’s just a, it’s a cheap way of arguing that should be beneath any president of the United States, especially presumably one who is sort of trying to win over some members of his loyal opposition. But it’s also, strictly speaking, absolutely false. 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. There were unforeseen consequences to our invasion of Grenada back in 1983 or so. There were unforeseen consequences to our invasion of Panama. 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, where countries like Iran are active sponsors of strong, non-state proxies like Hezbollah. If deterrence was difficult during the Cold War when it was symmetrical, how easy will deterrence be when you’ll have two or three or four nuclear weapon states in the world’s most dangerous region, all of them at daggers drawn with the other? This is a recipe for a nuclear nightmare of the kind that will make the Cuban Missile Crisis seem like the 13 most pleasant days you ever had in the fall of your lifetime.
HH: Given that I agree with that, and I suspect that most people who have studied the region, and in fact that Cuban Missile Crisis, the 13 days, and the Graham Allison, and all of the accounts, if they agree with that, and I think most of the Israelis do who are responsible, does Israel have to act, damn the torpedoes, and act against these facilities?
BS: Well, look, I think Israel made a fundamental mistake back in 2012 when it allowed itself to be persuaded by the pledges of the Obama administration that it would not ever, that the U.S. would not agree to the kind of bad deal that we’ve just agreed to, and that this administration was seriously prepared to take military action, so why should they. And in doing so, Israel lost a real window of opportunity when they could have conducted a much more successful military strike against still weaker targets with much of world opinion on their side. Now, they have basically, they would be fighting, if they were to act, they would be fighting a dual war, if you will. It would be first against Iran, and a very tough, risky military operation for a military of Israel’s size. But they would also be setting their teeth against their greatest ally in the world, the United States, and against the Europeans, who of course have been a part of this diplomacy. So the options for Israel really narrow, and the Israelis have to think very hard about what they do now. My own view is…
HH: Hold that until after the break.
BS: My own view is that ultimately, Israel is better served by acting than by simply being handed fait accomplis.
HH: I’ll going to come back with Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal to follow up on that, because I heard what you heard, America. Stay tuned.
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HH: So Bret Stephens, when we went to break, you said Israel’s interests would be better served by acting. Now, you are just back from Egypt. The Egyptian elites which whom you spoke, do they agree with your assessment?
BS: Well, look, they are very cagey on the subject. When I interviewed the president of Egypt, President Sisi, and I raised the subject of Iran, he wouldn’t even name, I don’t think he even said the word Iran. It was like speaking of Voldemort in Harry Potter. But he was very clear nonetheless that actions have to be taken against this Voldemort, which is why he was talking about essentially an Arab security force with the very force that’s now acting against the Houthis and the Iranian-back Houthis in Yemen. So the Egyptians implicitly understand them. The Saudis understand it even better. And I’ve quite frankly been a little bit surprised that the Saudi public reaction to the deal has been as muted as it has been, because in private, they’re absolutely, they’re absolutely steaming. One of the most interesting things that’s happening, Hugh, in terms of this kind of diplomacy, it’s so consequential, and it’s so disastrous what the President is doing, that it is actually opening a channel between Israel and Saudi Arabia. There was always a narrow channel. Now it’s getting wider and wider. That could be strategically consequential. That is to say the Saudis have come to understand that Israel is really now their, the bulwark for their regime, as the United Arab Emirates, I think, understands in the absence of a reliable American power. So unwittingly, Obama may be doing the broader cause of Arab-Israeli peace the biggest favor it’s had in half a century, simply because his diplomacy is so tilted toward Iran.
HH: All right, now let me talk to you a little bit about General, now President al-Sisi, because I don’t know anyone who knows him, and you do. What’s your take of the man? What’s your measure of him?
BS: Businesslike, smart. Although he spoke to me in Arabic, he would occasionally puncture the conversation with English that I think he speaks much better than he lets on. He doesn’t have the kind of look, and you don’t sense when you’re talking to him that you’re talking to a crazy and power-hungry dictator. Now you know, power of course corrupts, as we all know. I asked him about, I said people compare you to Hosni Mubarak. And I asked him what was Mubarak’s biggest mistake. He said very succinctly, he stayed in power for too long. And I think he sees himself as a man who is on a mission to save Egypt from the fate that Iran suffered in 1979. I think he sees himself as the guy who stepped in to prevent the Islamization of Egypt in a Sunni style that was precisely what happened to our friends in Persia during the Carter administration. He’s very serious, and I think he understands the urgency of the mission. He’s, I think that if you were to compare him to another world leader, it would be someone like Pinochet in Chile, which doesn’t make him a democrat, certainly doesn’t make him a liberal, but probably makes him someone we can work with, and someone who is much better than the conceivable political alternatives.
HH: Now that strategic channel that you talk about widening between Saudi Arabia and Israel, is that channel also widening between Egypt and Israel, Jordan and Israel, so that this Sunni alliance of “responsible” states and Israel might act cooperatively against Iran?
BS: One of the things that, I think the one time that he did use the word Iran, now that I’m thinking about it, is he said we understand Israel’s concerns with Iran, and sort of let the sentence hang in the air. He’s also been the first president ever who has actually moved to close those underground tunnels between the Sanai peninsula and Gaza, which were supplying Hamas with all of that rocketry, all of that equipment with which they were waging war on Israel. Mubarak didn’t do that, and President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood certainly didn’t do that. On the contrary, he was encouraging it. So he understands that in Israel, he has a partner certainly for fighting ISIS and al Qaeda in Sanai, and I think that’s a partnership he wants to, he wants to deepen. Israel was, Israel was delivered, was given a great gift when Sisi came to power in Egypt in 2013.
HH: 30 seconds, Bret Stephens. Is there any name among the Palestinians in whom the West can repose confidence of emerging as a responsible, stable leader?
BS: The only name that comes to mind is someone who has no political credibility, who is Salam Fayyad, and that’s the great problem for the Palestinians. The good guys don’t have the street cred. And the guys with the street cred aren’t good.
HH: Aren’t trustworthy. Bret Stephens from the Wall Street Journal, author of American Retreat, thank you very much.
End of interview.