HH: Joined now by Bret Stephens, deputy editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, foreign affairs columnist there. Bret, welcome back, thank you for joining me.
BS: Good to be back on the show, Hugh.
HH: Now a week ago, you wrote a column in which I detected sort of a sigh of relief. It was titled Axis Of Fantasy Vs. Axis of Reality, and it talked about how Team Obama is full of “fail uppers” – the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of State, the National Security Advisor, Wendy Sherman, and every now and then…
BS: Remember, Hugh, it’s a column, so I can’t list everyone. I’ve got a word limit.
HH: (laughing) Okay, well, that was a week ago, and we were all relieved. But they’re back in Geneva tonight, Bret. And they’re getting close to doing it again.
BS: Well, this is an administration that number one, desperately wants to change the subject from its serial Obamacare landmines, and number two, wants nothing more than a deal, because what the President has said is that Iran will not get a bomb on his watch. But I don’t think they’re all that averse to Iran getting a bomb on the next guy’s watch. They want a deal that will provide them with some kind of face-saving mechanism to get through the next three years with Iran not being officially a nuclear power. I think that’s their strategy.
HH: Now last hour, Lee Smith joined me, and we talked about the bombing of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, and how ominous that is for the escalating sectarian conflict within Islam. Do you share his assessment that that is, that’s a huge moment that very few in American media are aware of, much less covering?
BS: Syria is like a black hole at the heart of the Middle East. And when President Obama thought that by staying as far from it as he could, especially in the early stage of the conflict, he was containing the problem to Syria. His analysis was precisely backwards. The crisis is going to engulf, is engulfing Lebanon, is going to engulf Jordan, it’s going to bring in the Turks, and at some point, it’s probably going to bring in the Israelis in a big way, too.
HH: In a big way meaning they simply cannot allow Iran, Charles Krauthammer was on yesterday talking about this. We’re not sure that many people in the Obama administration know what an existential threat it. But Rafsanjani has called Israel a one bomb country.
BS: Well, that’s exactly it, and the Israelis can’t allow the continued efforts by Iran, by Syria, to transfer various kinds of weapons, including, potentially, chemical weapons to Hezbollah. I mean, you’ve heard about a series of Israeli strikes over the last six to nine months, targeted strikes, but what’s remarkable is that the Syrians keep trying to move these weapons, in part because Assad has become a subsidiary of Hezbollah in Iran, not the other way around. So at some point, I mean, there’s a limit to what Israel can do in terms of gathering intelligence, having these highly-targeted strikes to prevent the movement of weapons. I suspect that a war, another war between Israel and Hezbollah, and possibly Israel and Syria, too, is likely in the next 12 months.
HH: Now Bret Stephens, you’re the deputy editorial page editor of the Journal. You’re the former editor of the Jerusalem Post. You may, you’ve got to be among the top five informed observers on the Middle East. I think American media is completely blowing this story, much like they blew the Obamacare story. They’re not paying any attention to this, or should I stand corrected on that? Do you think they’re doing an adequate job of covering the stakes in Geneva?
BS: The American media, (laughing) sorry, excuse me while I laugh on the sidelines. I mean, the entire nature of, look, let me put it to you this way. Just today, you heard the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, speaking about the United States as a rabid dog, and then an unnamed U.S. official said well, gee, that rhetoric is most unfortunate. The narrative that the media has in mind is somehow that there is an Iranian so-called moderate in the person of President Hassan Rouhani, who’s providing a promising opportunity to reach a negotiated settlement on the nuclear file. Nothing could be further from the truth. And again, why is it that the media refuses to note or acknowledge the fact that the man who calls the shots on the nuclear portfolio in Iran is not Rouhani, whether he’s a moderate or not, it’s the Supreme Leader, Khamenei, who keeps saying again and again we will not back away from our red lines. So far, they’ve paid no real price for maintaining that course, and I think that’s what we’re going to have. So the media is going to be obsessed with this charade taking place in Geneva while neglecting the fact that the Iranians continue to move very decisively towards a nuclear capability.
HH: Now I’m a little stunned. I try to follow this. I did not know that Khamenei had called the United States a rabid dog today.
HH: That’s pretty amazing that that’s not the lead on anything that I have watched. Ought that no to be the lead on CNN? Or if not the lead, at least a major story?
BS: Well, this is what I love. Here’s the quote from the unnamed U.S. senior U.S. administration official. He said, “Of course I don’t ever like it when people use rhetoric that in any way talks about the U.S. in a way that I find very uncomfortable and not warranted whatsoever.” I mean, that’s the response by this administration when the Supreme Leader calls their country a rabid dog. So what kind of team do we have negotiating? It’s no wonder that not only the Israelis, not only the French, the Saudis are frantic about what is going on in Geneva, because you have an administration that is abdicating a historical responsibility to make sure that a regime like Iran does not get anywhere close to a nuclear weapon. That’s exactly what’s happening. And by the way, that’s why, people talk about Netanyahu being the great obstacle to an effort to reconcile the West with Iran. Frankly, the people who most object to this reconciliation are sitting in palaces in Riyadh. I mean, there is a whole, the nature of the Middle East as we’ve known it, power relations in the Middle East as we’ve known them for the past 60 years are on the point of changing because this administration is abdicating its responsibility.
HH: I want to finish on the American media. Are they stupid? Or are they simply covering for President Obama?
BS: Are those two distinct options?/
HH: Yeah, you’ve got to, you know, I’ve got to explain. It’s a huge story, it’s a dangerous story. Are they ideologically committed to Obama? Or do they just not understand or read enough to know that Khamenei called us out this way?
BS: Look, psychoanalyzing the American media is a 60 Minutes segment, Hugh, and a lot of reporters, if they were smarter, they’d probably be doctors and investment bankers. So I think there is a certain amount of ideological covering for the administration. There’s a lot of willful ignorance. But the media is a plural noun, and some of us think that we’re doing a pretty good job trying to expose exactly what’s happening in Geneva, and what the stakes are. So I mean, you and I both…
HH: The Wall Street Journal certainly is. I just can’t believe that I missed that. Very quickly, 30 seconds, I see that you’re covering the Pope. I’m curious about that.
BS: Well, yeah, I Tweeted about it.
BS: You saw that, well, there was this remarkable story that I just noticed, it was in one of the Italian papers, about the Pope embracing a man who had these kind of vivid tumors. I can’t remember the name of the particular…
HH: Yeah, the terribly disfigured man. And…
BS: And it was just extremely, it’s extremely moving. I’m Jewish, but I felt like someone, I wanted to point out just how profoundly moving that act of grace was by the Pope, and how it touches everyone, whether they’re Catholic or not.
HH: I noted it, a very nice Tweet. Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal, thank you.
End of interview.
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HH: And I want to note, Bret Stephens sent me a note. He made a mistake. Khamenei did not call the U.S. a rabid dog. He called Israel a rabid dog. Bret’s a very careful journalist, wanted to make sure I got that correction in today, and I did. He just said the U.S. and the West are arrogant. But to call Israel a rabid dog is to reveal to you why we ought not to be speaking with them.